I’ve always been an anxious person.
According to my parents, I was an anxious baby, an anxious toddler and an anxious kid. A lot of my earliest memories are of overthinking and wanting things to be just so. When I was a preschooler, I needed all my clothes to match, every day, no exceptions. And don’t get me started on what happened when I got my ears pierced. Turns out, like most people, my earlobes are just a little bit uneven. I cried for three weeks. Every day, I’d stare at myself, horrified, convinced I was a mutant.
So while I’ve heard about performers who, as kids, were blissfully unaware and not nervous, I was never that lucky. Even when I was five years old, I always knew that the stakes were high, every time I walked on stage.
This anxiety has never really left me. And if you’re like me, creative work may increase your anxiety.
After all, writing a story or learning a new concerto can feel really overwhelming, no matter how many times you may have done it before. Here are some of the thoughts that pop into my head when I’m starting something new:
Who do I think I am?
I don’t know how to do this.
How did I ever do this before?
This time I’ll be exposed for the fraud I really am.
Feels pretty terrible, right?
Overcoming anxiety is a big challenge, and it can seem really huge and insurmountable. The thing is, though, I’ve learned that it’s not something to “overcome,” which makes anxiety sound like a dragon we slay one time and it’s all done. Game over.
Instead, anxiety is something that we need to manage.
The good news is, I’ve found that small changes can make a big impact.
Here are three easy techniques that I use that might help reduce your anxiety:
First, I should let you know that I’m not a therapist and everyone’s experience may be different, but for me, tiny changes can make a world of difference and, over time, they may add up to big results. While these are tiny things you can do daily, you can totally pick and choose what’s best for you. You might want to try these out at home and then, experiment with them in different situations, to see which ones suit you best and are the most impactful.
These techniques have helped me in managing daily anxiety but also have been surprisingly helpful in higher stakes situations, like before walking on stage for a concert or into a conference room for interviews or presentations, and sometimes, before particularly tough conversations.
Since these are tiny behavioral changes, you might be doing some of these things already, but maybe keep an eye out for something here you might not have thought of yet.
Remember, these techniques will not suddenly make all your problems go away.
But they might just help you start to transform your awareness and your present moment experience, so that you can feel just a little bit more open which might allow you to see new possibilities or solutions to the task at hand.
1. Big 3 Plus 1
Big 3 Plus 1 is a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) technique which can help us activate social safety. This technique helps us reconnect with our bodies which will then send signals to our minds, reminding us that we are safe.
Here’s how to do it:
- First, in a seated position, lean back in your chair and allow yourself to take up space. You might want to relax your legs, raise your arms, maybe drape them over the back of your chair.
- Second, take a big, deep breath.
- Third, make a small, closed mouth smile and, fourth, wiggle your eyebrows. (This last part always feels silly to me but, trust me, it works. It’s weird, but can be helpful.)
If you’re like me and spend a lot of time in your head, you might feel disconnected from your body all the time. My default mode is to try to “figure things out” with my mind, thinking and overthinking, trying to solve whatever problem I perceive is at hand. But in fact, our body is a shortcut to relieving anxiety. When our bodies feel safe, our mind will soon follow.
(And, just in case you were wondering, I don’t actually know why it’s called Big 3 Plus 1, it’s a little confusing but I guess it *does* help me remember that there are four basic steps. 🙂
2. Willing Hands
This is another DBT technique and it’s always struck me as weird because it’s so tiny — but I’m always amazed when it helps me feel just a little bit better, instantly.
- Turn your hands so that your palms are open and facing the ceiling. That’s it. I know, weird, right? Like, what the heck is that supposed to do?
- But give it a try: stop whatever you’re doing and turn your palms upward. Rest your hands on your legs, if you’re sitting, or let your palms face forward, if you’re standing. You might find that, like me, this small gesture of openness, creates just a little bit more willingness in your body, making it a tiny bit more possible to relax and breathe. It’s just a 1% difference, maybe, but when we’re anxious, getting to a better place usually takes lots of tiny steps.
3. “I’m noticing…”
I’ve been told that anxiety comes from worrying about the future, and depression comes from mulling over the past. In both cases, we’re not here, in the present moment, which is maybe both the hardest and simplest thing to do.
To keep you in the present moment, give this a try:
- Speaking aloud, start each sentence with “I’m noticing….” Take stock of what is happening in this very moment. Begin with your senses: what do you see, smell, taste, touch, hear? For example:
“I’m noticing the sunlight coming in through the window.
I’m noticing the smell of the coffee brewing.
I’m noticing the coolness of the table under my arm.
I’m noticing the taste of toothpaste.
I’m noticing the sound of a passing car.”
- You might then find yourself naturally moving towards your internal experience, your thoughts, and feelings, and bodily sensations:
“I’m noticing that I’m worried about this meeting today.
I’m noticing the feeling of my heart racing.
I’m noticing the thought that I’m scared I won’t perform well today.”
When I first started shifting my attention to my thoughts and feelings, I thought for sure that this would make me more anxious.
But, instead, the small addition of the words “I’m noticing” does two things:
1) It creates a little space between the thought and myself, so that I’m not saying that “I’m scared” but that “I’m noticing” the thought/feeling/sensation. This means I’m not overidentifying with the thought/feeling/sensation and I’m able to just observe it, so that I’m less likely to get swept away by the current of my emotions.
2) Saying “I’m noticing” slows me down, too. Often, I find that it takes just a little bit more effort for me to really notice and label what is going on, and this prevents me from racing ahead and keeps me just a little bit more curious and present.
These are mental health techniques that I’ve learned and practice.
Again, it seems like nothing, and I often find myself unwilling. After all, what the heck is this seemingly trivial thing supposed to do? But, if I stick with them, these skills can help cultivate mindfulness and encourage me to stay in the current moment, which then allows me to slow down my racing, anxious thoughts and feelings. I found them helpful for performance anxiety and for managing my day-to-day worrying.
When you’re feeling anxious, these easy, simple techniques may help you feel just a little bit better.
There are a lot of ways to change a situation or make a difference. Once you get the hang of these, you might experiment with combining them, as they can work well together.
Remember, lots of people struggle with anxiety, myself included, especially when you’re trying to learn how to do and make new things. You are not alone.
These techniques are things I’ve learned from professional mental health providers and they have been helpful in making my day-to-day experiences just a little bit better and have also made it more possible for me to take creative risks and be a little more open to uncertainty.
Finding mental health support can be daunting but it might be helpful to you in leading a successful, happy, creative life.
I wish I could tell you how to find a good provider but the elements that go into a positive partnership with a therapist vary from person to person. I’ve found that it’s really important to find the right fit for you.
However, one place to start, if you’re able, is to ask one or two close friends that know you well if they have a provider or resource that they can share. More folks are taking mental health more seriously and maybe have therapists or practices that they can recommend.
Also, if you’re in college, schools have counseling centers, with folks who are uniquely experienced in understanding the challenges of college students. And, most employers have an EAP or Employee Assistance Program, where you can often get a set number of free sessions with a psychologist.
Beyond that, the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) can be a good place to start looking for resources in your area. And, if you’re interested in exploring not just mental health, but also performance-related stuff, a certified sport psychologist may be able to do both.
If you want more ways to ease anxiety, cultivate your creative courage, and have more fun learning new things, check out my conversation with Dr. Noa Kageyama of The Bulletproof Musician on my podcast, where we discuss strategies for managing performance anxiety and good mental hygiene.