How to deal with anxiety - Part 4

We're fast approaching the end of November and it's time to offer the final of four tips on managing anxiety. So far we've explored "tend and befriend", "just say yes" and "cultivate self-compassion". Hopefully there have been some small internal shifts in your relationship to anxiety (for example, becoming more accepting of symptoms) and your experience overall. You may also have noticed some changes in behaviour, such as a greater ability to tolerate anxiety or a tendency to seek out loved ones when feeling anxious.

If you haven't noticed any changes, you're in good company as well. Our habits develop and are reinforced over long periods of time, so change can be an ongoing process. Further, just because we intellectually understand what might help us cope with anxiety, doesn't mean we put the principles into action (hence the saying, "do what I say not what I do"). If it really is insight alone that leads to liberation from our difficulties, we would still be practicing psychotherapy the way Sigmund Freud did in the late nineteenth century (while there are a small number of Psychoanalysts practicing in this way, it is by far the exception, rather than the rule). The typical disconnect between insight and action is what makes tip #4 so important. 

Tip #4: Get in Touch with Your Values

Obscure as it may sound, identifying, clarifying and articulating our core values is a powerful antidote to the destructive impact anxiety can have on our lives. There are a few reasons proposed to explain this phenomenon. First, values can serve as a compass, directing us to what is most important in the midst of all of life's twists and turns. Without a compass, we focus more on getting through the zigs and zags, rather than where we are going (by contrast, when we focus on where we are going, we are less impacted by the detours). Second, values help us stay focused. For example, when we have a strong direction for our life, we are more motivated to minimize the interference that worries play in our life. Finally, being in touch with our values reduces avoidance that may be associated with anxiety (for example, if a nurse practitioner strongly values helping people in need, he may be less likely to skip work due to fears of the Ebola virus than a nurse who is not as clear on this value). 

Values are lifelong journeys (rather than goals to be checked off a list) and they involve action. People typically identify values in areas such as: work/career, intimate relationships, parenting, personal growth, social life, health/physical care, relationship with extended family, spirituality, community and/or recreation. By building our own life compass in these various domains, we become much more focused on where we want to be, rather than the things around us that bring up worry and fear. 

You might want to take the time to identify your own values (perhaps rating them on a scale from most to least important) and construct a sort of personal compass. When you notice fear creeping in or looming over you, you might remind yourself of the direction you are headed and take action towards a step in the direction of your best life.

As always, when anxiety significantly interferes with our ability to fulfill occupational or personal obligations, professional consultation is indicated. Wherever we are on the spectrum, taking the time to focus on mental health care can significantly improve our well being. Congratulations on investing the time to take good care of yourself!