Anxiety is at best an irritating nuisance, and at worst, profoundly debilitating. In fact, anxiety can be so impairing that there is an entire chapter in the official book of mental health diagnoses (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual) dedicated to Anxiety Disorders. While anxiety is a normal emotional state, it is typically transient (i.e. short-lived) and manageable (i.e. able to be controlled). Normal anxious responses include but are not limited to: restlessness, difficulty concentrating and/or sleeping, muscle fatigue, irritability or edginess, and constant or excessive worrying. Some individuals experience anxiety in the body (e.g. stomach aches, tightness in the chest, restless legs, shortness of breath, dry mouth, headaches) while others experience it at a more cognitive level (e.g. racing thoughts, inability to control worrying, preoccupied with certain worries). No matter how you experience anxiety, it may be time to implement a coping skill or two when it starts to interferes with your day-to-day routine.
The following list provides six suggestions to help you cope with your anxiety, and concludes with information about what to do when these skills don’t work.
1) Identify the cause of anxiety. Sometimes anxiety seems to crop up unexpectedly, but it may be worth assessing whether a particular issue is contributing to your symptoms. Many areas of life can create or exacerbate anxiety such as work or school-related stress, financial stress, political stress, grief, health problems, relationship difficulties, drug or alcohol use, or trauma. If you’re able to identify the cause of your anxiety, then you may be able to appropriately intervene by addressing the problem directly.
2) Take deep breaths. Numerous studies confirm that intentional, slow, deep-breathing can reduce anxiety. Anxiety activates the nervous system and releases adrenaline, which increases your pulse, heart rate, and breath rate. This, in turn, increases your subjective sense of anxiety – in other words, it leads you to feel increasingly anxious, which further activates nervous system activity. Slow, methodical, deep breaths work to counter the nervous system activity by slowing down your pulse and heart rate. If you can, try finding 3-5 moments throughout the day to sit in a comfortable position and take slow, methodical breaths. Under stress, we typically inhale longer than we exhale, so as you practice slow breathing, try to ensure that you exhale for slightly longer than you inhale. Insider tip: breathe in for four counts, and out for five counts.
3) Meditate. Like deep-breathing, a spate of research affirms that meditation reduces anxiety. Anxiety can be framed as an inability to control emotions, such as worry and nervousness, and meditation helps by increasing emotional regulation and control. There are many ways to meditate, but I recommend finding a comfortable position – either seated or lying down – and closing your eyes. Begin by focusing all attention on your breath, and when an anxious thought arises, notice and acknowledge it, but return your attention to your breathing. You can also focus your attention on your body, noticing different sensations as they occur within you. The important part of meditation is to remain present and alert to your breath and body, rather than your thoughts. Rather than getting suck on a particular thought, allow your thoughts to pass like clouds in the sky. The more you practice this exercise, the more skilled at meditation you’ll become, and you will notice that throughout the day, it becomes easier not to ruminate on anxious thoughts.
4) Change how you talk to yourself. When feeling anxious, you’re more likely to automatically perceive situations as inherently more stressful; in other words, the glass appears half empty. A change in the way you think may be so minor that you hardly notice, but if you can begin to monitor your thoughts while you’re anxious, you may notice that your thoughts skew toward the negative. This creates a vicious cycle because negative thoughts are breeding grounds for anxiety, and anxiety in turn promotes negative thinking. Some therapists like to label negative thoughts as “irrational,” but I prefer to classify thoughts as either “helpful” or “unhelpful.” The next time you observe yourself stuck in a pattern of negative, anxiety-fueled thinking, ask yourself, “how would I view or feel about the situation if I wasn’t anxious?” Then see if you can incorporate a different perspective that leaves you feeling calmer, and more in control.
5) Lifestyle modifications. Everyone these days seems to be talking about self-care, but there’s a reason for that. When we take care of ourselves, we mitigate stress, depression, anxiety, and physical illness. If you’re feeling anxious, go the extra mile to take good care of yourself: ensure a good night’s sleep each night, engage in regular exercise, eat a well-balanced diet, and avoid drugs and alcohol.
6) Seek support. Social support can reduce stress and loneliness, improve your ability to cope with problems, enhance self-worth, and alleviate distress. Anxiety is often overwhelming, and it can be tremendously helpful to talk through your feelings with someone you trust. By connecting with and opening up to a friend or family member, you allow yourself the opportunity to feel less alone, gain another perspective, feel understood, and gain access to the support that may help you get through a difficult time.
When these strategies fail to work, it may be time to seek professional help. A mental health professional will work with you to help you develop the skills you need to effectively combat your anxiety. Some individuals benefit from changing their behaviors; other benefit from changing the way that they think. In addition to establishing new patterns that alleviate anxiety and promote wellbeing, you will also learn how to identify triggers so that future episodes of anxiety can be prevented. A licensed professional will take the time to get to know you to figure out exactly which skills will be of the most benefit for you.