Managing Anxiety With the "Rule of Three"

This strategy sounds simple, but it really helps banish stressful thoughts.

The American Psychological Association (APA) describes anxiety as "an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure" and that "people with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns." Some people avoid certain situations due to worry. There can even be physical symptoms like sweating, trembling, dizziness, or a racing heartbeat, per the APA.

For me, it sometimes feels like my anxiety barely exists. For weeks at a time, I'll feel totally unfazed—and then, out of nowhere, the stress and fear will pop back up to mess with my day. My hands start to shake, my heart races, and I feel like the world is going to spin out of control at any moment.

Like many people, my anxiety is often triggered by an unsettling life event, such as a big move or an argument with someone I'm close to. Other times, though, it's caused by something I've been ignoring that's nagging at me beneath the surface. When this happens, it takes a little more sleuthing to get to the bottom of what's truly bothering me so I can deal with it.

Young man looking stressed out at home

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Because my anxiety flare-ups can seem totally random, it's important for me to treat my mental health like it matters every day, not just when I'm feeling off. I consider mental health to be an important part of my overall wellness, so I do small things to take care of it all week, just like how I exercise and take vitamins for my body. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says that this is a part of self-care—doing things that help you to live well and that improve both physical and mental health. Self-care is a part of preventive mental health care.

On overwhelming days at work, I make a point to step outside for fresh air and I try to get plenty of sleep every night so I'm less affected by stress. Research backs this up. For example, a 2020 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience suggests what other studies have shown—that a lack of sleep can trigger anxiety. This study also states that this effect is even more pronounced in women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that adults need seven or more hours of good quality sleep a night.

When anxious thoughts do start creeping in, one of my favorite tricks to settle them is something called the "rule of three."

What Is the Rule of Three?

The rule of three is a strategy that was recommended to me by a therapist. When I'm feeling stressed, I only allow myself to devote energy to worrying about three things at any given time. I visualize a tree with three branches on it, with one worry assigned to each branch. After the tree is full, that's it—no additional worries are allowed to take over my mental space.

If I'm anxious about a deadline, that's one branch. If I'm thinking about the stressful weekend I have coming up, that's the second branch. After that, I can only freak out about one more thing. If my tree is already maxed out when my cab gets stuck in traffic and risks making me late for an important interview, I either have to abandon one of the other branches or choose not to worry about the current situation.

Simple Strategies

At first, the rule of three seemed too simple to actually be useful, but it's really helped me put things in perspective. Having to narrow down my concerns each day to just a few that are "worth" stressing over is eye-opening. By thinking about my fears in this straightforward way it becomes obvious that while some of my problems have actionable solutions and others are completely out of my control, worrying does very little to help either.

Of course, worrying is human nature. The majority of us will stress out about things both big and small from time to time—and that's okay. There are many strategies you can implement to help calm an anxious mind. I find that this strategy helps keep things in check when anxious thoughts are taking over more energy in my life than they're worth. We deserve to spend our days doing more than just feeling stressed, and this technique can help you get there.

So next time you're overwhelmed, ask yourself: "Does this make my top three?" If not, you have to let it go.

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