Ever had the chills rise up in your body as you lay on the floor of a bathroom mirror, trying to model your 8,000-word master’s thesis. Or the chills when you’re being evaluated by a team of experts and you’re out of your depth in only a second. Or the chills when you see yourself sitting alone in the throes of self-doubt in a mall food court. This feeling, after all, is a hallmark of the nervous breakdown. While self-doubt is certainly nothing to shake a steady hand at, it can also get out of hand. To find the small successes, pick up books on minor topics or individual improvements and make small strides in your area of focus. “Always keep an effort on getting better in your area of expertise,” says Joseph Tanzi, a professor at Harvard Medical School who specializes in psychiatry. “It is the key to making improvements.”

Many factors can cause common anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

Lack of social support from family, friends, and colleagues may put you at risk. Many experts believe that factors such as family structure and income level can also play a part. A 2009 study found that young adults from working-class families with little or no support had higher rates of depression, anxiety, social phobia, and alcohol abuse than those from higher-income and better-educated households. While current economic conditions could have an effect, Tanzi says, “you can’t sit back and do nothing about it.”

Rather than joining a coaching or treatment program designed to help you take big strides, give little direct feedback until you’re more confident. “It is much easier to give someone a piece of advice that you don’t believe in yourself,” says Tanzi. Experts suggest praising yourself when you are doing an adequate job or turning to media as a way to build your self-esteem, such as television show titles or YouTube videos.

Some people struggle to pinpoint what drives their anxiety and how to turn it around. In many cases, Tanzi says, the answer is actually self-exploration. An exercise that is based on probing your thoughts can help. “Uncovering the associations that appear at regular intervals during your day will help you identify the fears and how they stem from particular thoughts,” says Tanzi. “That is very liberating.”

Tanzi says an exercise he sometimes uses in his lectures is to begin with a person who is good at something, such as organizing, and test how well he or she can work with ambiguity. Next, he puts the person in a situation where either he or she gets feedback in a constructive or damaging way. By beginning the exercise as if you are bad at something, the person is primed for critique. But without specifying it as such, “you allow the other person to show their skill,” Tanzi says.