Thursday, February 22

New Year’s Resolutions for Dealing With Anxiety

The start of the new year often brings lofty ambitions.

It’s 2024 — time to exercise and eat better, says a nagging voice, somewhere deep in your brain. What about learning to knit?

It’s enough to make anyone feel anxious.

For those who already struggle with anxiety, these heightened expectations can be even more distressing. Especially because research suggests that many of us don’t complete our New Year’s resolutions.

So we asked several psychologists for resolutions specifically tailored to people with anxious tendencies. And we broke them down into bite-size steps so you can notch your successes along the way.

But don’t feel pressure to tackle these tips just because it’s January.

“It’s OK to take stock of your life at any moment and say, ‘Hey, what can I do differently?’” said Regine Galanti, a psychologist and author in Cedarhurst, N.Y., who specializes in treating people with anxiety disorders. “It’s about changing our lives to look the way we want.”

Research suggests that directly confronting the things that make us anxious can help break a pattern of fear and avoidance.

You can do this with a therapist — a process clinicians call exposure therapy — or you can do it on your own.

Start by asking yourself: “How is feeling anxious keeping me from the life I want?” or “What would my life look like if I were calmer?” Dr. Galanti said.

For example, you might answer: “I would travel more often if I were less worried” or “I would speak up more often if I weren’t so anxious.”

Then, instead of waiting to feel more relaxed, chart out steps you can take now to reach your goal.

Dr. Galanti suggested breaking down your fear into several smaller components that are easier to face and creating a plan of action to help you stay accountable and keep track of your progress.

If you are afraid of speaking in public, for instance, you can start by jotting down notes for a toast. Next, practice it out loud. Then try saying it in front of two friends.

You can work up to speaking in front of a small group. “It’s like climbing a ladder,” Dr. Galanti said. “I can’t jump to the top.”

Some people may need to do each step several times, she added.

Gradually, each new task will start to feel easier. If you get stuck, “try to avoid white-knuckling things,” Dr. Galanti said. Instead, break down that step into smaller ones.

It may sound counterintuitive, but telling yourself to be less anxious is “a signal to your brain to focus on anxiety more,” Dr. Galanti said.

Having some anxiety is part of being human — so it is fruitless to try to banish the feeling entirely. “It’s more like, ‘If I feel anxious, then what?’” she added.

So rather than focusing on your anxiety, think instead about the personal traits that you value. Total serenity probably won’t make the cut.

“Does anybody really want their tombstone to say, ‘He was calm’?” said David Tolin, director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn.

How do you want to be remembered? As a caring spouse? A loyal friend? A hard worker? After you have pinpointed the characteristics you value, he said, do something meaningful to embody them.

For example, if being generous is important, consider volunteering in your community, even if you are anxious to step outside your comfort zone.

Imagine a man having an argument with his wife. He begins to worry that she doesn’t love him anymore and becomes convinced that she secretly wants a divorce.

Catastrophizing — becoming consumed by fear that a situation carries more risk than it actually does — is associated with anxiety disorders.

Angela Neal-Barnett, a professor of psychological sciences at Kent State University, suggested thinking about what you worried about last year. It’s likely that the worst-case scenario didn’t happen. Maybe the amount of worry you devoted to a particular problem wasn’t worth it. Or perhaps you surprised yourself by successfully navigating a tough situation. What was the most important thing you learned?

Write down your observations so that you can refer back to them if excessive worry or dread start to resurface.

Another strategy is to approach a trusted and less anxious friend and ask what they would do.

This doesn’t necessarily mean luxuries like massages or a personal trainer, the experts said, but the basics: Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating nutritious food? Are you moving?

Dr. Neal-Barnett recommends filling in the blank: “When I am anxious or fearful, my go-to self-care routine is …” The list might include relaxing things like calling a friend, practicing deep breathing or taking a walk outside and getting some fresh air.

“Anxious people have a really hard time resting,” Dr. Neal-Barnett said, but it is “one of the best things you can do.”