Anxiety shows up in our lives in many ways and often quite out of the blue. Anxiety is common and even adaptive; it's life-saving from an evolutionary standpoint. The problem is that it's often present when you don't really need it. Not every situation is life or death, or rather, you're not always an impala running from a cheetah in the wild. However, our systems can get wired in some pretty wonky ways. This means that you may feel lots of things that are often out of proportion for the situation. Anxiety is one of the most common problems that clients bring into psychotherapy. Feelings of worry, fear, uneasiness, and dread can be present more often than not. Many head to a psychiatrist or psychopharmacologist for medication to quiet the noise. Sometimes it's easy to identify what the problem is. It may be stress from a job, a relationship or some other situation that leaves you feeling pressured. People can feel very alone with anxiety and it's definitely not helpful when well-intentioned people tell you to "relax, everything will be fine."
A common experience in my therapy practice is when people have no idea what is bothering them. They can't quite pin it down. They do, however, experience a gnawing sense of dread and doom. Not unlike background music, it's there all the time. Some experience more obvious symptoms, they feel edgy, snappy and irritable. Many people feel bored, restless, fatigued and experience muscle tension and a lack of focus as other common symptoms of anxiety. So what helps? Suffering in silence is out; getting help or learning to help yourself is in.
Below are some tips to help you tame your anxiety monster:
1. Learn to live in the present and let go of the past, in other words, focus on right now. When people are anxious, they tend to obsess about something that might occur in the future. You may feel swept away by thoughts of what did happen, what didn't happen, how you imagine things might go down, what you said, or didn't say, what they thought about you — the list goes on and on. All this anticipation and worry keeps you everywhere but in the present moment where you actually need to be. Even if you are in the midst of something big, focusing on the present improves your ability to manage the bigger stuff.
2. Take a deep breath. One thing that happens during an anxiety attack is shallow breathing. This can be controlled by catching and eliminating this. Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the most powerful anxiety-reducing techniques because it activates the body’s relaxation response. It elegantly helps the body go from the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system to the relaxed response of the parasympathetic nervous system. One practice is to try slowly inhaling to a count of 4. First you fill your belly and then your chest. Really feel the expansion and gently hold your breath for a count of 4. Next, slowly exhale to a count of 4. Some find it helpful to also gently hold the breath at the end of the exhale. Practice this for a few minutes a day, then learn to integrate it into your day as needed. It really helps!
3. Accept that you’re anxious. It's important to remember that anxiety is just a feeling, not unlike other feelings. If you remind yourself, as a habit, that anxiety is an emotional response, it makes it easier to accept it. If you try and wrestle with your anxiety, or eliminate it, it makes it worse. Acceptance is key to reducing the idea that anxiety is intolerable.
4. Observe your anxious thoughts without judgment. You can notice and not judge feelings, emotions, thoughts, sensations with compassion and curiosity instead of judgment. The brain is so powerful that people can be tricked into thinking they are having a heart attack, when it is really a panic attack. Understanding that your brain is playing games with you helps reduce the shame, judgment and pressure that you may feel to fix yourself. What you need in these moments is compassion and nurturing not self-criticism and judgment.
5. Notice what is happening in your body and/or use a calming visualization. This seems counterintuitive, but helpful for some. If you are anxious, find the place in your body where feel it. Notice the sensations there. As your mind wanders, bring your awareness back to your body. The act of focusing on your body sensations will help dissipate your anxiety. Scan your body with your mind and continue the exercise as you locate any areas of need. A helpful visualization might just do the trick for you if being in your body makes you more anxious. “Picture yourself on a river bank, a garden, a field or on the beach. Imagine watching leaves pass by on the river or clouds floating in the sky. Now, "put or see" your emotions, thoughts, feelings and body sensations on the clouds or leaves. You are just watching and observing as they float by. We tend to give thoughts, feelings, emotions and body sensations a judgment such as right or wrong, good or bad. This actually makes anxiety worse.
6. Question your thoughts and learn to discern what is real. Anxiety is really just information -- accurate or inaccurate to the actual situation. It can be a signal that there is real or approaching danger. Begin by noticing the signal, take a breath and reality test with someone you trust. Don't white-knuckle it alone. “When people are anxious, their brains imagine all kinds of far-out ideas, many of which are highly unrealistic. Once these thoughts kick in, your system moves into four-alarm mode fast. We are good at creating worst-case scenarios. Take public speaking for example, "this will kill me" may be running the show for you. It is now a full-blown catastrophe. Public speaking is uncomfortable perhaps, but its unlikely to kill you. Giving a speech is cause for anxiety for sure, you may stumble here and there, but in reality, people may not notice, they may be forgiving and will certainly forget about it very soon. While your still fretting about a mishap, they have moved on. Challenge your thoughts by asking these questions:
- Is my worry and concern realistic?
- What is the likelihood that this will happen?
- Can I handle it?
- What would happen then?
- How have I handled that in the past successfully?
- If the worst case scenario happens, what would it mean about me?
- Is that true?
- How can I prepare for something negative?
7. Try a healthy dose of positive self-talk. Anxiety can produce a lot of negative chatter. Many find it helpful to load up with positive statements that increase the ability to cope. For example: “my anxiety feels like a "7" today, but I can use coping skills to manage it.” Many think that a stance of acceptance means that anxiety is just fine and you've resigned yourself to a horrible life. Acceptance means that life would be better by accepting reality -- in the moment -- just as it is. Anxiety is a normal part of life. For many, and with practice, anxiety, while uncomfortable, can become tolerable.
8. Exercise and watch your diet. You know this already, but all that adrenaline flowing through your body needs someplace to go. If you don't do gyms, dance or walk at a quick pace. Reduce or eliminate caffeine, sugar and alcohol as these substances deplete your system, and while solving a problem in the short term, they will hijack your system in the long run.
9. Learn to say no. It's a powerful little tool that can really help you with overload. You can only juggle for so long, then you fatigue and lose focus.
10. Progress over perfection is my motto. It's likely that you'll never arrive in a way that feels satisfying, and you may just drive yourself nuts. The pursuit of perfect makes life very un-fun. Notice what is "right" and "good enough" in, and about, your life and revel in that knowledge.
11. Focus on meaningful activities. When you’re feeling anxious, it’s helpful to shift your focus to a goal-directed and meaningful activity. If you weren't anxious, what would you be doing? Being passive and gripping the chair when your anxious is the worst thing you can do. Get on with your life -- do what you would normally do. That means, wash the dishes, take in a film or whatever gets you out of your head. You learn something very important about yourself. You survived the anxiety and you accomplished what you set out to do. This practice gets you back into your life.
12. Find a psychotherapist or psychologist to discuss your anxiety symptoms and come up with a course of action. When it all feels too hard, or overwhelming, and you can't battle it alone, ask for help. Find a professional to share the burden with. This doesn't make you weak, and your life will likely improve as you learn coping strategies and your symptoms fall away. For some, short-term medication is a sound option and always available to you. No judgment.
There are powerful approaches that can offer relief from a wide range of anxiety symptoms, often immediately, that are done in therapy. These techniques work for decreasing panic, overcoming compulsive worry, tolerating chronic uncertainty, wondering what will happen next, quieting your thoughts, social anxiety, being afraid of people or motivating you to make a change, in your life.