How To Reduce Anxiety During Uncertainty
If external circumstances creating struggle in your life this post will give you the tools you need to move through uncertain times. If you’re asking yourself how do I get rid of the overwhelm, reduce my anxiety, improve my mental health, and take care of myself when the world around me feels like its collapsing, this article is for you.
I wrote this article a few months ago, before COVID-19 had come to North America, and it was completely unrelated to the pandemic and wholly focused on some uncertainty I was experiencing in my professional life. I never published it, because the simple act of writing it was cathartic enough to unlock a release from me. But now that we have a global situation on our hands, I think a lot of people could benefit from the strategies I used to get myself through a period of uncertainty. So here it is.
This month, I feel like I am falling off a cliff.
Like one minute, I was on top of a mountain, and while I wasn’t looking I took one wrong step and I am currently free falling.
Here’s the thing about experiencing a winning streak of successes, you don’t see the failure coming.
For years, I feel like I have been running straight up this mountain of success, getting higher faster than everyone else, and I didn’t see the cliff until I fell off of it.
I mean, theoretically you know that there are ups and downs in life, but you almost feel immune to the downs when you’re running on a high of victories.
It’s almost like the hard times are just things that happen to OTHER people, not you.
A few weeks ago I found out some pretty earth shattering news. Have you ever been blindsided by an event that you were never expecting? Of course you have. We all have. Especially now.
And I’m a planner. I’m a do-er. I’m an overachiever and a (recovering) perfectionist.
Being thrust into a situation that is 100% outside of my control (and I love control) without any sort of plan on how to handle it (and I thrive on plans) has really thrown me for a loop.
I share my journey with you so that you can hopefully move through your own journey with more grace and less fumbling. But by no means do I claim to be an all-knowing, perfect human. I still feel doubt, I still worry, and I still need to breathe through anxiety. But I want to take you through the steps that helped me move through this period of uncertainty so that anyone who is going through a tough season right now can join me in this journey back to peace.
These are the exact strategies I am relying on to deal with uncertainty, to manage my mindset, to prioritize my mental health, to feel negative emotions, to move through the overwhelm, and to move into a more positive place.
And if this helps even one person, I know I have done my work in this world and moved my mission along, which is to help ambitious people who feel stuck build lives exploding with joy. I hope you’ll get in touch and share your journey with me, because sharing our vulnerable stories is the most powerful thing we can do.
Stop! Feel the feelings
The first thing you MUST do when you’re mad or sad or hurt or shocked or angry or worried or overwhelmed or feeling any other emotion is STOP. Give yourself the space to feel those emotions.
I know! It sucks! I hate it too.
Why you have to feel your feelings
I am a problem solver by trade and am wired to fix things, to put together a plan, to make it better than it was before, and to move on. Maybe that’s how you live life too? Always moving forward, never looking back, never staying still.
But when you are moving through a period of uncertainty, or pain, or you find yourself in a circumstance that is outside of your control, you cannot solve it with a plan. You will not be able to effectively execute the plan if you are still filled with negative emotions.
First you have to wade through the yucky feelings.
To me, negative feelings are like this big messy gucky swamp and I hate them. I am a positive person and I want to be happy ALL OF THE TIME. I am learning that avoiding, resisting, and being afraid of negative emotion only creates more suffering.
Like Brene Brown says, you can’t skip the middle.
Yes, you are entitled to your feelings
Whatever you are feeling right now, you are completely entitled to feel. We often struggle to justify our emotions as valid because so many other people are in a worse place than we are, but denying ourselves the right to feel pissed off does not help us move through it, it only keeps us stuck.
So, if you find yourself desperately searching for ways to get out of this messy situation, to put together a plan, to solve the problem, and to move on so you can finally put it behind you, I’m sorry but I don’t think it’s going to work.
You must stop resisting the negative emotion and give it space to exist within you so that it can make its way through and leave your body.
Why we avoid feeling our feelings
We avoid feeling negative emotions because we are afraid of the pain. But being afraid of the pain is usually worse than the pain itself. What is emotional pain really? It is just a feeling. It’s literally nothing more than a feeling.
How to feel your feelings
I have actually found it really helpful to pinpoint how that feeling manifests in my body physically. It’s usually a crushing feeling on my chest. It makes it hard to breathe. My breath becomes shallow. My head hurts. And I just feel so heavy.
But that’s it… a heavy chest is not the end of the world.
Allowing yourself to feel it helps you realize that it will not kill you. And when you come to the realization that you can feel ANY feeling and still survive, you become unstoppable.
So whether it’s doubt, or overwhelm, or anxiety, or sadness, or anger, or fear, or hurt, or shame, or all of the above, just sit with it.
I used to think I would get stuck if I allowed myself to associate with negative emotions, but I see that’s no longer the case. If you give those feelings space, they won’t hold you down forever, they’ll move along and make more room for positive emotions.
What exactly does giving your feelings space look like?
- Crying when you feel like crying
- Not being productive when you are pissed off
- Resting (actually resting, not fake resting when you clean the whole house in an attempt to control your environment when your emotions are in turmoil)
- Feeling the negative emotion and actively saying to yourself (out loud if you’d like) “I am ____ and that’s okay. It is okay to feel ___ right now. It’s part of life.” and not shaming yourself for feeling ___.
- Staring off into space and entertaining your negative emotions (I AM pissed off. They SHOULD go to hell. This ISN’T fair.) Don’t try to logic your way out of it. Embrace it.
Key Takeaways To Remember
- Stop resisting the negative emotions.
- Stop being afraid of feeling the pain.
- Stop rushing the process and jumping to problem solving mode.
- Pinpoint the physical manifestation of your negative emotions.
- Indulge in those crappy feelings.
Figure out the story you’re telling yourself
Here’s the thing many of us fail to realize soon enough: there is an event that occurs, and then there is what WE make that event mean.
If your Mom said your kid needs a better winter hat, and you made it mean that she thinks you’re a bad parent and you’ve never been good enough, those two things are not one and the same.
There is the event, or what was said, or what was not done, and then there is the version of the story you created in your head (based on whatever deeply patterned thoughts you’ve been carrying most of your life).
Understanding that the story you are telling yourself is not reality is a really important part of healing the hurt.
The first step to making that dissociation is pinpointing what your story is.
How to identify the story you are telling yourself
First, get curious about your thoughts. Actively listen to the internal narrative going on in your head. Let your mind go wild with all the worries and fears that it is firing at you, and just listen to what they are.
I find it really helpful to write them all down. Every single one of them.
Sometimes it can feel scary to write things down because it somehow means they are more real, but in reality it makes them manageable, and less intense because they are just some lines on a piece of paper. (Plus, tearing that piece of paper up is so gratifying after you’ve worked through these thoughts!)
They are already real in your head, do yourself the favor of getting them out on paper so that you can work through them.
Why pinpointing your version of the story is important
This step is critical because once you realize what you’re telling yourself is not what is actually happening (it’s usually way worse!) then you can reframe the situation in a way that serves you.
For example, Sarah’s employer goes out of business and she must find a new way to generate income.
Sarah can think “this is the worst thing that could ever happen to me; it’s only happening because I suck at my job; I will never be able to find another job again; my family is going to be homeless; this company ruined my life.”
Or, Sarah can think “crap, this is not my ideal scenario, but it’s a great opportunity for me to figure out what I actually want and make an impact in another environment; I learned a lot in this role and will be able to use these skills to grow in another role; I’m excited to see what the future holds.”
Two entirely different narratives. One exact same circumstance.
The best part is that you are ENTIRELY in control of those narratives.
How to feel better about a crappy situation
The only thing outside of our control is a circumstance we might find ourselves in.
The things entirely within our control are our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Brooke Castillo uses a model in her life coaching practice that I absolutely love and want to share with you here.
Your thoughts create your feelings. Your feelings create your actions. Your actions create your results.
If you are ready to feel better about a crappy situation, here’s the process I learned from The Life Coach School that works.
- Circumstance: what is the event that occurred?
- Thoughts: what are you thinking about that event?
- Feelings: how are those thoughts making you feel?
- Actions: how are those feelings causing you to act?
- Results: what will be the result of acting in that way?
This is a great tool for seeing how our thoughts about a certain circumstance will directly impact the result we see.
If you’re caught in a negative thought spiral, it will always create negative results in your life.
You can hack the game though, and work it backwards.
- Results: what is the result that you want to see?
- Actions: what actions do you need to take to get there?
- Feelings: what feelings do you need to generate to take those actions?
- Thoughts: what thoughts would you be thinking if you felt those feelings right now?
Those are your resourceful thoughts.
Those are the statements you must ingrain in your brain in order to overcome this challenge and evolve into a better version of yourself.
I challenge you to do this exercise before you move on to reading the next paragraph because it really is SO powerful.
It’s incredibly empowering to realize you are in control of your thoughts, your feelings, your actions, and your results. It gives you a certain kind of freedom that you simply can’t access if you feel like everything is happening to you and you have no say. Do the work!
Share your shame story
When we have been hurt, or when we feel like we’ve failed, or when we’ve made a mistake, we can feel a lot of shame.
What is shame?
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. … Shame creates feelings of fear, blame and disconnect.BRENE BROWN
Shame is the crushing belief that you are not good enough and will not be loved.
When does shame surface?
Shame can be triggered when an event rubs up against insecurities we have not yet worked through.
I have always struggled with my worthiness, and have counteracted that by overfunctioning, hustling, and accumulating accolades to prove that I am enough
- Graduating at the top of my university faculty with a 4.2 GPA? An attempt to prove that I am smart enough to be worthy of love.
- Being hired by a forward thinking start up and working 60 hour weeks until I rose to the top of the ladder? An attempt to prove that I am driven enough to be worthy of love.
- Getting married at age 20 and buying a 4 bedroom house at 22? An attempt to prove that I am responsible and put together enough to be worthy of love.
When something happens that makes me feel not smart enough, not driven enough, or not ‘together’ enough, it rubs really hard against my insecurities about not being valuable and against my desperate need to feel significant. This triggers a lot of shame for me.
And when we feel shame, we hide out.
How do we disarm shame?
We avoid sharing our stories because we are worried that people will push us away. We avoid sharing our stories because we think we will be kicked out of the tribe since we are not perfect. We avoid sharing our stories because we think we are the only ones caught in a hard place and that there is something wrong with us. And the more we avoid sharing our story, the more shame we feel.
But here’s the real raw truth: sharing our most vulnerable stories is what creates connection, and that is our deepest human desire.
So share your shame story! Because the only way to lessen its grip over you is by bringing it out into the light.
Yes, it’s scary, but it’s less scary than holding it in, hiding out, and letting it eat you alive inside.
Key Takeaways To Remember
- Be open about your struggle as you move through it
- Do not close yourself off from your circle
- Tell friends and family who will help you rise from your fall (definitely don’t tell people who you know will kick you when you’re down)
- Realize that you disarm your shame when you share your story
- Stop keeping it a secret
Talk to someone who is not involved
Getting an outside perspective on a situation that feels like its rocking your whole world make a huge difference.
If you can afford to talk to a therapist, or a counselor, or another mental health professional., they can help you organize your thoughts so that you aren’t spinning in circles.
When I’m thrown off my game, I feel like I can’t even think straight. I find it really helpful to ramble on and on with no clear message, and have a counselor summarize what I said back to me in a pretty package that makes perfect sense and resonates with me.
It is really nice to feel heard. It is also really nice to understand what you’re thinking when you’re too overwhelmed to organize your own thoughts.
If you feel weird about talking to a therapist or counselor, don’t. Everybody does it. It’s trendy these days. 😉
You need to get over the thought that there’s something wrong with you and get used to accepting help when you are struggling. Book the call.
I also highly highly highly recommend that you find an experienced life coach and talk to them too. It’s not the same as therapy (which focuses on healing your past so that you can feel better in the present).
Life coaching is about identifying the gap between where you are NOW and where you want to be in the future, and clearing the roadblocks (often mental) so that you can actually get there. Think of it as a way to get past your excuses and create the life you dream of (versus identifying your excuses and exploring what in your past has created them). Life coaching is about DOING.
Even one hour can move you from overwhelmed to optimistic, help you create a resourceful mindset, and put together a plan to move from feeling stuck and anxious, to feeling hopeful and purposeful.
I help ambitious people get unstuck so that they can build lives exploding with joy. If this article is resonating with you, I’d love to help you move through this hard season so that you can achieve your biggest goals. Send me a note.
So, if you’re stuck
- Talk to a therapist
- Talk to a counsellor
- Talk to a life coach
- Talk to anyone who is not a part of your life and can provide an unbiased perspective on a difficult situation
Journal, a lot
I don’t know about you, but I get lost inside my own head.
I find it really helpful to get words down on paper. It allows me to clarify what I am thinking and work through the thoughts one by one in a logical and systematic manner (because I am a very logical and structured person).
Yes, it sometimes feels like a waste of time to spend an hour downloading my thoughts onto paper, but it ALWAYS feels worth it afterwards. Think of it kind of like working out: never want to get started, always happy you did.
Here are a few questions to get you started
- How are you feeling today?
- What circumstances occurred that you think are causing you to feel this way?
- What thoughts are you creating that are actually causing you to feel this way?
- What is all of the evidence you have that supports your theory/thought?
- How are you benefiting from accepting this thought as is?
- How do you actually want to be feeling?
- What thoughts would you be thinking if you felt that way?
- What evidence do you have that these (more resourceful) thoughts are true?
- What thoughts do you want to believe?
Avoiding your thoughts and feelings will only make them fester. When you get your words out on paper they don’t feel so weighty. They feel manageable. You can tackle your thoughts one at a time.
I hope you can find some emotional relief through journaling.
Related post: How To Start A Gratitude Journal
Stick to healthy habits
When we are moving through a period of uncertainty, it can feel like EVERYTHING is outside of our control. The scared part of your brain might say “If this one thing is falling apart, what’s the point in trying to keep anything together? Life as we know it is over.”
But, if you love control as much as I do, you need to focus on the things you can control.
The way I do this is by being extra diligent with my healthy habits.
My thinking is this: “yes, I may not have any control over what happens tomorrow, but damm*t I can get up and exercise this morning.”
Healthy habits fuel our minds and our bodies and positively impact how we show up in the world. So…
- Move your body for thirty minutes every day.
- Drink the freaking water!
- Eat a ton of vegetables.
- Get out into the fresh air and sunlight daily.
- Write down 3 things you’re grateful for.
- Spend your evening reading instead of scrolling on Instagram.
- Stop hitting snooze!
- Get 8 hours of sleep.
- Meditate for a couple of minutes and practice your belly breathing every day!
- Wake up early and take an hour for yourself
- Focus on the things you are grateful for
We build healthy habits to get us through times of struggle, so draw on what you know is good for you.
Related post: How To Build Self Discipline To Achieve Goals
You are entirely in control of how you take care of yourself. Do it right.
Draw on past experiences
It’s funny how we can get to a hard season in life and feel like we’re completely unequipped to handle it.
It’s like you’re so overwhelmed with what the heck you’re supposed to do, that you completely discount the fact that you’ve figured it out before.
Sometimes it is literally a selective memory issue and you legitimately can’t access the memories of moving through similar circumstances before.
Now, I’m not saying you’ve been in this exact situation in the past, but you’ve definitely been in a hard season prior to this one… how did you get through it?
Drawing on past experiences where we demonstrated strength, faith, resilience, and courage will help us get through current circumstances that feel difficult.
So make a list of 3 other times in your life when you felt this way (powerless, uncertain, worried, overwhelmed, scared, hurt, angry, etc.). Do it right now.
Then, ask yourself “what did I draw on in my past to help me move through those experiences?”
Let me give you an example. I hate uncertainty. I hate not being in control. So we can all just agree that child birth was not a situation that I felt very comfortable entering. But I relied on three things to get me through it
- Knowing that other people have been in the same situation before and they turned out just fine
- Having faith in myself and my ability to get through this
- A lot of medically-administered drugs…
We’ll discount that last point as non-extractable advice 😉 But the first two remain.
I can get through this because I have done hard things in the past.
So have you. What were they? And what did you summon to help you through?
Consume helpful resources
There is so much that is written on this topic it’s almost overwhelming in and of itself.
I wouldn’t recommend randomly googling how to get through hard times because not all the articles on the internet are as helpful as this one, and you can spend a lot of time scrolling without getting the advice you need.
So here are a few resources that I recommend you start with.
First of all, Brene Brown. All of her books come highly recommended from me, but the one that has helped me most was Rising Strong.
I actually share some of my key takeaways from it in this post, so you can check that out. In the meantime, order it on Amazon for a great price.
I don’t want to overwhelm you with a ton of resources so I’ll just share one more: episode 309 of The Life Coach School Podcast titled Emotional Suffering. (Skip the first 10 minutes as it isn’t relevant to the topic, but the rest of it is absolute gold!) And if you’re new to the idea that you create your own thoughts and feelings, then listen to episode 1 (Why You Aren’t Taking Action) and episode 2 (How To Feel Better) as well.
I think this is the longest post I’ve ever written, and hopefully you can feel that it comes straight from the heart.
We are all human.
We are here to experience all of life, and that includes the hard times.
They are going to swoop in, often unexpected, and you will have to learn to move through them.
Yes, it is hard work. But it is worthwhile. Because you can absolutely come out on the other side of this as a better, stronger, next level version of you.
As long as you’re willing to wade through the mess to get there.
I hope this article has helped you in some way. I’d love for you to share it with your friends, family, colleagues, or on your favorite social media platform, so that together we can help more people move along their difficult journeys too.
Thank you for showing up here today. I’d love to hear your key takeaway in the comments below: what resonated with you the most?
And if you want to have a private conversation about what you’re going through and how I can help, get in touch.
What is your favorite strategy for moving through a hard season in life?