Anxiety: How to Cope
Updated: Oct 18, 2019
Anxiety is our bodies “smoke alarm.” It’s a warning system designed to alert us and prepare us for “fight or flight,” so we can respond appropriately to a threat or danger. But often, anxiety acts more like a smoke detector placed right outside the kitchen of a New York City apartment. You make toast, it goes off. Bacon, it goes off. And forget it, if you try gas-range grilling. Often our anxiety goes off when there isn’t a real threat, but it still leaves us feeling as though the world is about to cave in around us. We feel unsafe, panicked and overwhelmed. The racing heart, sweaty hands, shortness of breath and flood of negative thoughts can be more than we can bear.
We want relief and a way to eliminate this feeling and not be controlled by it. However, the goal in managing anxiety isn’t necessarily trying to not be anxious. That is about as effective as trying to not think about a red fire truck. Often we end up making our selves more anxious trying to not be anxious and just continue the cycle of negativity by beating ourselves for being anxious.
So what can we do to cope with and handle our anxiety better?
Say, “Hello anxiety.” Pay attention to what it feels like. Where in your body do you feel it? What sensation(s) do you have? Does it change or increase in different situations? Also, pay attention to when your anxiety, the bodily sensations, start. What triggered it? When did I first have the sensation? What was I doing? Thinking? What was going on in my surroundings? Then tell yourself, “This is anxiety. This is what anxiety feels like. I am just anxious, that’s all. I am actually okay.” When we acknowledge our anxiety, we can learn to tolerate and accept it. Again, it’s like that smoke alarm, “Oh! There it goes again. The smoke alarm went off because I am making toast. I know this isn’t an emergency, but let me stop and attend to the smoke alarm.” Anxiety works in a similar fashion.
After we acknowledge our anxiety, there are several exercises we can do to help alleviate it.
When we change our breathing rate and pattern, specifically when we slow it down and take longer and deeper breaths, we stimulate our bodies parasympathetic response. This is our bodies calming response and will reverse our bodies “smoke alarm” system.
Here is a simple breathing exercise to try:
Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Take a breath through your nose, making your hand on your stomach go out, rather than the one on your chest. Then exhale slowly through your mouth. Try counting to 3 when you inhale and counting to 5 while you exhale. Repeat 10 times. Practice 3 times a day.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Often when we are anxious our muscles tense up. Sometimes we don’t even realize how tight and tense our muscles have become. This exercise can help us learn to identify what tense muscles feel like and learn to relax our muscles. When our muscles are relaxed they can’t be anxious.
Here is an exercise to try:
Sit or lie down in a comfortable place. You will tense (flex or clench) each muscle group as you inhale. Then relax that muscle group when you exhale. You can follow this muscle grouping guide: hands, forearms, upper arms, shoulders, neck, face, chest, back, stomach, hips/buttocks, thighs, calves, feet.
Anxiety can be about the future, fear of what might happen and the unknown. Or it can be about the past, remembering past negative experiences or negative information we have heard and using it to inform the future. However, if we learn to stay in the present, it can greatly reduce our anxiety.
Try this exercise once a day:
Notice three things you can see. Try to visualize each thing in your mind. What does it look like? What color? What size? What texture?
Notice three things you can hear. Where is it coming from? How loud? What is it?
Notice three things you can touch. What does it feel like? Where on your body do you feel it? Is it soft? Hard? Itchy? Smooth?
This helps train your mind and refocus your mind on the here and now.
Challenge Negative Thinking
Thoughts come and go though our mind constantly. But sometimes these thoughts can be filled with negativity, and we often don’t stop and challenge if the thought is even true or not. We just allow it, and it can easily take us down the rabbit hole of negativity which is where anxiety flourishes. It is important to slow down and consider if a thought is true or realistic. The more we practice this, our mind gets better at determining if a though is unrealistic and will begin to dismiss the negative thoughts.
Here is an exercise to try:
What is my thought?
What evidence do I have that supports this? What evidences do I have that refutes it?
Is this a thought or a fact?
What advice would I give a friend with this thought?
What is the worst-case scenario? Best-case scenario? Most likely scenario?
Has the worse case scenario ever happened to me?
If the worse case scenario did happen, how would I cope with it? Would it matter 1 week, 1 month or 1 year from now?
Taking care of ourselves can help us deal with and ease anxiety. It is important that you consistently get enough sleep. This may mean avoiding screen time before bed and creating a relaxing bedtime routine. Pay attention to your nutrition. Eat regular meals to keep your blood sugar level. Watch caffeine intake. Limit your alcohol intake. Eat foods that nourish your body. Also, it is important to exercise regularly. This can be a 20 minute walk, going to the gym, a running club, dance class, yoga etc. The most important thing is to find something you enjoy and can do on a consistent basis. If any of these areas have been difficult, challenging or you have concerns about, consult your doctor to get evaluated.
When we find anxiety hindering the quality of our life, it is a good time to reach out for additional support. Therapy can be highly effective in helping people manage their anxiety. Through therapy you can gain insight on your triggers and explore new ways to help you manage and tolerate your anxiety.
Try each of these and see what works best for you. Everyone is different and there is not a “right” way to cope with our anxiety. There are just ways that work better and more effectively than others.