Anxiety is the worst, isn’t it? The feeling of your heart beating out of your chest, difficulty breathing, a heat wave that washes over you and that boulder that takes up residence in the pit of your stomach. In my experience, anxiety is quite physically uncomfortable in your body and when you couple that with the racing thoughts that go along side those physical symptoms, well man oh man is that a doozy, If you have ever experienced anxiety (PS that is everyone, anxiety is a natural human emotion that exists so we can protect ourselves) you know what I am talking about.
I have found that anxiety is a lot easier to tolerate when it is a scenario that justifies anxiety. For example, before a big speech. It makes sense for me have some of those physical symptoms right before I vulnerably walk out on to a stage and practically invite people to pass judgement on what I am saying. Or the night before my performance review at work. Or when I am driving down the freeway and someone just will not get off my tail. I could argue that all of those scenarios pose some sort of a physical, emotional, social or intellectual threat. The anxiety that comes up around those events is the exact reason it exists. It tells me to switch lanes or practice my speech one more time or to be on time for work so that I don’t get in trouble. In those instances, I know that my body is trying to tell me something and I calm down when I listen to it. What about those times where you are feeling those anxious feelings and there is NO APPARENT REASON FOR IT? Like, when you wake up with your heart in your throat, but you don’t really remember having a bad dream? Or you are having a conversation with someone and you cannot stop wondering if they think you are an idiot? Or your stomach just drops out of no where and can’t figure out why? Yeah, those are the times that are actually the worst. Especially if you are in a situation that you cannot do a dang thing about. Keep reading for my top five skills for calming anxieties, in the moment, whether you know what is causing it or not.
Breathe. Yeah, I know, every therapist on the planet tells you to try some breath work. I cannot tell how often over the course of the day that I say, “let’s take some breaths together.” But it is because it works! And if it isn’t working for you, it is because you have not done it for long enough. I am no scientist, but here is the jist of what is happening in your body when you feel anxious-your body is preparing itself to be afraid. Anxiety and fear are a little different in that anxiety is more of a question of “am I safe?” versus fear’s statement “I am not safe!” So, when your body is trying to figure out if it is safe, it is literally preparing itself to go into the fight, flight or freeze response. In that fear response, your body turns off the non-essential functions and begins to act from an instinctual place. By intentionally paying attention to your breath, you are telling your body “see? We are all good. If there was a real threat, I wouldn’t be able to pay attention to this because I would just be acting.” My favorite breath work is called “Box Breathing” where you take 4 steps in counts of 4-breathe in for 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4 and pause for 4. I tell clients to do 4 sets of box breaths and if they don’t feel better, do 4 more. If they still don’t feel better? Do 4 more? Still not better? You get where I am going here, right? Focusing on your breath is something that we do not need any tools or particular space to do. In fact, you could be box breathing right in front of that boss of yours and they would never know!
Take a walk Now, I live in Phoenix, Arizona so there are about 3 months of the year where this is way less pleasant than the other 9 but taking a few minutes to walk around the block, your office, the park, the school, whatever can be quite beneficial. This is for several reasons, but I think the two main ones are that it releases some of that anxious energy and that the act of walking creates bilateral stimulation of the brain to help you process whatever your thoughts are at the moment. If you have ever done EMDR, you know the magic that is bilateral stimulation of the brain for processing. When we engage both sides of the brain, we can work through what our brain is thinking more quickly and more effectively. This is one skill that I use as often as possible and is particularly helpful when I wake up with anxiety and no known cause. Taking a quick walk around the block helps me set up my day while I get the blood flowing through my limbs, creating the energy that I need to get through it. Side note, this is not quite as helpful when part of the anxiety is that I woke up late!
Take a shower with no lights on. Disclaimer-don’t do this if you have a particularly slippery bathtub. I am not sure that I can explain this one, but there is something so soothing about taking a shower without the lights. Give it a second, and as your eyes adjust, you will be able to see the difference between the shampoo and conditioner bottles. I also don’t live with small children, so I usually leave the door to the bathroom open when I do this, so it is not pitch black. The only explanation that I have is that the lack of visual stimulation calms down the brain, which calms down the mind. I have absolutely zero research to support that statement, but don’t knock it until you have tried it!
Meditate. I have been working as a therapist for some time now and I have told thousands (that is an exaggeration) of people to meditate. I have a confession to make. Until very recently, I did not practice what I preached. I meditated from time to time, took some classes here and there and searched up one to do with a client on you tube on occasion but it was not something that was a regular occurrence until this summer. Pals, it is a REVELATION. I am a gal who is on the go all the time and I have always had trouble with the idea of sitting in silence in lotus position for hours on end. Guess what-THAT IS NOT WHAT MEDITATION IS. I mean, yes, there are scenarios where some very Zen people meditate in that manner, but it is not the only way to fly, my friends. For the last 2 months, I have meditated nearly every day for 3 minutes. Seriously, that is it-3 minutes. I downloaded an app (I happen to dig Headspace, but there are a ton to choose from) and each day I put aside 3 minutes to let the app tell me to breathe and I just sit still. It is such a delight that I have started a Pinterest board for a mediation room in my dream house. Here is the thing about meditation-it is a skill just like anything else. If a high school basketball team was in the state championship, do you think that the kid who has never shot a free throw in their life is going to be likely to make the winning shot? Probably not. What about the kid who has shot free throws in every game so far that season? A little more likely, yes? What about the kid who has shot free throws in every game during that season AND has shot a thousand free throws in their driveway without any pressure whatsoever? Probably quite a bit more likely. The same is true here, you are never going to feel like meditation is the calming and beautiful experience it can be if you ONLY TRY WHEN YOU ARE ALREADY STRESSED. Make it a practice and you will find that it is much easier to access that Zen like state when you need it.
Write. When your mind is racing, it can feel like there is a tornado going on inside your skull. While we don’t necessarily have any control over the damage a Tornado can do, we do have control over our thoughts. I bet you don’t believe me when I say that, but I believe it is true. Even in those moments where we feel like our thoughts are shooting through our brain at a million miles a minute, we do have the ability to wrangle them. Writing is helpful for a lot of people, but I think that many are intimidated when it is suggested. I do not intend to insinuate that writing when your brain is full is going to create the next New York Times Best Seller (but maybe?), but there is a benefit when you are forcing your logical mind to organize your emotional mind in such a way that you have to assign words and sentences and meaning to what is happening in your thoughts. You can certainly do this in a journal fashion if you like or write a creative story where the character is actually experiencing your life but here is what works for me-I write lists. When it comes down to it, it is pretty much a to do list, but most of my stress (and probably for a lot of you as well) comes from trying to keep track of all of the things that I need to do during the day. Writing myself a to do list helps me to organize my thoughts and mentally check things off as “done” according to my brain without forgetting to do the list I actually end up with several to do lists over the course of the week and generally end up sitting down at some point and combining them, but even that is helpful when I am anxious. And I put EVERYTHING on a list-a friend I need to text, toilet paper I need to buy, the fact that I want to remember to make my bed in the morning. Sometimes, I even put “write a new to do list” on my to do list. Translating that tornado to my trusty yellow legal pad helps me feel like I have some semblance of control and slows my thoughts down immensely.
If you are already doing all or some of these skills, I hope they are working for you! If there are one or more of these that you have never tried before, I challenge you to give it a shot! If there are one or more of these that you have tried in the past, I challenge you to give it another go. If there is something that is particularly helpful to you that you want to share, please feel free! These are my top five and I hope that they will resonate with some, but we are all different and what that means is that what works for me may not work the same for you. The important part is that we are willing to give it a try (usually more than once) so that we can create ourselves a little set of go to skills that are easy to access when we are in need.