Managing Anxiety – Part 2
Some people experience anxious thoughts – this is very common. I think we all do to some extent, but for some people these thoughts keep them so fearful that they’re not really living their lives. As with most things to do with mental health, we should face these things, not avoid them. Facing our anxieties is the way to diminish their power. I often liken it to a kind of psychological ‘tug-of-war’ – one that we are having with ourselves!
Remember, just because you think something – it DOES NOT make it true. In the same way that just because someone says something, does not make it true. So, if you can learn to observe your thoughts without attaching meaning or importance to them, you’re halfway there.
Our brains can and do sabotage us, so learn to notice when your anxious thoughts start and say to yourself ‘oh, here they come again’ and sit with that experience. Maybe journal about the thoughts and remind yourself that they are just thoughts. I once heard someone say, “treat your anxious thoughts like clowns”. Just try and laugh at them and then let them leave. This is potentially one of the most freeing things that we can do to begin to win that tug-of-war with our thoughts.
Using your breath
If you experience anxiety through the mind-body connection and feel it in your physical self, the number one rule is to begin to control your breath. This will enable you to slow your heart rate – essential to reduce your fight/flight response.
You can disengage from your emotional brain (which will calm you down) through your breathing. If your mind is racing, reverse your breath. Breath in through your mouth and out through your nose – this will ensure that you have to focus on your breath. You cannot have racing thoughts at the same time as having to focus on your breath.
Our brains are very visual – use this. Visualise a calming colour on your inbreath. Imagine that breath filling up your body. Soothing calming breath swirling around inside you, down to your fingers and your toes. Hold your breath for 4 seconds. On the exhalation, visualise a darker more negative colour. Exhale to the count of 6 or 7 if you can. Connect to the expelling of this negativity and notice as your heart rate slows, and you return to a calmer state.
Below are some other examples of things to do. If you are experiencing panic/anxiety, remember that the trick is to engage your other senses: sight, sounds, touch, taste etc. Our brains have to attend to this incoming stimulus, and we cannot do that at the same time as having racing or cyclical thoughts!
Strategies – engage other senses
Here is a list of other things you can do to calm your physiology:
- Count 1-10 slowly; repeat until you feel present
- Focus on jolting the senses:
- Sight – slowly look at what’s around you and notice the details; look into someone’s eyes, or if not available, a photograph
- Smell – take a deep breath and smell the air; sniff peppermint oil (good for headaches, nausea)
- Taste – chew some minty gum or eat a strong mint or a blob of toothpaste; or some vanilla extra
- Touch – feel the skin on your hands or face; hold an ice cube
- Sound – listen to the traffic or some loud or calming music; focus on a ticking clock
- Snap an elastic band around your wrist
- Stamp your feet hard on the ground
- Feel the weight of the ground under your feet as you walk, sit or stand
- Say the alphabet backwards
- Write down how you are feeling and then put it away.
- Find someone to talk to about something else
- Find a safe way to ‘vent’ your frustration away from people
- Take some exercise, esp walking or running, but focus on your environment
- Count without limit, start counting when it starts and don’t stop until it recedes
Other tricks include grounding yourself through speaking out loud to yourself whilst touching the fabric of the seat you are in. Say out loud “I am here. Today is 12 January 2020. I was born in June. London is the capital of England”. Strategies such as these stop our cyclical thoughts in their tracks. Scan your body from top to bottom. What do you notice? Connect with yourself and bring yourself back.
Remember that to overcome fear and anxiety we have to face it (where safe or practicable to do so). The longer we leave returning to something, the more fearful we become. In time, our catastrophising will make the ‘thing’ seem even worse than it is in reality. Remember again that our thoughts can and do sabotage us. How we perceive a situation is worse than our actual experience of it. Replace the negative association with a more positive one as soon as you can.
Use a CBT strategy to help you with this. Are you fearful before an event? On a scale of 1-10 where 10 is the worst you could ever imagine; how bad do you think it will be? 7? Ok, write that down. Challenge yourself and push through. After the event, how bad was your actual experience of it? In most cases this is way lower than the 7. If it’s a 4 or a 5, write it down. This is creating evidence for you. It is showing you that your thoughts have been sabotaging you and you can process this with the cognitive part of your brain, not the emotional part.
Next time you can review your journal to remind yourself that the reality wasn’t as bad as your fear.
Finally, remember the following: anxiety can make you any or all of the following:
Always make sure that you are not too hungry and not too full. You might feel associated nausea which can bring on feelings of anxiety. Keep a snack such as a breakfast bar with you at all times.
Stay hydrated and carry water
Wear layers so that you can remove them if you feel anxious and start to overheat
If you are in an enclosed space and this makes you jittery, check your exit strategy. Make sure you are near the end of a row or aisle if possible. See where the door is and maybe sit near it. If there’s a half time or break, get up and take a walk.
General lifestyle considerations include a good sleep routine, balanced diet, a check on alcohol, caffeine and sugar consumption (all of which can raise our anxieties), “you time”, self-care and management of your time through planning and scheduling (write it down!).
You can learn to manage anxiety with commitment, planning and giving anxiety the respect it needs. By this I mean that ignoring will not diminish its power. The above strategies are used regularly with success by many who live with true anxiety.
Remember too that your anxiety will reduce as a consequence of mastering these techniques. Why? Because you will know unconsciously how to manage it.
Anxiety, after all is a sense of feeling out of control.