We often underestimate how difficult it really is to get rid of anxiety. The fact is -- we are all evolutionarily predisposed to be anxious. Some of us more than others. Therefore, it’s not realistic to avoid anxiety altogether. But, more and more people feel that anxiety interferes with their daily lives, and they look for ways to function in spite of being anxious.
It’s important to remember that anxiety is not our enemy. Anxiety is what allowed our ancestors to stay away from danger, survive, and pass their genes onto us. So the problem is not anxiety, per se.
The problem is that we often perceive unknown things as dangerous. We also have a tendency to try very hard to avoid or push away anxiety -- an approach that may work in the short-term, but ultimately increases anxiety in the long run.
The tips below will help you cope on days where you feel especially anxious. But, please keep in mind that the goal of these strategies is to help you get through the difficult times and to function at your best -- not to remove the feeling of anxiety from your life.
1. Name the Emotion. Say to yourself, I am noticing that I'm feeling anxious. Sounds weird, I know. But this strategy helps redirect your brain activity from the "fear center" of the brain to the prefrontal cortex and thus, reduces the intensity of the emotion.
2. Distance Yourself from the Anxiety. Want to reduce the intensity of anxiety even further? Then, extend your observation to your thoughts in addition to your feelings, I am noticing that I am having a thought that I feel anxious. This puts even more distance between you and anxiety, and helps you take a step away from it. It is useful to practice strategy #1 for a while, and when you become used to doing it, switch to strategy #2.
3. Get Moving. Our body naturally gets activated when we are anxious (preparing to either fight or run in response to the perceived danger). Getting active is a great, healthy way to use up this restless energy. Go for a brisk walk, hold a plank for a minute or two, or do a few push-ups.
4. Try Calming Yoga Poses. If you are not in the mood for active exercise, you can practice a few gentle restorative yoga poses. Remove your shoes, maybe close your eyes, and don’t forget to concentrate on your breathing while you sink into each pose. Some of the most helpful poses for anxiety are:
- Standing forward bend: Stand with your feet slightly apart. Fold forward toward your toes with your back straight. You may bend your knees.
- Legs up on the wall: Lie down near a wall with your hips as close to the wall as possible. Walk your feet up vertically onto the wall until you get into an L-shaped position. Bring your arms out to the sides.
- Seated forward bend: Sit down with your legs stretched out in front of you. Stretch your arm forward and down toward your toes.
- Child’s pose: Sit on your heels and bend forward with your arms outstretched forward. Bring your torso to the floor and relax.
5. Breathe. Don’t try to breathe deeply as long inhalations may make you feel even more anxious. You need to concentrate on the prolonged exhalations. Imagine that you are blowing out a candle. Push all the air out of your lungs and the allow them to effortlessly fill with the air. This is important to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of the "fight or flight" response that we experience when we are anxious. It's difficult to be both relaxed and anxious at the same time.
6. Schedule "Worry Time." Allocate 15 minutes once a day at a set time specifically to worry. When you are anxious, remind yourself that you'll have those 15 minutes to process all of your concerns. This helps your anxiety stay contained and not "spill" over during your whole day.
7. Check Whether Your Worry is Productive or Useless. Ask yourself if there's anything specific that you can do right now to address your worry. If yes, then do it, or at least write it down into your to-do list. If not, then deem the worry to be hypothetical or unproductive, and move onto the activity that you were planning to do.
8. Talk to A Friend. But not just any friend. Is this a person who supports you? Or will she minimize your concerns, making you feeling even worse in the end? Decide in advance who will make you feel better and have this person on your speed-dial.
9. Bring Yourself to the Present Moment. When you are anxious, you are really “in your head” with your mind frantically creating all kinds of catastrophic scenarios, or fruitlessly trying to figure it all out. To get back to the here-and-now, notice four things you see, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste. Examine those things with an attention of a curious scientist that never encountered anything like that before. You can also concentrate on noticing your emotions, physical sensations in your body, and your thoughts. Continue noticing with curiosity, without judgment, and without getting engaged with your thoughts, sensations, and feelings. This little practice allows you to unhook from the thoughts about the past or future and to get in touch with the present.
10. Learn to Deal with Anxiety Once and for All. Of course, the best way to really deal with anxiety at its core is to see a therapist who specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders. The therapeutic approach that is most helpful for people who suffer from anxiety is a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
CBT uses tools such as exposure, inhibitory learning, learning to tolerate uncertainty, and postponing worry. It can also help you learn skills such as problem-solving and conflict-resolution.
ACT teaches people how to “unhook” from their anxiety, stop fighting it, and not take it so seriously. Basically, the goal of the treatment is for you to learn to turn off the “struggle switch” by disengaging from your anxiety, gradually reducing avoidance behaviors, and taking active steps toward living your best life.
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Anna lives with her husband and children in Vaughan, Ontario. When she is not treating patients, supervising clinicians, teaching CBT, and attending professional workshops, Anna enjoys practicing yoga, going on hikes with her family, traveling, studying Ayurveda, and spending time with friends. Her favorite pastime is reading.