All of us experience anxiety at one time or another. Anxiety typically arises in response to thoughts about a perceived stressful situation. Normally, anxiety subsides when the situation is resolved. However, sometimes anxiety is a constant and/or becomes overwhelming. Runaway anxiety can be debilitating, interfering with work or school performance, relationships, sleep, and other daily activities. If anxiety is in charge and preventing you from living your life, you can take steps to rein it in.
Beware the Waterfall
It is not uncommon for anxiety to arise seemingly from nowhere. One minute you feel fine; the next, you’re in the throes of a full-on anxiety attack. And by that time, everything feels out of control and unmanageable. You can take control of your anxiety, but it is tricky: you have to catch it before it sweeps you away to a point of no return.
To understand what’s happening in such a circumstance, imagine you are paddling a canoe on a river. Up ahead is a waterfall. If you notice the change in the current or hear the waterfall in time, you can turn the canoe around and avoid going over the falls. If you aren’t paying attention, on the other hand, you will suddenly find yourself at the lip of the falls where there is no turning back – you’re plummeting over the edge no matter what you do.
Notice the Current
To avoid the waterfall, the first step in taming anxiety is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state in which you’re able to witness what is going on in your mind (thoughts) and body (emotions). This is akin to noticing the change in the river current or the roar of the falls before you get there. For instance, when your heart rate starts to speed up and/or your breathing becomes fast and shallow, these are signs that anxiety is ahead. Or when you’re worrying obsessively, the constant circle of negative thoughts is a warning that you’re headed towards panic. Being mindful of these changes in your mind and body allows you to implement coping skills in time to prevent unrelenting anxiety or even a panic attack.
To experiment with mindfulness, think about something that annoyed you today. As you think about it, feel the annoyance arising in your body – where is it? In your chest, your gut, your extremities? You may notice muscles tightening, facial expression constricting, breath rate accelerating – or any number of other physiological changes.
Now think again about the annoying situation and notice what type of chatter is present in your head. Are you seeking to blame someone else or yourself? Are you complaining about the unfairness of it all? Are you convincing yourself that you can’t stand this one second longer?
When you notice changes such as these in your thoughts and emotions, you are being mindful. The perspective you gain in these moments of awareness gives you the time and distance to change your behavior – to turn the canoe around before you plummet over the falls.
Anxiety Management Tools
Following are five simple coping tools for managing anxiety-provoking thoughts and emotions so you can regain a sense of calm and take back control of your life.
- Rethink – When you notice that you’re trapped in a cycle of negative thinking, interrupt the cycle with a different thought, such as something for which you’re grateful or a person or animal whom you love. Stay focused on these positive thoughts until you are calm enough to step back from your negative thoughts.
- Stop “shoulding” yourself – The word “should” carries a lot of judgment with it; it implies that something is amiss. Instead, when you become aware of a “should,” take control of the situation by substituting “would like.” For example, the thought “I should exercise today” becomes “I would like to exercise today.” Feel how different that is for you – now you are choosing to do this rather than being forced to do it.
- Address cognitive distortions – Most of us are guilty at times of thinking distorted thoughts (everyone is upset with me; I’m a total failure). However, if this is a pattern, it may be necessary to examine your thoughts and determine whether they are true. There are no absolutes in life and when we think in them (red flag words include all, none, always, never, everyone, no one), we create unnecessary anxiety. See if any of these common Cognitive Distortions resonate with you.
- Stay present – Do you find yourself spending most of your time in the past or the future? Still beating yourself up over what you said yesterday or worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow? What happened yesterday is done and no amount of rethinking it can change it. Worrying about tomorrow is similarly unproductive: if there’s something you can do to prepare, do it; otherwise, drop it. When you notice you’re not present, engage your senses to bring yourself back to the here and now. What do you see, feel, hear, smell, taste? Observe these sensations. You may even want to describe what you’re experiencing – I hear my cat purring, I feel my arm against the chair, I see my child playing. This is called grounding and can be done at any time to bring you back to the present moment.
- Breathe – When we’re anxious, our breathing becomes rapid and shallow. Counteract that by focusing your attention on the breath and then breathe in a circle. Inhale slowly. At the top of the inhale, link it to an even slower exhale. At the bottom of the exhale, link it to the next inhale. Try breathing with an in-count of five and an out-count of seven. Do this until you can feel your body calming.
These are just a few of the ways you can tame your anxiety. If you try these and still find yourself nose-diving over the falls, consider lifestyle changes, such as developing a regular meditation, yoga, and/or martial arts practice.
Often people learn and practice coping skills that work for a while, but then anxiety returns. This is usually indicative of an underlying issue that needs attention. Addressing that issue may feel difficult in the short term, but in the long term it will provide true healing, rather than just symptom management.
Here are some ways to assess whether there’s another issue lurking:
- If none of the coping tools you’ve tried have worked
- If coping tools (including medication) you’ve used successfully in the past don’t work anymore
- If your anxiety has gotten worse over time.
Any of these circumstances could signal an underlying problem. Uncertain? Schedule a free 20-minute consultation – together we can decide the best course of action to address the problem.
Alexandria Hayes is a therapist with The Labyrinth Institute specializing in the treatment of trauma. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-588-3639.