“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh
A sincere thanks to all the awesome experts who shared their best tips, insights and strategies on how to overcome anxiety.
Anxiety is an epidemic in our society, and for many of us, it is a daily struggle; no one is immune.
It can come in various forms, from frivolous worries to debilitating anguish. Even though our experiences may seem unavoidable, there is hope and there are tool and tricks that can soften or quiet the anxiety. Read on to find out how.
One of the major contributors to the increase or decrease in our anxiety is stress.
Everyone has experienced stress or else we'd be dead. Our bodies need stress but the challenge is, most of us have too much bad stress.
Here's what happens:
Information comes in and we receive or perceive something as stressful; once that happens in our brain, our system has to acknowledge it and has to figure out what to do with it.
Depending on the stress, our body reacts in a variety of ways. When our system interprets the stress, our brain quickly goes into a primal mode of decision through our nervous system which is called the fight, flight or freeze response.
A variety of hormones are raised in the body and different systems react or respond. One of those hormones is called cortisol which helps process the stress through the body so we can handle it, which decreases the inflammation from the stress or adds tension/pressure to the body.
If it deems it good stress, it's often short-lived and the physiological reaction is minimal.
It also has positive emotions associated with it. For example, if you're going on vacation, there is often stress before the vacation making sure all of the logistics are taking care of but when we're reminded that stress is because of the vacation verses an overdue project our body calms down.
Unfortunately because of the nature of our world today there are constant levels of bad stress resulting in constant exertion of these hormones and increase an anxiety. Whether it’s watching the news in the morning or being in a dysfunctional relationship or both we may be regularly surrounded by bad stress.
What does all this science have to do with regular anxiety?
The anxiety steps in when our brain and body grabs hold of the thought or sensation and fixates on it causing the stress on the body and brain to continue. When we understand where our stress is coming from, we can offer our brain and body more of an opportunity to change.
I would encourage you to practice some of the exercises that follow in this article, helping you reduce your anxiety and stress.
A gentle reminder is that your anxiety did not arrive overnight. You might have felt like it did but it has been building for some time and will require some patience, practice and diligence on your part to relieve it on a regular basis. We can help release that physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually depending on what you may want to do.
Here’s some of the ways how:
Check the severity of your anxiety. Is it severe, moderate or low? Grade it on a regular day and on an extremely stressful day in the past few months on a scale of 1-10 (1=peaceful-10=feels like a heart attack)
Severe anxiety (8-10) examples would be regular panic attacks, feeling like you’re going to die on a regular basis, having to go to the ER, ruminating thoughts over and over that never stop, and/or being diagnosed with severe anxiety.
Moderate (4-7) may be regularly fear driven, you can’t seem to sit still, constantly thinking about the what if’s of life, not in a good way…what if I married the wrong person, what if my promotion doesn’t go through, what if I get rejected….trouble concentrating, being irritable, muscle tension, sleep problems, social anxiety.
Low (1-3) would be similar symptoms on a lesser degree
The more we know the more we grow!
Giving yourself a greater understanding of how you normally feel can shift the intensity of your anxiety reducing regimen.
For example if you know that on a normal regular day you operate on about a seven or an eight then you will need to be much more diligent at reducing your anxiety than someone who operates at a two or three. ****It’s important to get to a 1 throughout your day (EVERYDAY), if that’s not happening then it’s time to up your daily regimen helping you reduce your anxiety. This will help your body and brain to calm down and reduces inflammation.
Complete a background check. Check your history and those around you.
Do you have a predisposition to anxiety? Are there people in your family (past or present) who regularly model anxious behavior so that you've learned how to be anxious really well? Or do you have unprocessed trauma in your past that regularly may cause an uptick in your anxiety when and if you get triggered? What are your triggers? What do you notice happens right before you start to feel the anxiety?
Examples may be: I notice I’m late, I notice he said that, I notice there’s lots of people in the room, I notice a tightness in my chest….
Practice daily activities that you find help release your anxiety.
And I say you because what may be right for me may not be right for you. Giving your brain and body a new experience provides it the possibility to change. And the more we provide it with a positive experience the more probable it is to have a positive sensation. Where the mind goes the body follows and we can train it! It runs wild unless we help it. We can choose what we dwell on with a little bit of training.
The exercises below have been proven to neurological change your conscious and subconscious brain and proven to reduce anxiety, calm the nerves and relax the mind. It is recommended to practice these activities daily (or as much as you can or want) anywhere from 30 seconds to 30 minutes.
Write down all your fears: Financial, relational, social or any others that you can think of and that you can do something about but first you’ll want to acknowledge what they are.
Protect yourself from triggers. Once you acknowledge these fears/triggers you can then try and reduce the trigger that may set off your anxiety. Try some of these.
Breathing (obviously:) Deep Breathing, Singing, Dancing, Praying, Meditating, Hoola Hooping, Lie Down, Doing Yoga (this is like an internal massage for the nervous system) Acupuncture, Listening to relaxing or moving music (releases same chemical as sex and good food), Doing Scrabble or Word Search (maybe even while lying down), practice self-compassion!!!
You will not be perfect at this so being kind to yourself gives the nervous system an opportunity to settle thus reducing your anxiety.
Changing your space-ex. Rearranging furniture, if you’re outside, go inside or if you’re inside, go outside. Go into a different room. For example if you’re in the kitchen, go to the living room.
If you’re still anxious, go to the laundry room, once you get to the other room, stop for a moment if you can and reassess how you’re doing. If you’re standing, sit down and if you’re sitting down, lie down.
By changing your space/state of mind you give your mind the opportunity to change how it may habitually respond to some difficult event and allow you to respond differently.
Here are several other activities to try throughout your day:
This exercise was designed by Dr. Jim Wilder of Life Model Works™ to move the nervous system when we find ourselves in a negative emotion or state of anxiety.
a. Stretch your arms to the side while twisting or above your head as if you making a Y with your arms and pretend to yawn.
b. Feel free to yawn bringing your arms in and back out 3 times.
c. Each time you bring your arms in, say some type of positive self statement, bible verse, uplifting mantra; whatever you like that’s calming to you. For example: “I’m ok just as I am”, “Let the peace of Christ rule in my heart” (Colosians 3:15), “I am here fully present”, “I can let my anxiety go for now”.
1, 2, 3 I hug Me
Yes, you read correctly!! This exercise is a scientifically proven tool to not only calm you down but also show yourself a little compassion as well. Whether you’re in a bad mood, mad or feeling lonely or super anxious, hugging yourself will surely help you feel better.
a. Wrap both arms around yourself as best you can, don’t strain, just do it to your own comfort.
b. Count out loud or to yourself and say, “1, 2, 3 I calm me. 1, 2, 3 I hug me. 1, 2, 3 I relax and breath. 1, 2, 3 I hug me.”
c. Feel free to squeeze as much or as little as you want and do it several times if you’d like.
d. After you have completed the activities, notice what may be working and what you’d like to change.
e. Explore medication options if you want to so that you brain can neurologically learn how to be more calm.
f. Seek counseling to talk through your anxiety and fears.
Whatever you decide to do, know that there are options that can help reduce your anxiety. You don’t have to live in a miserable state. You can give yourself permission to release your anxiety on a regular basis and live a more peaceful thriving life. Best wishes to you.
Kendra Powers, LPC, LMT, LCDC-I - www.kendrapowers.com
Patterson, Colleen. (2015). 1, 2, 3 A Calmer Me. Hagerstown, MD: Magination Press.
Jim, Wilder, Ph.D, (2017). www.lifemodelworks.org/jimtalks
Anxiety is a fear based emotion.
By definition and in a bodily sense, relaxation and fear/anxiety are opposites, meaning that we don’t feel anxious when we are relaxed.
The way we breathe is indicative of whether we are feeling anxious or relaxed.
Shallow or chest breathing occurs when we are anxious (also stressed or tense). Often what is felt is a sensation of being short of breath. When the breath is shallow, heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and muscles tense.
Contrarily, when the body is in a state of relaxation, the breath is regular, slow, and deep. The belly rises during the inhale and falls during the exhale naturally because the breath flows deep down into the diaphragm. We breathe like this during sleep. This type of breathing allows for more oxygen to enter the blood which lends itself to a slower heart rate, lower blood pressure, and muscle relaxation.
If we focus on our breath and breathe with intention in the manner stated above the anxiety calms down.
This also allows the mind to free itself from focusing on the physiological symptoms we are experiencing and focus on what may be triggering the reaction in the first place.
A beautiful and equally powerfully benefit of intentionally directing the breath is that by doing so, we also are being present.
Presence, or the state of being fully in the moment and embracing the moment, is the antidote to anxiety.
This is because when we are anxious we are focused on the future: anxious thoughts about all the bad things we think could happen and anxious sensations that have us focused on how to escape the present situation we are in.
If we notice we are feeling anxious and pause to observe and then alter our breathing pattern, we are focusing ourselves back on the present moment. Most of us can all assuredly say that something we are doing right now is breathing.
Follow these steps to practice one variation of relaxed breathing:
Step 1. Take note of how you are currently breathing
Step 2. Relax your chest and shoulders. Lie down on the floor if doing this in a seated position is challenging for you.
Step 3. Place one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest.
Step 4. Inhale slowly through your nose, paying attention to your breath as it travels down your throat, into your lungs, and attempt to direct it it into your abdomen. Try to breathe such that the hand on your chest stays completely or mostly still while the hand on your abdomen rises up with your inhale.
Step 5. Feel the air fill your belly and briefly pause for 1-2 seconds before beginning to exhale.
Step 6. Slowly exhale through your nose, noticing as the air exits your abdomen, then your lungs, up through your throat and out your nose. Allow all the air you inhaled to exit, pausing briefly again for 1-2 seconds before beginning the next inhale.
Step 7. Repeat the cycle for at least 5 minutes a day, aiming for around 6-8 breath cycles per minute to prevent experiencing dizziness, fainting, or other sensations associated with over-breathing.
It is important to practice and become comfortable with this technique when you are feeling calm first so that you can be comfortable with using it when you are feeling anxious.
The first step to overcoming anxiety is quite simple, really; Start paying attention to what’s going on within yourself without judgement.
Instead of automatically seeking comfort through harmful or unhelpful behaviors, allow yourself to feel your sensations and work towards understanding yourself.
When emotions and sensations are overwhelming, a controlled breathing technique provides some space between ourselves and our inner experience. Most importantly, keep trying because there is no quick fix.
Seek the guidance of a licensed mental health professional to help gain insight into the source(s) of the anxiety you are experiencing so that you can learn the cognitive strategies needed to tackle any problematic thought processes or belief systems that may be getting in the way of your progress.
Siera Weiss, LCAT - www.sieraweiss.com
When you experience a high level of anxiety, your body releases cortisol, a stress hormone.
This activates the fight, flight, or freeze response as a way of protecting you from danger. Cortisol is useful when you’re faced with physical danger, but it makes it hard to access the problem-solving part of our brain. As a result, it leaves you feeling tense, overwhelmed, fixated on your fears, and unsure of what to do.
So, when you’re flooded with anxiety, you need to first calm your nervous system.
And grounding is a simple, quick, and effective way to do this. It uses mindfulness principles to refocus your attention on concrete, observable things in the present. It grounds you in reality, in the here and now, so that your mind isn't racing and stuck in the past or future.
To begin, rate your anxiety on a scale of 1-10. Take a few slow, deep breaths. Then, ask yourself a series of questions, such as those below, that focus on observing your surroundings using your five senses.
Sample grounding questions:
Name 5 things you can see.
How many windows can you see?
What does the chair or couch you're sitting on feel like? Is it soft? Rough? Smooth?
How many shades of grey can you see?
What do you smell?
Describe the shoes you’re wearing in as much detail as possible.
Name three sounds you hear.
And finally, re-rate your anxiety on a scale of 1-10. If it is over a 5, repeat the grounding exercise.
There are many ways to adapt this grounding exercise; the key is to draw your focus away from your worrisome thoughts by observing your surroundings and asking yourself questions that require you to focus your attention elsewhere. I hope you’ll give grounding a try!
Sharon Martin, LCSW – www.sharonmartincounseling.com
Anxiety has lots of different definitions, and most people know what anxiety feels like.
People of all ages who present in my office for help describe anxiety as “worry”, “stress”, “a pit in my stomach”, “a tightening in my chest”, and “out of control thinking”.
Physical sensations are often associated with anxiety.
We can FEEL the presence of anxiety in our body, be it through our chest, gut, jaw, and/or extremities. Learning how anxiety manifests in our own body can help to manage it.
How the heck to manage anxiety is one of the most common reasons men and women, teens and adults, present for psychotherapy.
Let’s talk a little about this concept of anxiety.
We are all hard-wired to experience anxiety, and in fact anxiety is a part of life. It is not all bad, though it often gets a bad rap. Scientists believe anxiety/worry evolved in humans alongside the development of intelligence. This is no coincidence. Anxiety has helped our species survive. Without it, we would have all gotten eaten by saber tooth tigers in our cavemen and cavewomen days!
Anxiety/worry involves future casting about something unfortunate that could happen.
The uncomfortable feelings of worry then lead to a tendency to avoid whatever that unfortunate thing is. For our cave-people ancestors, anxiety helped with survival.
Still built into our hardwiring is the notion that we need to be on-guard and anticipate bad things that could be ahead, even though we don’t have to worry any more about saber tooth tigers eating us. We have other kinds of threats instead. (Just think about all the worry that social media exponentially creates!)
What to do about it?
Worry can quickly pass, or stay for longer. In the case of quickly passing worry, it can be helpful to do what I call “NaClaFrA”, an acronym for “Name, Claim, Frame, Aim”. Using the NaClaFra method is a cognitive behavioral way to slow down the often racing or intrusive thoughts by
1. Naming feelings.
This involves recognizing and identifying the emotions. There is a saying that “if you can name it, you can tame it”. Being able to contain emotions by identifying them is a step in the direction of feeling less overwhelmed by them. This could take the form of saying to oneself “I feel anxious/worried/stressed.”
2. Claiming feelings.
This is a way to own emotions, either to oneself or to others. It is a declaration. Stating “I feel anxious right now” is a form of self- validation that tends to be of benefit.
3. Framing feelings.
To do this involves putting a context on why the emotion exists. Again, this can be a helpful method of understanding and validating feelings. An example is “It is no wonder I feel so stressed out. I have three exams next week, and my work schedule is still up in the air.” or “I can’t control the outcome and am feeling a lot of worry about what might happen.”
4. Aiming feelings.
The aiming refers to directing problem-solving energy. The aim could be pragmatic, such as contacting the employer in the example above or coming up with a study schedule. Alternatively, the aim could include built-in methods for stress management, such as scheduling daily ‘downtime’, talking with friends, taking a yoga class, or going for a walk.
Quickly passing worries are a normal part of life, and reminding ourselves of that may or may not be helpful. Sometimes we are so stuck in our own world of worry we forget that we are not the only ones who suffer from anxiety.
The Buddhists have a word for the common form of worry/anxiety. They refer to it as dukkha — translated loosely as suffering, anxiety, anguish, dissatisfaction, or stress.
For Buddhists, what to do with dukkha is not that different from the more cognitive behavioral NaClaF concept just described, although the explanation uses different wording.
A Buddhist prescription for managing anxiety includes: mindfulness, and thus a recognition of when worry occurs, followed by acknowledging its presence, and then taking action to find a solution.
If the solution-finding is impractical, an alternative is to recognize that anxiety will pass, and to develop and strengthen a ‘tolerance muscle’ for sitting with the anxiety, knowing that it will not last indefinitely. It is akin to clouds passing through the sky. The clouds represent anxious thoughts, and the sky represents our mind. Clouds do pass. Thoughts do too. We can allow them to drift rather than to engage them.
“Dukkha” stems from attachment, according to Buddhists.
The attachment may be to a certain outcome, or to the belief that we should not suffer. Dukkha also stems from a desire not to feel uncomfortable emotions. The attachment is to the notion that we shouldn’t have to deal with unpredictability or loss. None of us is immune to unpredictability or loss. Expecting to be an exception is a source of anxiety/suffering.
For our ancestors, worry evolved to catapult us into action. The same is true now, suggesting we have to do something to resolve the anxiety.
But, sometimes there is no action to take.
The solution may be out of our hands. For example, we worry when a loved one is ill - but we are not be able to make them well. We worry about finances, work, education, our family, or politics. There are a lot of shades of gray in between passive resignation and clenching to control an outcome that is not under our influence/control.
Remember, clouds pass. They float/drift through the sky, just as we can allow our thoughts to float.
This is when we benefit from simply focusing on what's in front of us. The only reality is the present moment. Give whatever is at hand your fullest attention and energy. As the Buddhist monk Thich Nat Hahn says, “when washing the dishes, wash the dishes.” Immerse your senses into the experience. Be present.
The first few times you do this, you'll likely still worry. Over time this will change.
Eventually, for many of us, the situation is resolved and the worry passes. But for some, worry is the default setting. The circuity for worry has been strengthened due to the ongoing repetition of traveling down these neural pathways. For chronic worriers, anxiety is a constant part of life's background noise.
People can become so used to chronic anxiety they learn to ignore it, and it becomes subconscious. However, the worry is still there, gnawing away at them.
For most people, mindfulness or meditation practice does reduce anxiety, although it may mean taking it slow at first. Meditation does not need to be more than a few minutes. Even start with one minute! Just aim to do it every day.
More instruction about mindfulness and meditation is for another article. A central hallmark while meditating is just to observe what you are feeling without trying to control it or separate from it.
Remember that worry in itself is neither good nor bad — it's what we do with it that matters.
Dr. Elayne Daniels – www.drelaynedaniels.com
Anxiety is often fueled by catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing means fearing the worst case scenario. Learning how to stop catastrophizing is a key part of regulating and lessening anxiety.
Let’s talk about how you can stop catastrophizing:
Catastrophizing is often a future fear and not based in the present. It is common to experience anxiety around potential catastrophic outcomes rather than living in the current moment. Therefore, it is important to practice living in the present, as well as shift into the present when you find yourself future focused.
Bring mindfulness into your daily routine so that you are working on living in the present as a general rule. Then, when you find yourself future focused, bring in mindfulness as a way to shift into the now.
Stop making assumptions and predictions
We often catastrophe based off our interpretations rather than facts. It is easy to fall into mind-reading and assuming we know what someone else is or will feel and think. This leads to anxiety about things that may not even fit the reality. It is therefore important to check the facts to get out of assumptions and predictions.
Take time to list the facts of the situation: what was said or done, what happened. Separate that from your interpretations about what happened.
Additionally, keep to the facts rather than assuming you know what will happen. You can’t predict how something will play out or how someone will feel or react. Make sure you keep operating on the present facts as things play out.
Assess the likelihood of your catastrophic outcome
A lot of times we get so caught up in our worst case scenarios that we don’t think about the likelihood of that actually occurring. Get into the habit of asking yourself what are the chances that your fear will actually be the reality.
Think about other possible outcomes. You might be surprised to find how often taking that step helps you see that it is not likely at all.
Ask what is the calamity
We often build things up in our head and jump to things being catastrophic when they are not. Therefore, it is important to check in on what is the real calamity. Ask yourself what it would mean if your fear catastrophe came true. How bad would it actually be?
Remember your resiliency and that you can handle things more than you give yourself credit. When doing this, it is also important to keep checking in on the likelihood and balancing these two tips together.
Put yourself in the situation you are anxious about. Imagine your catastrophic outcome occurring. Think about what tools you can use to manage that outcome and how you can problem solve. Watch yourself be able to effectively handle the catastrophe. Then imagine the situation playing out well, and your catastrophe not occuring.
Coping ahead helps you stop catastrophizing, by reminding yourself that things can go well and as planned and, even if not, you are able to manage it well. When you cope ahead you can regulate the anxiety in the present and better prepare yourself to handle whatever outcome the situation brings in the future.
Remember that catastrophizing only increases and prolongs your anxiety.
It is working yourself up around something that may not even happen. It also makes it harder to address any stress that does arise as you are already exhausted from feeling anxious.
That is why working on not catastrophizing is an extremely important part of regulating anxiety. Think about how you can use the above tips and start lessening you anxiety by stopping to catastrophize.