I worry about anxiety.
Lately, it seems to be everywhere. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 18 percent of the population qualify as having an anxiety disorder.
And that statistic is true for just a snapshot in time, which means that over our whole lifetimes there’s a high chance we’ll experience anxiety ourselves.
This startling statistic represents nearly one in five. That’s one Spice Girl, one Backstreet Boy, and one from One Direction.
Of course, stats don’t quite work like that—not every group of five people will have one living with anxiety. But Zayn Malik’s recent openness is a helpful reminder that everyone may struggle with their own brain from time to time.
Office managers, executive assistants, and directors of getting sh*t done may be awesome butt-kicking action heroes … but Ninjas are human, which means they’re as susceptible to anxiety as anyone else. In fact, the pressure to constantly be awesome (or to at least appear to be) might even add to the anxiety.
With all that in mind, let’s look at why anxiety arises and what an anxious Ninja might do about it.
Anxiety Versus ‘Feeling Anxious’
It’s important to remember that the feeling we associate with anxiety isn’t inherently bad. It’s merely a helpful bodily signal.
Just as pain is an unpleasant signal that “something is wrong: take your hand off those thorns!” anxiety is an alarm that something stressful is occurring.
Some feelings—like anxiety, pain, and frustration—have negative connotations. If we never experienced anxiety or pain, however, then we’d constantly put ourselves in serious danger!
Most of the time, these feelings are fine and natural, and we don’t want to eliminate them. If you’re about to give a presentation or go to an interview, then a little anxious feeling can even be helpful.
It’s when these feelings get out of control that it becomes a problem.
The Only Thing We Shouldn’t Fear is Fear Itself
One way our natural anxiety can go wrong is if we fear the feeling of anxiety itself.
This is an understandable response: feeling anxious is awful, so we may worry about experiencing it again … but this creates a vicious cycle.
You fear anxiety, so you worry, which makes you feel worse, so you become more afraid. Suddenly, boom! You’re trapped in a deeply unpleasant loop. Fighting the feeling only pours more fuel onto the fire—this cycle is often at the root of panic attacks.
Recognizing that we’ve caught ourselves in this trap is a major step toward escaping it. We need to retrain our brains to no longer fear anxiety. My go-to technique is to consciously think, “Oh, anxiety again! I’ve felt this before. It’s fine” as soon as the telltale feeling appears. This prevents me from pouring more fear-fuel onto the anxiety fire.
Still, escaping these feedback loops doesn’t solve every problem. What about the underlying anxiety?
Well, there are three main possibilities:
- Our anxiety is a habit—it’s become a constant background reality.
- Our worries are no longer proportional to what’s happening in reality—magnifying problems to become much larger than they truly are.
- Our anxiety is reasonable—we’re being chased by a wolf or something equally nerve-wracking like attending a job interview.
This last possibility only requires recognizing the truth that our feelings are OK, and then relaxing. Before we look at how to do that, let’s investigate the first two causes a little more deeply.
Constant Anxiety Isn’t Ideal
What feels like anxiety is actually a chemical change in our bodies. These anxious chemicals prime us for action. But we can’t live in a state of constant readiness for action. Our bodies aren’t designed to have these chemicals in this concentration all the time.
According to online stress-factory (and medical advice repository) WebMD, constant worry negatively affects appetite, relationships, sleep, and job performance. It even makes us more likely to take up harmful habits.
Most of us are aware of the toll stress takes on our bodies. It’s actually stress-inducing to be constantly told to relax! But it bears repeating. We might think that we’ve handled this level of constant anxiety for years without problems, but eventually it will take a toll. Better to make changes now than to crash entirely later.
Disproportionate Worry is More Insidious
Sometimes our worries do not reflect reality.
Perhaps we’re handling everything fine. We’re on top of deadlines. Our co-workers appreciate our work. We’re capable of doing everything we’re being asked to do. And yet, we still feel anxious. The part of our brain that assesses threat is malfunctioning, and we’re detecting possible disasters everywhere.
There are a million different causes for this, from Imposter Syndrome to habitual overthinking, from bad experiences that we’re irrationally worried will repeat to a lack of downtime.
Our unique life experiences can conspire to create a cocktail of believable reasons to worry, even if reality isn’t saying the same thing.
What To Actually Do
It’s fair to say that I’m not going to solve the problem of anxiety in one article.
But, then, I couldn’t solve it in a whole book either. Fundamentally, we have to find our own solutions for our unique circumstances.
Here is a basic framework to help you develop your own personal anxiety solution:
1. Identify the Problem
It’s amazingly easy to fail to notice that we even have a problem with anxiety. We can justify it to ourselves: “Doesn’t everyone live with constant stress, worry, and fear? It’s normal!”
We can even hide the problem from ourselves. Our brains normalize everything we do. If we got poked by a sharp stick every morning we’d eventually accept it; and over a long enough period of time, we might even stop noticing it at all.
Anxiety can fade into the background too. Think back over the last few months, and ask yourself:
- Am I living with constant anxiety?
- Are my levels of stress proportionate to reality?
- Do my anxiety levels occasionally get out of control?
These aren’t simple questions to answer. They require looking at ourselves and our lives with fresh eyes and questioning everything we’ve come to accept as normal.
2. Make a Change… And Then Another
If you realize you are more anxious than you ought to be, no one can tell you what to change in your life or how to change it. So we need a system that everyone can apply. And the system is simple.
If we’re constantly anxious, or our anxiety is disproportionate, then clearly whatever we’re doing right now isn’t working.
Whether it’s your thought patterns (constantly thinking “I’m not good enough”), your routine (not getting enough sleep), an inability to say no, refusing to let go of work in the evenings, or even your job itself, you can try making a change.
One change isn’t going to solve all your problems, but if it improves things, then great! Onto the next change. And if it doesn’t improve things? Also great! Now you know one thing that doesn’t help. Still, onto the next change.
Need More Specificity?
Some changes are unique to specific situations, but there are many possible tweaks that are near-universally regarded as helpful. If you’re stuck, perhaps these will make a good starting point for your experiments:
- Set clear boundaries for your time. Ninja life often means being connected at all times, but make sure to schedule some downtime! (For some, this comes naturally. For others, this may require a wholesale rethink of your relationship with work. Small changes may still help, however.)
- Take up meditation. It’s not all weird; it’s a genuine rest for your brain. This is particularly useful for anyone prone to overthinking. Try apps like Calm or Headspace, and make resting your mind a habit.
- Pay attention to yourself. What are the thoughts you have that spark anxiety? Remember how invisible anything can be—try to identify thoughts that are invisibly stressing you out (“I’m going to fail! I’m going to be fired!”) and then get out of the habit of paying attention to them. A technique known as defusion can be useful for taking the power away from troublesome thoughts.
- Welcome anxious feelings—this breaks the feedback loop of fearing fear.
- Change little things about your life or environment. Traveling a new way to work, rearranging your desk, reversing your routine; making changes gives you a greater sense of control over your life. Sometimes anxiety arises from a loss of control, so retaining control over any area of your life can help.
- Exercise! Again, easy for some, tough for others. Even a walk is useful. Moving helps you use adrenaline productively.
- Breathe consciously. Notice what’s happening in your body right now. Anxiety is rarely about what’s happening now; it’s usually fear of an imaginary future. Returning to the present brings a useful sense of perspective.
- Talk about how you’re feeling. This can be HARD, particularly if there’s pressure to appear super-awesome and like everything’s under control. This is where the OfficeNinjas community is so useful: a judgement-free place to vent with your peers! Take the mask off and relax—being understood is so important.
What tips do you have for reducing anxiety? Let us know in the comments.
Editor’s note: The advice in this article is intended to be general in nature. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, please contact a professional (here is a list of international crisis hotlines).