Co-authored by Rachel Brezel
Q: I’ve struggled with anxious thoughts and feelings on and off throughout my adolescent and young adult life. Most often, it simply passes and I get on with my daily life. Lately, however, it’s gotten more intense. I recently began looking for employment and I’ve been worrying incessantly about never finding a job, not being happy with a job, and the “what ifs” that keep coming into my head. I don’t think this is only about a job, as I haven’t been searching for one for too long, and I’ve noticed that I began worrying about a host of other uncertainties in much the same way. Until I feel ready to speak to a therapist, I would so appreciate some practical tips on dealing with this anxiety.
A: Good for you for recognizing the increase in your anxiety as you begin to navigate adult life. As you may already know, awareness is the first step to change. Since you’ve achieved this level of awareness, you are significantly closer to feeling better.
You are also right on the mark in your understanding that the root of your anxiety is not about the job or lack thereof, but rather, your anxiety, and anxiety in general, is fear of the unknown and a level of discomfort with uncertainty.
To assure you, you are part of the human race, and as a rule, humans prefer certainty to uncertainty. In fact, studies have shown that individuals chose to definitely get an electric shock now over maybe receiving an electric shock later, and that stress levels escalated in the group of those waiting for an uncertain electric shock.
Uncertainty is the precursor for anxiety of any kind, and an individual’s overall anxiety simply differs to the degree that their uncertainty impacts the quality of their daily life.
Here are some active steps to help you reduce your anxiety related to uncertainty:
Embrace the feelings with an attitude
When you feel the uncertainty and anxiety creeping in, embrace, acknowledge, and get curious about it. You will notice that there is an initial anxious thought, and then a succession of anxious thoughts and feelings. Instead of indulging in this escalation, pull out your attitude! With a bit of audacity, challenge the uncertainty to feel uncertain about all those reactionary thoughts and feelings! In doing so, you will come to realize that everything is uncertain, and then the initial anxiety-uncertainty cocktail automatically loses some of its power.
In your case, the initial anxious thought is, “What if I can’t find a job?” To embrace this thought, you need to first recognize it as an anxious thought related to your current situation. Typically, your mind won’t stop there and you may experience the spiral of secondary or reactionary thoughts that go something like, “What if I hate my job, get fired, never find a spouse because I’m unemployed, become an unemployed-overweight-spinster…” and the imagery continues. When you have these spiraling thoughts, respond with an attitude of challenge to these potential negative outcomes. Recognize that they are as uncertain as the initial anxiety and uncertainty. This will weaken the anxiety experience and empower you to stay present while living with the uncertainty.
Control what you can control.
To begin, create a journal entry comprised of 2 categories:
-Things you can control
-Things you cannot control
Having this squared away on pen and paper will help you to more viscerally accept the reality of –
-Areas in your life where your actions have tremendous impact and influence
(e.g. applying for 5 interviews over the next month)
-Areas outside of your control
(e.g. “What if my boss fires me?”)
Once you’ve identified the areas you can control, commit to focusing energy in that space. When you find yourself getting lost in the areas outside of your control, ground yourself by reviewing these lists and refocusing on that which you can control.
Choose 3-5 of your favorite self-soothing techniques and aim to implement them daily in some form of routine. (Two in the morning, two in the evening.)
Journaling, meditating, walking, audio inspiration (like a TED talk or favorite podcast), yoga, or actual smoothies, with good-for-you ingredients, are just a few ideas.
The key here is preemptive self-regulation, so that when anxiety inevitably strikes, you will feel emotionally stronger and likely surprise yourself in your ability to tolerate the feelings with greater ease.
Choose a quote that speaks to you and your experience of life with uncertainty, anxiety, and control. Memorize it. Repeat this to yourself when you notice an initial surge of anxiety.
You can keep adding to your memorized library and you will notice your self-talk, belief systems, expectations, and perceived reality improving with time.
Here’s a personal favorite:
Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.
~John Allen Paulos
Wishing you the best of luck!