What Is Anxiety?
Wait! Don't skip to the next section on Strategies! It's actually really helpful to know how anxiety works and what it is. As you'll see later, it can be calming to tell yourself what's actually happening in your body. It can be very reassuring. Carry on...
Basically, anxiety is a glitch in the way the brain processes an assessment of danger. It is the way our nervous system is 'wired'. Most people with anxiety inherit it from one or both of their parents. It usually runs in families. Anxiety can also develop because of stressful or traumatic experiences, experiences where you did experience danger, or thought you could have been in danger.
Our brains are taking in information and continually assessing whether or not we need to protect ourselves. It's a handy thing.... most of the time. When this protective mechanism goes awry, our brain starts to tell us that we are in danger, when we aren't. Sometimes, there is a slight risk of harm, but the brain with anxiety will tell us there is an extreme risk of harm and we should protect ourselves in some way. This usually involves avoiding the triggering situation altogether.
If we can't avoid it, our fight/freeze/flee/fawn system kicks into gear. This is a biologically programmed hormonal cascade that helps us in times of real danger. When there is no real danger, however, the hormones have no purpose and we can feel really bad. We might get a stomach ache, a headache, feel sweaty, get short of breath, feel shaky, for example. It feels awful. In the case of a panic attack, it can literally feel like you might die. You won't, but it feels that way. If you're having extreme physical symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath, it's always a good idea to get checked by a doctor to rule out anything else.
There are other mental health disorders that include anxiety. People with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Depressive Disorder, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or Specific Phobias, to name a few, tend to struggle with anxiety as well. Treatments for these disorders involve helping the person manage anxiety as well as their other symptoms.
There are several types of anxiety. Social anxiety is when we have a feeling of danger around other people in social situations. Performance anxiety is when we freeze up or panic when we have to perform in some way, on a test for example. Generalized anxiety is when we just have this constant sense of dread, like something bad is going to happen. We might worry constantly that someone we care about is going to get hurt or die. No matter the type of anxiety, it is unpleasant. But the good news is that all types of anxiety are treatable.
5 Strategies You Can Use Today To Manage Anxiety
Managing anxiety comes down to managing two aspects, our thoughts and our nervous system. Here are five strategies you can start to use today to help you deal with anxiety. Remember to give these strategies a chance to work by using them repeatedly for a few weeks. Using them once is not going to cut it. Our brains and our nervous systems need time to adapt and get with the program. Don't give up!
1. Catch the Thought. This can be a tricky one sometimes, but if you can take a second and see if you can identify the thought or thoughts that are causing anxiety, it can be so helpful. Once we know what thought is causing the trouble, we can work to debunk it and replace it with a more helpful or realistic thought.
For example, if you get anxious in a crowded hallway or at a party, might the thought be something like, "Everyone is staring at me. Everyone is thinking about how awkward I look"?Of course that would make you feel anxious if you thought that. But now we can question whether or not that thought is true and come up with something more realistic. This might look like, "Everyone is more worried about themselves. It's not very likely that people are even thinking about me".
2. Breathe. I know how annoying it is when people tell you to take a deep breath when you feel anxious. It's hard to do! The reason it's important is because most people hold their breath when they are anxious, or they breathe very shallow up in their shoulders. When we don't get enough oxygen to our brain, we get symptoms like light headedness, feeling faint, or headache. We aren't able to think clearly. So strategy number one is really difficult if you don't have oxygen allowing your brain to work on your thoughts.
One strategy is to breathe in, hold it, breathe out and hold it. Repeat. This is called box breathing because ideally you would do this slowly and evenly, following the four sides of a box or square. So in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, out for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts. Practice this at times when you're not feeling anxious so your body gets to know the routine.
3. Ground Using Your Senses. Some people find this strategy extremely calming and effective. Simply use your senses to distract you from your anxious thoughts by looking around you and finding 3 things you can see, 3 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel, and 3 things you can smell (if possible). It helps to name these things out loud if you can. If not, do it in your head. Remember to breathe after each item you name to slow the process down.
4. Self-Talk. As I mentioned at the beginning, it can be so helpful to remind your brain what's actually happening to help gain some perspective. You can tell yourself, "This is just a glitch. I'm safe. There is no danger. My brain just needs a second to readjust to the reality of the situation". You can tell yourself that even though it's uncomfortable, this feeling will pass. Tell your brain that this won't last forever and you will feel fine in a few minutes. Then breathe.
5. Get reassurance. You can ask someone close to you to help you regain perspective. Ask them, outright, to reassure you. You can also reassure yourself by making a plan. You can allow yourself a time limit for how long you will spend worrying. It's ok to get more information about a situation to help calm your anxiety. If you are worried about storms for example, it might help to ask someone close to you to tell you if there are any storms coming. Remember to work on the thought here as well. Even if a storm was coming, what is the most likely outcome? What would I do to keep myself safe?
There are many more strategies for managing anxiety. Experiment and find what works best for you. The basic idea is to focus on managing the thoughts that initiate the anxiety and the bodily responses to anxiety. If you need more help with anxiety management, feel free to reach out for an individual session.
How to Prevent Anxiety From Taking Over
Ultimately, the best strategy for managing anxiety is to prevent it from happening in the first place. This is a pretty tall order since some anxiety is NORMAL. We all have anxiety from time to time. This is part of being human. We can, however, work on preventing anxiety from completely taking over the moment, or our lives.
Our daily habits contribute a lot to how our brain and nervous system functions. It's so important to have daily habits that help us to reduce stress and calm the body.
Meditation and Yoga. Whether you pick one, or incorporate both, meditation and yoga will help you not only to calm the mind, but help you with breath awareness and control, which is vital for managing anxiety. If you have difficulty meditating, check out my blog on meditation tips.
Exercise. Exercise is extremely effective in helping the body learn to respond to stress. It stimules the vagus nerve bundle, which kicks in the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the aspect of our nervous system that is calming, the opposite of the fight/flight/freeze response. You don't even have to do anything extreme to reap the benefits. A daily walk is sufficient.
Journaling. Writing in a journal can help you to identify thoughts and underlying beliefs that are triggering your anxiety. It can help you process and heal grief, trauma or other hurts that might be subconsciously contributing to your anxiety. It can help release thoughts and feelings that you are holding on to that are creating more stress, that you might not even be aware of.
Seeing Your Doctor. Anxiety can be a symptom other health issues so it's always a good idea to get checked out by your doctor to rule those out. You can ask for a referral to a psychiatrist if you would like to try an anti-anxiety medication. Some people really benefit from medication, especially if your anxiety is associated with another mental health issue like OCD or Depression. I would recommend considering therapy as well, if you do decide to try medication. Medication can help, but you still have to learn and practice the skills needed to manage anxiety. Medication can make it easier to do that if the anxiety is severe.
I hope this overview was helpful. Try out the strategies that appeal to you and see if they help even a little bit. Remember to reach out for more assistance if you need it. There are many ways to treat anxiety!