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How Practicing Taking Small Steps Is Helping My Anxiety

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Over the past few months, I’ve been experiencing episodes of anxiety way more than I have in the past. Bouts of anxiety with a frigging capital “A.” And I mean ugly, massive, whole-body, language-robbing, focus-stealing anxiety.

Like all of us, I still have responsibilities to fulfill: family to do’s, business activities (like writing this post for one), household duties. You know, life.

But if you, someone you love or a client is seriously anxious and/or depressed, taking action can seem impossible. It’s especially difficult because the very nature of anxiety tells us: “It’s not safe. I can’t do it.” And then depression convinces us there’s no point, so why bother?

So how on Earth, when these gremlins are running through our lives and minds, or in some cases running our lives and minds, do we find a way to take action to help ourselves?

This tool is also especially effective as an antidote for what I call “perfectionistic procrastination paralysis” (aka P3). If you’re already flourishing, it can move the needle toward better overall wellness too.

Practice taking SPACE:

I practice a technique I call SPACE: Small Positive Actions have Cumulative Effect.

I call bullshit on the “go big or go home” kind of thinking. Tiny efforts do not lead to tiny results. Tiny is big. Slow is smart. Applying microscopic yet consistent positive measures yields huge positive changes over time.

So here’s the low down on how to practice taking SPACE to reduce anxiety and increase wellness:

1. Make a series of small, sustained healthy choices (the tinier the better).

2. Make “the tiny” something you can successfully do, but also something that pushes you a bit.

3. Do not wait until you feel better or feel like taking action. Take tiny action now. Feeling better results from doing healthier things first, not the other way around.

4. The accumulation of repeated, gentle, positive actions will slowly improve your mood and increase wellness.

5. When you make choices toward wellness, the world around you will respond with care and concern. Your new choices will draw in helpful resources and people.

When I’m running up against the wall of depression or anxiety, I intentionally set “itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny” achievable goals.

I know exercise is excellent for reducing my anxiety, but when I’m feeling like I just want to hide indoors, I start like this:

I commit to walking to the mailbox. Seriously. Then, I usually end up walking a bit further just because it actually feels good to be outside. The next day, I “rev it up” to five minutes of walking. Then I keep doing that. Over the next seven days, before I know it, I’ll be walking or back to running for my usual 20 to 30 minutes three times a week.

Neuroscience and research shows tiny actions work.

There’s neuroscience to back up this phenomenon I call SPACE. Dr. Alex Korbe, author of “The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time,” explains that small, positive life changes actually trigger positive neural changes which contribute to good mental health. “Any tiny change can be just the push your brain needs to start spiralling upward,” he writes in his book. Positive actions are reinforcing and build momentum for more benefits.

He describes how practicing gratitude triggers serotonin production which lifts mood and helps improve quality of life, helping you to feel better. Exercise, he goes on to say, changes the electrical activity in the brain during sleep which decreases anxiety, improves mood and gives more energy to exercise.

So how tiny is tiny?

One observational study of 416,175 Taiwanese participants found that just 15 minutes of low-volume, moderate intensity exercise extends life expectancy by three years.

Lead researcher Chi Pang Wen of Taiwan’s National Health Research Institutes found the benefits apply to everyone, all levels of health, all ages and genders, not just for those people who are sedentary.

“The tiny” is whatever you can manage to achieve, but also pushes you just a bit.

For example, say the desire to sleep all day is upon you like a cat scrambling on your shoulders to avoid a bath. “The tiny” in this case might be committing to get up at 11:30 a.m. instead of noon. Repeat that the next day. Then the day after, set your alarm for 11:15 a.m. and so on.

If you’re feeling well, but want to make a good thing better, tiny changes make that easier to do. Like drinking more water. Choose to drink one glass (or one more glass) of water as soon as you get up. You can make it into a habit you pair with brushing your teeth.


  1. The beneficial effects won’t be visible within the first or second time around. It will take a few days — or yes, even a few weeks — but through the consistent gentle effort, improved mood and wellness will come and will reinforce itself.
  2. Enlist others to help if even the tiniest of tiny steps feel insurmountable. Have a family member or a peer support worker text or call you to give you the extra energy and a little push.
  3. Your actions signal the readiness to change and a willingness to move toward a healthier lifestyle and the universe will reward that in kind. Even in my most manic or desperate moods, when I made choices toward wellness, the world around me, in at least one area of my life, responded with care and concern.

It is in the pint-sized, but courageous acts of doing things like texting that friend when you’d rather not, that give you a small boost of confidence and help move you out of your comfort zone of habitual isolation and into territory that is laden with potential healing.

Choosing to practice SPACE means you’re in your own corner fighting for your wellness. Just as spring always returns, slowly recovery comes into focus, and with it, more vibrant wellness. It takes patience and time, but with tiny healthy actions, change does occur.

Tell me, what’s your “tiny” for this coming week? Comment below to let me know.

Follow my journey on Victoria Maxwell 

Getty image by densigo

Originally published: October 9, 2019
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