A 3-Step Plan For Coping With Anxiety (That Actually Works)

Photo: Getty
A young woman with chin-length natural curly hair leaning against a wall, looking into the camera
Health And Wellness

Research has found that 40 million people in the U.S. alone are dealing with anxiety. That means an awful lot of us are acquainted with the feeling that anxiety is taking over, a fear which can be debilitating because then we aren't just dealing with anxiety — we are also dealing with our fear of anxiety. 

This is why learning how to cope with anxiety is such an important skill to learn. It helps to learn how to deal with anxiety before our worry exacerbates it.

You need a simple plan for coping with anxiety, and I'm offering 3 steps below to get you started. 

But first, you need to understand why we simply cannot run away from our fear, anxiety, and general sense of nervousness. 

Believe it or not, anxiety serves a powerful purpose in our lives. It brings our attention to what’s most important to us and it can be a useful resource if we know how to harness it.

Since we’re all so used to operating on autopilot most of the time, we need the occasional jolt or whisper of motivation, now and then. We simply need some sort of catalyst or push to pay attention. And anxiety most certainly fits this bill.

As much as we wish we could wave a magic wand in the air and make our severe anxiety go away, we simply can't. And if we could, we shouldn't. 

That's why, instead, we suggest coping with anxiety as a means to manage it. 

RELATED: 100 Anxiety Quotes To Help Calm Your Deepest Fears

So, how do we cope anxiety symptoms and have them work for us instead of against us?

Here are 3 steps for coping with anxiety, without letting our worries and fears take over.

1. Recognize your anxiety as a signal.

Instead of experiencing the symptoms of anxiety as scary, try to think about anxiety objectively, by engaging more of our whole brain. This can better direct our response to it.

When we choose to view severe anxiety as our body coping, alerting, or signaling opportunities to us, we can see it not as a burden, but as a finely tuned system trying to signal our attention when and where it is needed most.

With every firing, anxiety is offering an invitation — perhaps even a mandate — to notice and do something different, new, and bold.

This means that if we’re willing to make sense of our anxiety and accept that it is not some accidental misfiring or reptilian relic, we can begin to understand and use it to improve our lives. 

Rather than simply worrying about feeling anxious or attempting to push our anxiety away, recognizing our anxiety as a signal allows us to begin coping by transforming it into something useful.

2. Use your anxiety as fuel.

When it comes to coping with anxiety, we must continue expanding our view of it.

Instead of buying into its reputation as something holding us back, we can recognize anxiety as a type of fuel, something we can understand as motivation.

The founder and director of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, David Barlow, calls anxiety "an ambassador of responsibility, nudging you into taking care of the things that you need to take care of."

Think about that for a second: What would life be like and how would we get by without motivation (a.k.a. anxiety)?

Anxiety can help us along when we want to make a change.

It is our body readying for action and nudging us along to do something. It might be something different, something new, or something bold, but it’s definitely urging us toward action.

When we embark on a new beginning — a project, a writing assignment, a lifestyle change, or even just returning to the gym — we have no momentum at the beginning. The start is perhaps the hardest part and energy is never more needed than at the beginning.

This is exactly what coping with anxiety provides — energy to engage. It’s offering that needed first push to create some needed momentum.

Anxiety not only harnesses our attention and focus, but it activates our motivation. We want to act and we want to do something.

Our anxiety brain circuitry primes us for action. As anxiety summons our attention, it also activates dopamine to keep us motivated to act.

The reward for all this motivation to act is solving the problem to remove the stressor, so anxiety can stand down. Dopamine helps us keep our efforts focused to get this done. This is how our stress/anxiety becomes fuel.

RELATED: 10 Essential Coping Skills To Lean On When Life Feels Overwhelminig

3. Take action.

Directed and appropriate action is how we can use both the signal and the fuel that anxiety provides.

Whether it’s completing a work assignment hanging over our heads, making that nerve-wracking call we’ve been putting off, or finishing the home project we keep meaning to get back to, there is an intrinsic pleasure in taking productive action.

Be practical and use that anxiety. It will make you feel better, and making coping with anxiety all that much easier.

We like feeling the stressor abate, and from a brain perspective, we are motivated to reap that very reward.

However, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for the actions to best harness our anxiety.

In fact, neuroscience is now confirming what clinicians have long seen in practice: feelings of anxiety are as individual as each of us, and only subside through individualized solutions. We can find our own anxiety relief solutions by first being OK with getting uncomfortable and being willing to actively cope with our anxiety.

Face it, feel it, and use it.

We have to tune into it to know how to cope with anxiety in the way that best suits us.

Proactive coping helps moderate the amygdala response and is controlled by the part of our brain that thinks, plans, and directs.

In other words, thinking through solutions to our anxious feelings helps our brain tamp down anxiety. The part of our brain that allows us to take appropriate action also dampens the worry we feel about our anxiety.

This part of our brain comes online when we choose to face our anxiety to access its message and motivation. When we do this, we can do what makes the most sense for us in our current stressful situation.

Actions that can calm our anxiety are widely varied, and considering possible solutions and planning action is an important exercise in taking action, and thus control.

Making a decision to take action is a big part of coping with anxiety, and so is accomplishing a specific task or even creating a to-do list.

The key is to progressively take action to resolve the situation your anxiety is bringing to your attention. And when you do, chances are that your anxiety about the situation will decrease.

By knowing how to deal with anxiety with these tools, you can begin using your anxiety to help you instead of being trapped in a worry loop. You may find that when you practice these steps, rather than getting upset when you feel anxious, you actually welcome the issue anxiety is bringing to your attention.

In fact, over time, you may even to choose to think of anxiety as a prickly-but-supportive friend. It's here helping you accomplishing what you want and need to do, despite being annoying and sometimes uncomfortable.

RELATED: A Quick-Start Guide To Helping Someone Who Has Serious Anxiety

Sign Up for the YourTango Newsletter

Let's make this a regular thing!

Dr. Alicia Clark is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. Looking for more help with anxiety? Check out her new book, Hack Your Anxiety, sign-up for book bonuses including a free mini-ecourse to help you understand how anxiety impacts your life and how to hack its most common challenges, or subscribe to her biweekly newsletter.

This article was originally published at aliciaclarkpsyd.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.