We all know people who can seemingly take whatever life throws at them with a barely a whimper. We also know folks who turn into anxiety-ridden wrecks over life’s inevitable pressures.
Those who take life in stride have what psychologists call a sense of “coherence.” And they also have a set of coping skills that work for them in reducing anxiety, according to a new study of 10,000 British women presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress.
In simplest terms, those with a strong sense of coherence view their life with a mix of confidence, optimism and control. Or in psych-speak, their life is comprehensible, manageable and meaningful.
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The researchers found that study participants with a weak sense of coherence who lived in deprived areas — places with high unemployment, overcrowding and lack of car or home ownership — were 98 percent more likely to have anxiety compared with women living in less deprived areas.
But if you had a strong sense of coherence, living in a deprived area didn't have the same effect. What gives? These participants had anxiety-busting skills that can be taught, said lead researcher Olivia Remes, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge.
“The empowering message here is that even if you were unlucky and didn’t have a great upbringing or were previously exposed to adversity, you can strengthen this ‘sense of coherence’ or resilience,” she said.
Here are a few tips to help get over your anxious moments.
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1. Give yourself permission to suck at something.
Perfectionism and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. That constant struggle for perfection can lead to self-loathing, more anxiety and even depression, not to mention lack of decision making and an inability to start or complete projects, for example.
On the other hand, giving yourself permission to do something badly provides the freedom to take more risks and have more fun, Remes said.
When it comes to decisions, just go for it. “After a reasonable time deliberating, it’s much more important to take action than to be paralyzed by indecision,” she said.
2. Tell yourself you’re sorry.
Anxiety brings a barrage of negativity, including a lot of self-criticism and self-judgement. The fix is to become more aware of these negative thought patterns. The next time you start to think negatively about yourself, realize it’s just a thought and let it go.
“If you had a friend who was blaming themselves the way you blame yourself for everything, think of the words of compassion you would offer to her and see if you can offer those same words to yourself,” Remes said.
3. Set aside time to worry.
Setting aside time to worry and creating a designated “worry period,” won’t make you more worried. In fact, it might make you worry less. This reason it works is that thoughts can degrade over time.
So, what you’re worried about at 9 a.m. may not be that monumental during your 4 p.m. designated “worry period.”
4. Be more mindful.
Some studies show that meditation is a powerful tool in fighting anxiety. In fact, one recent bit of research found that eight weeks of so-called mindfulness meditation can actually change the stress response in people with generalized anxiety disorder.
Mindfulness means focusing on the present or basically training yourself to stay in the moment, while forgetting about everything else. Although there are classes that teach mindfulness, one way to potentially kick anxiety to the curb is to focus on something other than you.
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“When you’re walking to work, instead of focusing on anxiety, notice the grass and feel the wind in your hair or when you’re talking to someone, don’t focus on your sweaty arms, but really try to notice the person in front of you,” Remes said.
5. Find purpose in your life and help others.
There’s something to be said about getting out of your own head, and thinking about and doing something for someone else. People who spend little or no time thinking of others are setting themselves up for poor mental health, Remes said. Finding purpose can be as simple as visiting an elderly neighbor, reading to a child or volunteering.
“Doing something with someone else in mind takes the spotlight off of you and places the spotlight on others and how you can make a difference,” she said. “We can’t be truly happy until we know that someone else needs us and depends on our productivity or love.”
It's important to note that if your anxiety is severe, affecting your work, relationships and health, your should seek help. “It’s one of the most common disorders, and very treatable,” said Dr. Stefan Hofmann, professor of psychology and director of the social anxiety program at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, who was not involved in the study.
“One of the most important things for people is the sense of control, and as long as people believe there is something they can do to help themselves, things aren’t that bleak,” he said.