“Keep calm” is easy to say but sometimes harder to do. The week we’re looking at ways to cope with anxiety and stress during tough times.
Keep calm–getting things done without stress and anxiety
When the unexpected happens or when challenging circumstances occur, it’s easy to get anxious and stressed out. These days, with all that is going on, we may have extra responsibilities or larger workloads than usual, or decisions we need to make that we haven’t had to make before. The anxiety that can result from stressful situations interferes with our productivity and can be harmful to our mental health. Learning to “keep calm and carry on” productively takes intentional practice.
What is anxiety?
It’s important to distinguish anxiety from stress. Here are some resources that offer a good description of what anxiety is.
“When we talk about stress, we are talking about the external factors that are causing our anxiety. . . . When we talk about anxiety, we are talking about a physical response. Anxiety is our natural fear response that occurs when we are confronted with danger.” (from Is Anxiety/Stress Affecting Your Productivity?)
“Anxiety is emotional anticipation — it’s the thought of something going wrong in the future. Health professionals use the term ‘anxiety’ to describe a persistent fear or a chronic sense of worry, the sources of which seem unclear. . . . Anxiety is not an emotion but an experience— it harms our ability to be in control making us feel paralyzed. Anxiety clouds our judgment — it’s a disorienting experience when facing a threat we can’t understand. On the contrary, fear is an emotional response to a danger that we are aware of.” (from Why Anxiety is the Number One Productivity Killer)
According to several sources, the National Institutes of Health estimates that approximately 40 million adults in the U.S. alone are affected by anxiety.
What causes anxiety?
Anxiety can be caused by a variety of different factors and things going on in our lives. For instance, stress is one of the biggest causes. One writer warns us that “prolonged periods of stress can often turn into more persistent periods of anxiety.”
In Anxiety and Productivity, one counselor notes that “Anxiety is frequently a mixture of biological causes and environmental habits.” Another source identifies “a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.”
Any number of life events can trigger anxiety. For example, have you ever been so anxious about a big presentation that it prevented you from preparing for it?
Or have you had anxiety anticipating other life events, such as the birth of a child, a wedding, or a tough conversation you needed to have with a friend or employee?
Effects of anxiety on our minds and bodies
When I talk about anxiety, I am speaking about it in regards to our productivity and doing our best for our families and employers. Anxiety is a normal response. But for others, it’s a persistent everyday problem that affects us deeply.
If you feel like you are struggling with anxiety to where it is affecting your happiness and quality of life, I encourage you to seek out support. Perhaps speak with a therapist or your doctor about your anxiety. Anxiety is not a sign of weakness, but rather a combination of our genetics, life experiences, and personality traits.
The effects of anxiety can be pretty dramatic. One article published by the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health cited studies that found “Globally, anxiety disorders are the sixth-leading cause of disability. . . .” Anxiety can affect our productivity in the workplace and can interfere with our ability to get things done.
Anxiety can trigger a fight-or-flight reaction, which is a response to a threat (real or perceived, physical or psychological). Our body becomes flooded with hormones (adrenaline, etc.), our breathing and heart rate speeds up, and our body prepares us to either fight or flee.
When this happens, it takes time for systems to return to normal after the threat is gone. This is a survival mechanism that helps us respond quickly to threats to our safety but it takes a toll on our bodies when we stay constantly in that mode, or for extended periods of time. (For more info on this, see How the Fight or Flight Response Works)
Loss of sleep, fatigue, and difficulty focusing are all possible physiological effects of anxiety. All of these things directly affect our productivity and our enjoyment of life.
Things we can do to counteract anxiety, keep calm, and get things done
Become more aware
Often we are dealing with anxiety, but we may not be aware we are anxious-it’s as if it is just something that is going on in the background. Because of this, it’s helpful to learn to recognize when you are feeling anxious. One article encourages us: “every time you feel anxious, ask yourself why?” Make note of it–what’s happening at the time, and what’s the story you’re telling yourself about it? We can cope with our emotions better if we identify and name them. Name your anxiety when you feel it, and pay attention to the circumstances that gave rise to it.
When we are anxious or fearful, we breathe faster and more shallowly (part of that fight-or-flight response). To counteract this, practice breathing more slowly and more deeply, while relaxing the tense parts of your body. Notice where you feel the tension in your body-perhaps your shoulders or jaw.
If you have an iPhone or Apple Watch, it has a Breathe app that you can set to remind you at regular intervals to pause, close your eyes, and breathe slowly for a minute. You can also set an alarm on your phone and take a minute or two to calm yourself down and relax.
Quiet your mind
For many of us, our minds are racing all day, thinking of things we have to, calls we have to make, etc. This can contribute to anxiety, which interferes with our ability to be productive. Just like we can practice deep breathing and relaxation, we can also learn how to quiet our minds. One way to do this is to build in a time in your day to sit quietly, meditate, maybe do a mind dump. The apps Calm and Headspace are good resources for this. Maybe try some journaling, get all those thoughts out of your head onto paper where you can look at them. Try to limit time spent with negative inputs such as news, social media, negative people, etc. Do a digital detox by turning off all screens for an hour a day or a day a week. Be intentional every day about giving yourself time to quiet your mind and relax. Doing this gives you space to think creatively and solve problems.
Simplify your life
Right now the Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to simplify our lives. The majority of the activities and events we used to participate in have been canceled. Instead of viewing this as a loss, look at it positively, and as a way to slow down and enjoy that extra time.
You can use this time to simplify your space. Ruthlessly purge your closets and drawers, get rid of the clothes and toys your children have grown out of or no longer use.
Practice less but better in all areas of your life. Keep only things you use and love. For every tool you use, let it be something that you enjoy using.
Develop a few key productive habits
These habits can help us regain a sense of control, reducing the anxiety that comes from feeling like you’re dropping balls, and will help us make progress on the projects and goals that matter most. It’s not necessary to do all of these things, but rather pick just one and focus on it for a while.
- Begin keeping a simple list as a way of getting things out of your head. Doing this can help you calm down and evaluate what’s making you anxious.
- Eat the frog. Do the most important thing (the thing you’ve been avoiding) first thing at the beginning of your day. You can get this task out of the way and over with, which will give you a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of control. It also gets momentum going in the right direction.
- Build in buffer time. Avoid waiting until the last minute to get your important project or task done. When it’s in your power, allow more than enough time to get important projects done. We kid ourselves that we work better under pressure but getting into this habit is not good for us. The adrenaline that floods our system when we’re facing an impending deadline might fool us into thinking we’re being productive, but there’s a price to pay.
- Try time blocking, which is chunks of time dedicated to specific kinds of activities. This allows for less disruption from switching back and forth and gives you a much calmer and productive day overall. It also gives you the ability to tell your brain (when it starts bugging you), “Thanks; I haven’t forgotten; I’ve set aside time to work on that on Thursday morning”. Time blocking can be a good way to get important work done in a calm and thoughtful way.
- Develop your focus muscle. Practice focusing on what you’re doing, one thing at a time, with no distractions. One of the things anxiety does is prevent us from focusing on what we’re doing. Start with a few minutes of deliberate focus on what you’re doing and gradually build up the time.
- Try breaking tasks down into micro-tasks that can be completed in a few minutes. This can help address the stress-induced anxiety of overwhelm. Being able to check off each small micro-task creates a sense of relief and momentum. You can see the progress you’re making and alleviate anxiety around the rush of getting the task done.
Create a calm environment
Think of all your senses–scents, sounds, sights. Light a scented candle, play soothing music, use colors that calm you in the rooms you work and sleep in, keeps spaces clear of clutter, etc. All these things can help you release the tension that contributes to anxiety and interferes with your focus.
Pay attention to your body
Make changes necessary to get adequate restful sleep.
Choose healthier food and make at least one meal a day a pleasurable event (whether alone or with others). Use those pretty dishes, turn your TV and phone off, and just enjoy the food and company. This doesn’t have to take a long time, but be present while you’re doing it.
Move your body and do a little exercise each day. This is a great stress reducer and good for your health.
Pay attention to your self-talk
Words matter. When a task or responsibility is stressing you out, are you thinking of it in terms of “I have to” or “I choose to” (or even better, “I get to”)?
For example, if it’s about cooking dinner or cleaning the house, you can look at it as “I have family or friends to cook for” or “I have enough money to buy food” or “I have a home to clean or clothes to wash.” Thinking of these tasks in a positive way can help you be less anxious and calmer.
Also pay attention to how you talk about yourself to yourself. Most of us can be very unkind to ourselves-choose better words.
Practice being present in the moment
Think about the thing you’re doing right now instead of going through the motions while thinking ahead to what’s next or rehashing what’s already past. Being in the moment allows you to be calmer.
Let go of perfectionism
Nobody’s perfect. We know this, yet we wear ourselves out trying to do everything “perfectly” (whatever that means) and feeling like stressed-out failures when we can’t live up to impossible standards.
As we talked about recently, have an honest talk with yourself about what things need 100% effort, and which things can be let go with “good enough.”
Letting go of perfectionism can go a long way towards eliminating (or at least reducing) anxiety and going calmly through our days.
Practice radical grace
Give yourself and others the benefit of the doubt. Trust yourself and be kind to yourself and others.
“None of the techniques above will have an impact unless you’re ready to stop punishing yourself today for how your anxiety affects productivity. It’s unlikely you’ll ever completely stop those stomach knots appearing from nowhere, so don’t waste precious energy trying.” (from Fight or Flight? How to Channel Your Work Anxiety in a Productive Way)
What do you think?
Have you struggled with anxiety about all you need to get done? How do you help yourself be calm and carry on doing what matters most? Share your thoughts in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me!
Resources and Links
- Is Anxiety/Stress Affecting Your Productivity? — Tranquility Online | Anxiety Help | Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
- Why Anxiety Is the Number One Productivity Killer — Gustavo Razzetti
- Workplace Mental Health – Anxiety Disorders: Why They Matter and What Employers Can Do
- Anxiety Can Affect Productivity — Overcome Yours Today | by Taskworld | Taskworld Blog | Medium
- Anxiety and Productivity – Mental Wellness Counseling
- Fight Or Flight? How To Channel Your Work Anxiety In A Productive Way
- Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA
- How the Fight or Flight Response Works
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