Anxiety is something that we all experience from time to time, but what do we do when it stays around? Every day I work with clients who are struggling with some kind of anxiety. Here are my top tips to help quell anxiety before it takes root.
1. Know what anxiety really is
Our brain’s number one priority is to keep us safe. It doesn’t draw any distinction between physical threats and social/emotional threats. When we perceive something threatening in our environment (or the possibility of it in our future), the brain releases stress chemicals to help us to fight or run. So, anxiety occurs when our brain is stressed and is working very hard to protect us from experiencing a particular event or feeling. Anxiety is actually trying to help you.
2. Drill down into what it is really about
If you feel anxious on the way to work every day, it’s natural to think “work is making me anxious”, but if you dig a little deeper you might find that there is a strong fear buried in there. So ask yourself, “If the worst case scenario unfolded, what would that mean about me?”
You might be surprised to find that the answer is something like “It would mean I’m incompetent/not good enough/unworthy/a failure/letting everyone down.” Chances are you have experienced one of these things before, and your anxiety (as the protective part of your brain) is trying to make sure you don’t have to feel that again.
3. Establish supports
Anxiety is at it’s worst when we are feeling unsupported (internally and externally), so it can be really helpful to make sure you have someone to talk to as well as strategies to calm you down. Explain to a friend how you’re feeling, spend some time doing something you love, connect with a family member or online group, spend time with animals or in nature, and/or go and see a therapist.
Taking some slow, deep breaths sends the message to the brain that the danger has passed and it’s time to recover. It’s something we do naturally at the end of a long day or after a fright. Feel into your body and notice the physical sensations of the anxiety. Deliberate deep breaths while you’re anxious, tells the brain that things are ok. The brain becomes distracted away from the stressful thoughts, stops releasing stress chemicals and the anxiety eases.
5. Stop talking shit about yourself
Your subconscious mind and your energetic body are listening to, and are affected by everything you say and think, so at the very least, try to stop all negative self talk. When you engage with negative self-beliefs, your mind automatically finds evidence to back them up. This reinforces them, leading to more trash talk. This leads to more self-doubt and more anxiety. Luckily, the same is true for your positive thoughts about yourself – your mind listens to those and backs them up with evidence as well, so the more positive your thoughts and words become, the better you feel.
6. Use affirmations
Affirmations can be tough when you start out, because your mind argues with everything positive you say. Affirmations work (and they do work if used correctly) by reprogramming our beliefs about ourselves. It is important to practice affirmations when you are in a neutral or positive mindset, otherwise your mind will butcher them and just reinforce the negativity. Start off simple with general statements that you KNOW are true, for example:
And be patient – it has taken a lifetime of negative beliefs to get you here, so they are going to take a while to unravel.
When we feel stressed our brain releases stress chemicals that make our heart rate increase, or breathing shallower and faster, energy is diverted away from digestion and immunity, and our muscles switch on ready to fight or flea. This fight or flight response is very useful and imperative to our survival as a species, but it’s not so helpful when the stress comes in the form of an email while you’re sitting at your desk. It is important to find a way to process these stress chemicals, and exercise can help your body burn them up. If we don’t, we can get stuck in a loop of stress and response, that builds the stress chemicals to toxic levels. It is important to choose a level and style of exercise that feels good for you. Exercise that stresses you out, will only create another stress response in the body and perpetuate the anxiety. If running feels like agony to you, try yoga and vice versa.
Meditation slows the momentum of our negative thoughts and quiets an overactive brain, leaving space for you to choose a different direction. We often experience anxiety because we fixate on the past or on the future, but when you’re meditating, you’re intentionally focused on the here and now. You don’t have to be “good” at meditation for it to have a positive effect, you just have to set some time aside and do it. Twenty minutes in the morning is excellent, but two minutes is better than nothing.
9. Accept that anxiety is there
One of the things that intensifies anxiety is the belief that it shouldn’t be there. The moment we resist this feeling (or any feeling), we are pushing against it, engaging in a battle with it and sending a lot of energy its way. If we can come to understand anxiety as an over-protective part of our mind, we can relate to it in a more calm, accepting way. You can even visualise it in your mind and say to it “I can see you and I know you’re trying to help me, but I’d really love to feel calm and happy. I’ll lead the way. I’ll look after you. You can rest now.” While it might seem counter-intuitive, including and reassuring your anxiety will help it to relax.
10. Shift your focus
Where focus goes, energy flows. Once you have exercised, meditated, chatted to a friend, breathed or accepted our anxiety, it is important to become clear on how you DO want to feel. Take the time to write down about five positive words that describe how you’d love to feel. Then visualise that version of you and connect with them. You may need to have another little chat with your anxiety to calm it down (it might freak out at the thought of you being free and happy) but you’ve got this. Visualise this version of you every morning after exercise or meditation (or whenever you’re relaxed) and feel some of those lovely feelings starting to come into your body here and now. What you focus on, you create, so pay attention to where your energy is going.
Anxiety is different for everyone, but understanding what is happening for you and implementing some self care will go a long way towards feeling calm and free.
Photo credit: @wat.ki on Instagram
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Laura is a Gestalt counsellor and psychotherapist in Melbourne's inner North.