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Health Tips & Advice

Harness Everyday Anxiety to Create Opportunities for Positive Change

By Dr. Jack Muskat, Medcan Clinical Director of Mental Health

These strategies will help you alter your perspective on normal stressful situations.

Humans derive comfort and manage stress from prediction and control. But in the last year and a half, thanks to the pandemic, it’s been difficult to predict the future or control typical aspects of our lives. In a CMHA survey, when asked to characterize their emotional response to COVID-19, Canadians most frequently reported feeling anxious or worried.

I like to look at mental health on a continuum, where if things are going OK, then we’re in the middle. We may experience occasional anxiety, which is a normal, everyday emotion. At one end of the continuum is “performance anxiety”, which can actually help us focus and perform better. It’s situational (like public speaking) and generally short-lived. We get butterflies beforehand, but a sense of excitement and accomplishment afterward. At the other end of the continuum is what’s classified as “anxiety disorder”, which can be so debilitating that it impairs our daily functioning, like sleep and appetite, and can be almost impossible to escape without the help of professional therapy.

Examples of Low-Level Anxiety

Everyday anxiety most commonly reveals itself in these three ways:

  • Worry—uneasiness about an important meeting, an upcoming social event or a family member.Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO)—seeing on social media that friends got together without you. Sometimes we wouldn’t have even wanted to join the get together, but because humans are innately social creatures, this anxiety triggers our desire to be included, and can cause us to engage in negative self-talk to explain why we weren’t.Languishing—we’re just getting by; getting kids to school or showing up at work, but not being able to give anything more than the minimum required of us.

What Happens When We’re Anxious

We tend to engage in three thought processes when we experience anxiety:

  1. Catastrophic thinking—This “all or nothing” thinking makes us believe that our lives will collapse if we don’t achieve our set goal. We tend to react irrationally because we believe there are no other options. Typically, other options do exist, and often, they’re even better than the original plan.
    Instead of this thought process: If I don’t get a reservation at my usual hotel, the entire trip will be thrown off.
    Try this thought process: There’s probably a newer, nicer hotel than my usual, and this could be an opportunity to experience a different neighbourhood, too.
  2. Magical thinking—The opposite of catastrophic thinking, this thought process is often associated with OCD and occurs when we incorrectly equate cause and effect to two totally unrelated events. We think that performing a certain ritual or thinking in a certain way will influence a desired outcome. While feeling like we can control an outcome can bring us comfort, it can backfire when the assigned cause becomes unavailable, because we lack the confidence to manage the situation without it.
    Instead of this thought process: If I bring 10 sharpened pencils to the exam, I’ll get an A.
    Try this thought process: I want to feel prepared for the exam, so I’ll create a study schedule with manageable tasks.
  3. Availability bias—This way of thinking keeps anxiety alive, and is the most common way people maintain their fears in the face of common sense and facts. We tend to explain events with the theory that’s closest at hand, rather than with all the available information. Perhaps you hear a news report about the number of COVID deaths, but it doesn’t mention comorbidities, or age. Over 50% of the people who have been admitted to hospitals have pre-existing health conditions, and more than 90% have been unvaccinated. While fear of COVID is justified, these are farfetched fears, in terms of your own experience.
    Instead of this thought process: I won’t get the second dose of this particular vaccine because I heard you could get blood clots.
    Try this thought process: The risk of getting a blood clot from a vaccine is 0.002%. The chances of getting a blood clot from COVID is 27% or 1,000 times more likely, so when I weigh the options, it makes more sense to get this vaccine than to not get it.

Steps to Overcome Everyday Anxiety

If you’re starting to feel anxious, try this three-step strategy:

  1. Practice self-acceptance. Too often, anxiety causes us to perform negative self-talk. We internalize a problem, saying “What’s wrong with me?” Instead, tell yourself: “I am a worthy person.” Separate yourself from the problem so that you can move to step two.
  2. Regain self-respect. Once you’ve told yourself you’re a worthy person, you can do things that worthy people do. They take care of themselves, eat healthy meals, get fresh air at lunch, exercise daily, and see friends. They engage in rewarding activities that boost their mood and mindset.
  3. Eliminate negative influences. Often, we know that certain behaviour or people fuel our anxiety. Say no to seeing someone who makes you feel bad about yourself. Surround yourself with friends and family who support your goals and motivate you to try new activities.

Final thought: It’s never too late to tackle your anxiety. You are an agent of change—you have the power to improve your mood and your mindset through your actions. All it takes is a little perspective. If you can view everyday anxiety as an opportunity to practice new habits, you can get better at dealing with this normal emotion.

If you’re suffering from anxiety and would like to talk about opportunities for support, contact a member of Medcan’s Mental Well-Being team at mentalwellbeing@medcan.com.

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