Believe if or not, anxiety is actually a useful emotion at times. Through the process of evolution, we’ve developed anxiety to kick in our “fight of flight” process to help us in dangerous situations. For instance, if you’re camping (not glamping!) in the woods and a bear visits your campground, you want a little anxiety to kick in so that you’re ready to run! You wouldn’t want to be so laid back and relaxed in that moment that you were ready to sit back and have a beer with the bear. Nope, not a good idea.
Likewise, if you found yourself having to walk down a dark alley or a similar creepy place, you want anxiety to kick in a bit. You would want to be hypervigilant, watching everything and everyone around you. You would want to be ready to run or fight if need be. You would want to be “on edge” so you were ready for whatever the alley brings.
We all have anxiety from time to time, however, for some people, anxiety carries over into their every day lives where it’s not needed and not productive. It interferes with getting things done. It stops them from living life. It prevents them from being their best. And sometimes, it spills over to others in their lives such as their partners or children and can make their lives miserable too. The good news is that anxiety can be managed and it can be cured! Here’s some tips on how to manage anxiety:
Tip #1 Manage your breathing
One of the biggest challenges with anxiety is that the more it increases, the more out of control your breathing becomes. To manage anxiety, you have to manage your breathing. When you’re in the throws of anxiety, your breathing will change to short, rapid, shallow breaths, which will can deteriorate to the point of hyperventilation.
Instead, focus on your breathing and breathe intentionally. When you take in air, breathe in through your nose and notice your belly expanding. Think the words, “I am” as you’re breathing in and count in your head to 5. On the exhale, breathe out through your mouth and notice your belly contracting the air out. Think the word, “Calm” as your breathing out and count in your head to 5 while you exhale. It looks like this:
Breathe in through your nose while thinking “I am” for 5 counts.
Breathe out through your mouth while thinking “calm” for 5 counts.
Easy right? Practice this for 5 minutes a day working up to 30 minutes a day. What you’re doing in practicing this is letting your brain know what a calm state looks like and providing a trigger for that calm state. When you need to calm yourself during an anxious moment, thinking the words “I am calm” along with your deep breathing will trigger your brain to come to that calm, relaxed state faster than it normally would without practice.
Tip #2 Practice Mindfullness
Mindfullness is simply about living in the right now. Anxiety, however, wants you to live in the future with “what if” thinking, i.e. What if I get sick, what if no one will take care of my kids, what if my family becomes destitute, etc, etc.
Instead of letting the “what ifs” take over, focus on the current moment- just on what’s happening and what you’re experiencing right now. Don’t let your mind take a trip into the future!
Practicing mindfullness is about noticing every aspect of what you’re currently experiencing using your full range of senses. What do you see, what do you feel, what do you smell and hear? Bringing this intense focus to the current moment does not leave room for your mind to think about the future.
Practice every day mindfullness with small things like eating an orange:
Notice the texture of the skin and how it feels on your fingertips. Notice the weight of the orange in the palm of your hand…is it heavier or lighter than you thought it might be? What shade of orange is the fruit? Is it light or dark? Notice how it feels to dig your finger into the skin of the orange…was it easy to get in there or difficult? Did the skin spray oils as you dug in? Could you smell the orange scent? Did you hear a sound when the skin was breaking? What about when you ripped the skin off? What does the skin taste like? Is it sweet or bitter? Did you notice a sound when you broke the segments apart? Did the scent change once the skin was off the orange? Did it become more noticeable? What about the flavor of the orange segments? Are they sweet? Tart?
You get the picture here. Paying attention to every minutia of what you are currently doing leaves no room for your mind to travel into the future. Choose to live in the now.
Tip #3 Exercise
People with anxiety tend to release more adrenaline (aka epinephrine) due to their regular visits to the “fight or flight” response. When the brain gets a message that something stressful is occurring OR might occur, it releases adrenaline to start the fight or flight process. In folks with anxiety, this is more often than not, a false alarm. However, there’s no way to undo the release of adrenaline- instead, you have to burn it off, which is where exercise comes in.
In general, it’s a good idea to get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least 5 times a week (PSA alert- make sure to talk to your doc before starting any exercise program!). Aerobic exercise is the type that gets your heart beating faster than it does at your resting state. So, anything like fast walking, running, jogging, skipping, biking, rowing, etc will do nicely….anything that gets your heart rate up. Exercise has a number of benefits, but in regards to anxiety, it burns off the adrenaline and releases endorphins which are the body’s “feel good” chemicals. Double bonus!
Daily exercise is important, but exercise can also be helpful in the middle of an anxiety attack. When you notice yourself becoming anxious, get moving and get that heart rate up to get rid of the adrenaline. You can do jumping jacks, jog in place, go up and down stairs, power vacuum. Anything to get your heart rate up!
Tip #4 Manage Your Thoughts
This is super simple in theory, but takes practice, practice, and more practice. Our thoughts lead to our emotions, which lead to our behaviors. Therefore, if we’re having anxious type thoughts, we’re going to feel anxious and then act in an anxious manner by losing our cool, snapping at others, or acting by not doing anything. To manage anxiety, we have to manage the thoughts that are creating the anxiety to begin with.
Here’s an example:
Bob has a presentation to give to a group of clients that his company is hoping will sign a big contract.
Bob thinks, “What if I don’t do well?”, “What if the clients don’t like me?”, “What if they won’t sign with the company?”, “What if I lose my job over this?”
As a result of his thoughts, Bob begins to feel anxious, nervous, and insecure. Bob has some physical reactions as a result of his anxious feelings- stomach ache, difficult breathing, heart palpitations.
Bob stays home from work (no action).
To start managing your thoughts, you have to notice your own thoughts. This is unusual as we don’t typically think about our own thoughts. At first, you may find it easier to notice the emotion you’re feeling and backtrack to the thought you just had. So, if you notice you’re starting to feel anxious, take a moment to focus on what you were just thinking before you felt anxious- we’re looking for the culprit thought that started the anxiety feeling.
Once you identify the culprit negative thought, challenge that thought- is it reality based or irrational? Is there proof?
Replace the negative thought with a more positive and reality based thought.
Let’s use one of Bob’s thoughts as an example:
Bob thought “What if I don’t do well”. Bob has prepared for this presentation for the past month. He has all the information he needs to do a good job. He has given previous presentations that turned out fine. So in this case, if Bob reality tests his negative thought of “What if I don’t do well”, it may sound like this: “I have prepared for the last month for this presentation and I’ve gathered all of the information I need to do a good job. I’ve also given presentations in the past that have gone well. I don’t know if I will do well for sure, but chances are that I will do well because I’m well prepared”. Bob could also challenge his negative thought with, “I don’t know how I’ll do, but I have just as good of chance of doing well as I have of doing poorly” or “This is just my anxiety talking, my anxiety is always temporary and it will end soon”.
The bottom line is, if your mind created an anxious thought, it can also create a more positive and healthy thought. Allow it the opportunity.
A good way to practice this is to write down some of your thoughts each day and the emotions that came with them. Then, practice writing thoughts that challenge your negative thinking. Try using this worksheet for practice.
Tip #5 Get Help
If anxiety is a daily occurrence for you, get help. There is no reason to continue to live with debilitating anxiety when there is a way out with a little work. There’s multiple treatments that can help to resolve anxiety- therapy, biofeedback, neurofeedback, and EMDR. Medications can also be helpful in managing the symptoms of anxiety, but it should be noted that they don’t actually resolve anxiety. Once you stop taking the medications, your anxiety will still be there until you address it.