Every day when I wake up, it seems like a fresh crop of stuff of stress about begins to seep into my brain and threaten to take over. And when I am feeling particularly vulnerable due to a difficult life circumstance or pending event, it threatens in double-time. None of us are immune to anxiety. And some of us have a predisposition to be more anxious more of the time than others. Have you noticed that when you are in the throes of an anxiety attack, it seems like Nothing will work? Maybe you have researched or read about techniques in the past, but at this very moment when you need it the most, the options elude you? I am willing to bet that half of the time, you don’t even remember how to breathe.
Fortunately, I can help. The techniques outlined below actually involve using your anxiety, the material you have in that moment, to find relief. Sound counterintuitive? It is. But it can also be a lifesaver. Many times we are told to roll our shoulders back a few times and take some deep breaths but I have heard more often than not, there needs to be more. So grab a hot cup of tea or cold glass of water (are you even drinking enough water? No? Great, we can start with worrying about that for the purposes of this article) and take a moment to read some effective ways of managing the Anxiety Monster that is lurking inside of you. Want something you can use starting today without having to buy anything or even go anywhere? Take a nice deep breath….and read on...
1. Lean into it. Anxiety is like a hungry toddler who needs also a nap and sometimes you just need to give it all the attention. Ask yourself: What if it does happen? Run with it. Plan it all out. Use your super power of anxiety to consider all the options of how you might respond and then move on knowing you have a plan for when the world comes to an end. Seriously, leaning into it means going all out with the worst case scenario. Not the spinning in circles whatifwhatifwhatif-ing yourself to death, but answering those what-ifs. Anxiety wants you to be afraid. But clearly thinking through the possibilities will lead to one of two outcomes: Either you will find there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, in which case you can probably get on with your day (because you have read the Serenity Prayer and asked for the wisdom to know the difference between the things you can control and the things you cannot…OR, you will realize that there are Obvious things you can be doing to help out your situation, in which case, it’s time to get going! Keep reading for how to do just that.
2. Step over it. Sometimes, Anxiety is like a petulant toddler demanding candy before dinner. Let it know it’s welcome to throw a tantrum all it wants, but unfortunately, now is not the time. It is welcome to run in circles and obsess over every little thing if it wants; however, you need to go do something more productive now. Ask yourself; is this really the most prolific use of my time? Sure you could rock back and forth in a corner. Or you could use some of that energy to get dressed and make yourself a really nice breakfast (because when was the last time you allowed yourself something as nice as a good breakfast?) Pick one next right thing to do and then do it. Then, when that’s over, if Anxiety is still wailing away, move onto the next one right thing. Brush your teeth. Floss. Start a load of laundry or clean out your work in-box. Place your anxiety in the backseat of your mental car, tell it to buckle up, and then get in the driver’s seat and get your business done. One small thing at a time.
3. Listen to it. Anxiety is like a frightened toddler who just needs to be heard and understood. Of course their fears may not make sense, but they are very real to them and they are entitled to their feelings. Anxiety, like that toddler, just needs some hugs and down time. Don’t be afraid to gently question your Anxiety: Is that logical? Does that really make sense? What evidence do we have to support that? Most importantly, is this evidence based in facts or opinions? Once you have done some reality testing and let Anxiety have it out, pat it on the head and say “there, there, now, it’s okay. We will get through this.” Because you will. You may not know it yet or perhaps you knew it at one time and forgot, but you will get through this. Sometimes, Anxiety just needs nurturing, and reassurance.
4. Go play outside. Seriously, go for a run, walk, jog, or even a speedy stroll. Anxiety is like a toddler who has been parked in front of the TV for too long and has all this extra energy to burn off. Fresh air and green space are fantastic antidotes to the side effects of Anxiety. Movement will help flush out the chemicals in your brain & body running amok (cortisol) and help restore to balance the chemicals that help you feel slightly more sane (endorphin, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine). If Depression has sidled up next to your Anxiety and it feels too stressful to run, try yoga stretches and poses. We are talking a few simple stretches, not joining a whole class. That would be too stressful!
So there are four things you can do when the next wave threatens to overtake you. They all involve working with your Anxiety, not against it. You may have noticed my constant references to anxiety and toddlerhood. That is because behaviorally they have much in common. Approaching your Anxiety the way you would a toddler serves two purposes: It encourages empathy and understanding for your anxiety-ridden self and supports simple, effective responses. Anxiety and toddlers are always trying to communicate something to us through their challenging behavior. It’s our job to recognize that we are in charge, not them, and then put the boundaries and supports in place to help it thrive. Thrive in the most-wonderful-helpful version of itself, not the obnoxious, out-of-control version of itself.
If you would like more support in learning how to manage your Anxiety Monster, feel free to reach out so we can get to work.
Want some Bonus Material?
Draw, Journal, & Sniff: Creative interventions for when you have a little more time.
Grab some crayons or a pen or a pencil stub and get to creating! Draw out how your anxiety is making you feel. I personally prefer stick-figure-theater for my drawings because they are easy and accessible and there is no judgement in a little heard of stick figures staring blankly back at you from the page. Maybe your anxiety looks like a stick figure whirling about in a tornado. Maybe your Anxiety looks like a big, fluffy, orange monster. Maybe it just looks like various shades and colors. It’s up to you. It’s Your Anxiety. Draw out what it looks like and see where it takes you.
Have a notebook lying around? Turn it into your personal journal! Write what’s on your mind and get that stuff out of your head and onto paper. Did you know that writing by hand processes your thoughts and concepts more deeply than just obsessing or ruminating over them? True story. So grab a journal or notebook and get it all out and down on paper.
Take a big whiff of relaxation
The scent receptors in your nose are directly connected to the Amygdala (anxious emotional part of your brain). The Cortex (logical thinking part of your brain) is activated after the emotional part has been stimulated. By the time you are realizing, “Hey, that’s vanilla and cinnamon!” you are likely already feeling like you did when you were little in your grandma’s warm kitchen eating homemade cookies & milk. Alternatively, studies have been done that show the significant efficacy of essential oils on anxiety and depression. Adding a few drops of lavender essential oil to a cotton ball and taking a hit whenever you are beginning to feel stressed can be a wonderful accompaniment to the techniques above. You may wish to play around with other scents as well, as there are several essential oils that can help with anxiety besides lavender. On the other hand, if those oils trigger headaches or are otherwise offensive to your scentsibilities (see what I did there?) you may wish to just whip up a batch of cookies. I hear cookies with vanilla and cinnamon is particularly effective ;-)
Finally, for those of you wondering: Yes, rolling your shoulders back and taking a deep breath can be extraordinarily helpful while doing the aforementioned interventions. Count that breath to 3. I call it Triangle Breathing. Breathe in for a count of 3, hold for 3, and exhale for a count of 3. Round it all out by repeating 3 times :-)
Cindy Goeller is a licensed therapist who loves listening to others, eating Maryland steamed crabs, and exploring the Finger Lakes of New York. When she is not in session with her clients, she can be found writing, baking, or spending time with her family.