Everyone feels anxious or nervous at times. Feelings like these can surface when you face a challenge. They might happen when the pressure is on to do well. They can happen when you fear making a mistake, looking bad, or being judged.
These situations are usually not dangerous. But the brain responds as if they are.
For example, you might feel nervous before taking big tests or exams. You might feel anxious when it’s your turn to speak in class. These feelings can be uncomfortable, but you can cope.
Instead of avoiding things that prompt anxiety, it’s best to face them. You might be surprised by what you can do. Here are five things that can help you learn to cope with anxiety:
Start with a ‘growth’ mindset. Some people have a fixed mindset. They might think, “This is how I am. I get anxious before speaking in class. So I don’t raise my hand.” With a fixed mindset, people don’t think things can change. They think they are the way they are, period.
But brain science has shown that you can teach your brain new ways to respond. People with a growth mindset know this. They know they can get better at just about everything — with effort and practice. That includes coping with anxiety.
Notice what anxiety feels like for you. Get to know the body feelings that are part of anxiety. Describe them to yourself. When you’re anxious, do you feel ‘butterflies’? Sweaty palms? Shaky hands? A faster heartbeat?
Know that these feelings are part of the body’s normal response to a challenge. They’re not harmful. They fade on their own. Next time they happen, try to notice the feelings without getting upset that they’re there. Accept them. Let them be there. You don’t have to push them away. But you don’t have to give them all of your attention either. See if you can let them be in the background.
Breathe. Take a few slow breaths. You could breathe in for a count of 4, then breathe out for a count of 6. You could use your fingers to count four or five breaths. Taking a few slow breaths doesn’t make anxiety go away. But it can reduce it. It can help you pay less attention to anxious thoughts and feelings. It can help you ‘reset’ and be ready to move forward.
Talk yourself through it. When you’re anxious, it’s common to tell yourself things like, “I can’t do this.” Or “What if I mess this up?” Instead, plan to tell yourself something that could help you face the moment with a bit of courage: “I can do this." Or, “It’s OK to feel anxious. I can do this anyway.”
Face the situation — don’t wait for anxiety to go away. You might think that you’ll put off speaking in class until you no longer feel anxious about it. But it doesn’t work that way. It’s facing the anxiety that helps you manage it. This is called exposure.
Learning to cope with anxiety takes time and patience. Most of all it takes practice and being willing to face situations that prompt anxiety. It starts with one small step. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at managing anxiety.