anxiety: frequency, intensity, duration

from evy's notebook

When thinking about anxiety management, I've found it helpful to separate it into three categories: frequency, intensity, and duration. I want to feel anxious less often, to be less overwhelmed when I am anxious, and to work through anxious feelings faster. While these categories certainly overlap and influence each other, labeling each of them has helped me make more specific and concrete goals for my mental health, which lets me focus my energy towards the improvements that are most important to me.

1. frequency

Frequency of anxiety is how often an anxious thought or feeling arises. This is one of the hardest axes to address - I've learned many strategies to deal with anxiety once I notice it, but how do I stop it from arising at all?

There are definitely ways to work through feelings about something such that it's no longer anxiety-inducing, but one of the most effective strategies I've found for decreasing frequency of anxiety has been changing my environment to remove the stressor causing the anxiety. I've done this several times over the past several years: quit my job, broke up with a friend, abandoned goals I made, moved out of a stressful living situation. Changing my environment has often been really difficult, but it's also often had significant benefit in terms of reduced frequency of anxiety. It's scary to give up on things, and not always possible - but I think it's possible more often than I think it is.

2. intensity

Intensity of anxiety is how overwhelmed I feel by it, or how much it gets in the way of my day-to-day life. When I'm anxious with low intensity, I can continue to engage in social interactions and do work at my job and plan out self-care. When I'm anxious with really high intensity, I can't stop crying, I can't think about anything other than what I'm upset about, and I can't figure out how to fix it because I'm too wrapped up in being upset.

Anxiety often involves thought spirals. Feeling bad makes it harder to do things, and then it's easy to feel bad about how hard it is to do things, and hten feeling worse makes it even harder to do things, and so on. One of the most effective strategies I've found for reducing the intensity of my anxiety is to notice anxiety early, before it spirals. I've used Daylio to track my mood for almost three years, and it's helped me form a habit of asking myself how I'm feeling. If I'm able to notice when I feel a little uncomfortable, I'll have the energy to help myself feel better before I get overwhelmed.

3. duration

Duration of anxiety is how long I continue to feel anxious after the thought or feeling arises. Sometimes I'll worry about something and convince myself that it's rationally fine, but the thought will continue to compulsively come to mind, or I'll continue to feel tight in my chest for hours.

The way I minimize the duration of anxiety is learning ways to process anxiety,and ways to soothe myself. In therapy these are usually called "coping skills", and everyone has a different list of what works for them. Over many years I've learned strategies that often reduce the duration of my anxiety: writing down what I'm thinking about, going for a walk, talking to a loved one, disengaging from social media, singing.


Of the three categories, intensity has been most important for me to address. If I'm not intensely anxious, then I have bandwidth to figure out how to help myself feel better, so reducing the intensity of anxiety helps me reduce its duration. Of the three categories, I'm least invested in decreasing frequency. I don't mind feeling a little anxious about things regularly, if it's not particularly intense and the feeling doesn't stick around that long. In fact, I think that a lot of anxious thoughts are useful to alert me to issues that could be useful to address. But once I become aware of those issues, I don't find that anxiety is that useful anymore.

When I've said "I want to be less anxious", I used to think that meant "I want to feel anxious less frequently". This is still a goal that's important to me, but exploring what "less anxious" actually means to me has allowed me to prioritize the changes have been more impactful for improving my mood.