According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is the most common form of mental illness affecting approximately 40 million American adults. Every person has experienced some anxiety from time to time, so learning to live with one’s anxiety is an important skill. Here are some tips that I teach my clients to help them manage their stress and anxiety:
1. Understand and Manage Your Body’s Response
When we feel anxious, our body reacts in what is often referred to as the fight or flight response. Our breath often becomes shallow and rapid; our heart rate accelerates; we may begin to feel light-headed or dizzy. Anxiety is also often accompanied by sweating, shaking, fatigue, and poor concentration.
The good news here is two-fold: there are techniques such as breathing exercises and mindfulness which can help to quell the body’s response to anxious thoughts, and the heightened physiological arousal caused by stress and anxiety will eventually pass even if we do nothing at all.
One way many people find helpful to stop anxiety in its tracks is to focus on your breath. Purposefully taking deep breaths and focusing our attention on them, helps to reset the body’s automatic response. One simple technique that I teach my client is the ‘4-2-6-2’ technique. Simply inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 2, exhale for 6 seconds, and pause for 2 before the next in breath. Really count the seconds, or you might cheat yourself.
2. Worry Control
Many people who struggle with anxiety suffer from what they believe is uncontrollable worry. It can feel like a constant train of worst case scenarios. Many of my clients are shocked to discover that one can control their worry. One method for doing this is to schedule a ‘worry time’. This is a technique in which a person picks a particular time of day, typically for 30 minutes (not right before bed time) in which a person gives themselves permission to worry about everything that has come up during the day.
Some clients keep a worry list- a list of all the worrisome thoughts that have occurred during the day. When the designated time arrives, they take out their list and think about all their worries from that day. When the time is up, they put down the list and move on to something else. When the next worrisome thought strikes them, they put it on their list for tomorrow.
The reason this technique is helpful is that many people hold onto positive thoughts about worry- that it will somehow help prepare them for catastrophe or enable them to problem-solve. And let’s face it, there is never going to be a time when we are 100% free from worry.
3. Turn ‘What Ifs’ into ‘What Thens’
Another technique my clients often find helpful to manage their worry is to turn ‘what if’ statements into ‘what then’ statements. Worry can easily spin out of control. It may look something like this: What if I left the stove on? What if it catches fire? What if the smoke detectors don’t go off? What if the house burns down? What if I lose everything? What if my insurance company doesn’t cover it because of negligence? What if I spend my time arguing with the insurance company and can’t go to work? What if I lose my job? What if… and so on.
I begin this technique by asking my clients to think about the worst case scenario about a certain event. I then challenge them to really think of the absolute worst case scenario and repeat this until we have a list of outcomes. I then ask them to think ‘what then’. Instead of worrying about what could happen, I challenge them to think about how they would respond in the face of this outcome. This causes clients to think about what resources they have to use when something negative happens.
This allows people to process events rather than allowing them to spiral out of control.
4. Become a Scientist
In a study completed over 40 years ago by a Dr. Walter Calvert, and funded by the National Science Foundation, in which thousands of people were interviewed about their perception of worry in their lives, it was found that only 8% of what we worry about comes true. It breaks down like this:
- 30% of our worries are about events in the past.
- 40% of the things we worry about never happen.
- 12% of our worries are unfounded health concerns.
- 10% of our worries are over minor and trivial issues.
- Only 8% of our worries are real, legitimate issues.
Of that 8% though, many were reported to have been events in which the person learned a valuable lesson or were handled better than the person expected. When we have an anxious or worrisome thought, it may be helpful to put on our lab coat and really analyze it; see it for what it really is.
Another method to challenge our worries is to test them- formulate a hypothesis, what you think could happen, and then test it to see if it was true. A common method for treating phobias is through exposure. This means setting up experiments in which the person gradually confronts their fears head on and evaluates the outcome. Did the worry come to fruition? Did that worst case scenario play out the way it did in your head? 99.9999% of the time it doesn’t.*
*not an actual statistic
One tried and true method for countering anxiety is to get up and get moving. Even if it’s only for five minutes, do something to get your body moving, get the blood circulating. Exercise has been shown to have benefits for both one’s body and mind in study after study after study.
If you have significant medical concerns, you should consult a doctor before engaging in any rigorous activity but even getting out and walking for 30 minutes a day has been shown to help alleviate anxiety, depression, and help with insomnia.
Engaging in mindfulness exercises can help to alleviate anxiety in a number of ways. Mindfulness teaches you how to take back control of our attention and focus on the present moment- the here and now. As mentioned earlier, when we worry our thoughts are focused on the past or the future. When practicing mindfulness, we are focused on the only thing that we can control- ourselves in the present moment.
Mindfulness of the breath is a great way to focus one’s attention away from worry and onto something more concrete. It allows one to pull themselves out of their stream of consciousness rather than being caught in its current. At a basic level, mindfulness can provide a distraction from worry; it’s a way to distract and refocus one’s attention.
At a higher level, mindfulness is not about turning away from anxiety and instead turning toward it and exploring the feeling with a sense of curiosity and acceptance. In a previous post, What is Mindfulness?, I mentioned that acceptance is likely the most difficult component to achieve- the most difficult as well the most liberating.
For more tips and advice about overcoming depression and anxiety, be sure to subscribe to the blog. If you have any questions or would like to take the next step toward managing your anxiety, give me a call at 972-533-1788.