Coping with Anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most common complaints that is seen in private practice, as well as a feeling that most everyone can relate to. Ranging from general (and normal!) nervous reactions to a specific stressor or life event, to free-floating generalized anxiety, to panic attacks, I think we can all agree that no matter what form of anxiety your body experiences, it can be one of the most uncomfortable and debilitating feelings to go through.

What is anxiety?
Your body’s warning system that something is wrong or a signal that something needs attention. In many cases, anxiety is quite normal and arises in response to natural stressors. It can even be a useful tool in determining areas that need change in your life.

  • Bodily Symptoms of Anxiety: Shortness of breath, heart pounding, feeling like you can’t breathe, dizziness, tingling, sweaty, or nauseous.

  •  Emotional symptoms of Anxiety: Fearful, scared, nervous, or panicked. Feeling like you can’t relax or sit still.

  • Cognitive Symptoms of Anxiety: Racing thoughts, thinking negatively or in a worst-case-scenario manner, ruminating thoughts (thinking over and over again about the same thing).

Although anxiety feels terrible in the moment, it is important to remember that in its most basic and natural form, anxiety does have a helpful and adaptive purpose: Anxiety lets us know that there something in our left needs attention, that there is danger, or that something needs to be dealt with. However, for many people, the anxiety feelings can rise beyond what would be considered a natural reaction to a trigger, and can exist in your body even in the absence of a stressor. When this happens, finding ways that work for you to quiet this anxiety in our body and return to a calmer state is crucial for your quality of life. The good news is that you have much more control over anxiety than you may realize. And you certainly have more control over it than you feel like you have in the moment that it is invading your body and mind. Anxiety a physiological process firing in your body, and there are many natural ways to reverse the anxiety response.
10 Strategies to Reduce Anxiety:

1.    Belly Breathing

So often we hear people say to “breathe, breathe, breathe…” Well, that is because it actually works! When we are anxious, many of us hold our breath or our breathing gets shallow and trapped in our upper body. Some people describe feeling as if they are choking. By taking long, slow, and deep breaths, you are changing the physiological response that anxiety has on your body, thereby sending calming messages to your body and brain.

Here’s how to make it work: Sit comfortably with your hands resting on your belly. Breathe in through your nose with your mouth closed. Send the air down to the lowest part of your belly, essentially feeling your belly push against your hands with the air. Slowly breathe out through your mouth. Repeat several times!

2.    Exercise
Exercise releases hormones and endorphins in your body that naturally reduce anxiety. Even mild exercise (such as walking for 30 minutes) can have a positive impact on your mood and quality of life. Doing this regularly, such as three to four times per week, can help keep these happy hormones and chemicals more consistently available in your body.
3.    Imagine your happy place
Every person is soothed by different things: For some people it is sitting at the beach listening to the ocean, for others is may be being in the arms of their spouse or in their childhood home. Closing your eyes, breathing, and imagining yourself in your safe space can have an immediate calming effect on your body.

4.    Avoid Substances, especially Caffeine, Nicotine, and Alcohol
Do you ever wonder why you feel anxious and irritable after that extra cup of coffee? Many substances—such as caffeine and nicotine—contain chemicals that act as a stimulant when you ingest them into your body. For many people, stimulants induce anxiety. In private practice, we often see clients who insist that these substances calm them down, or people who are not willing to cut back or eliminate these substances from their lifestyle—but yet, they can’t seem to turn down their anxiety. It may be that there is an initial calming sensation after ingesting the substance, but this is most often met with increased stimulation afterwards. Alcohol, on the other hand, is a depressant, but many people have anxiety reactions the following day as their body is coming back off of it.

Unfortunately, if you suffer from anxiety (or poor sleep), in general, it is really important that these substances are reduced or eliminated. An imagery technique that can help with this is visualizing the anxiety that you are ingesting into your body as you take that drink or puff.
5.    Get it out!
As we stated earlier, anxiety is often a warning sign in your body that something needs attention. Do you have an issue with a co-worker or your spouse? Are you feeling like there is a nagging issue in a relationship that needs to be addressed? Talking helps! By expressing your feelings, you are releasing tensions from your body. Not to mention, holding feelings in can lead to a host of other problems, such as anxiety, headaches, anger, physical ailments, and sadness.

6.    Take Action

Sometimes the anxiety or warning sign is related to a task that is being neglected. Do you have a have a deadline looming or a medical issue that needs to be checked by a doctor? Are you avoiding things that need to get done? Avoidance is one of the greatest ways to increase anxiety. Move your body, take action, and feel the peace that is your reward.
7.    One day at a time… Stay in the present

Often anxiety can stem from free-floating thoughts that are focused on the past or future. Sometimes we think about past regrets or pains, or we may find ourselves lost in worries about the future. Not only can these thoughts create anxiety and sadness, but they also take us away from being connected to (and enjoying!) what is happening in our present life. A calm body and mind is one that is focused on the present. Yoga and guided meditation are great ways to train yourself to stay in the present.
8.    Basic Self-care

Our bodies do not function well if we are not keeping the gas tank full and the engine checked. Be sure to keep up with your basic self-care needs: healthy and consistent eating habits, proper sleep, regular exercise, avoiding substance abuse, and regular medical check-ups/medication use.

Check out my past blogs, The Formula for Success and Ten Tips for Better Sleep, for more guidance in this area!
9.    What is your purpose?
The human psyche craves meaning and purpose. What is yours? Have you met your personal goals and ambitions, whatever that may be? Maybe you want to be a college graduate, to be a mother, to own your own business, or to be a dedicated photographer. Each person has unique and personal journey, and only you know what fuels your soul. Whatever this may be, are you following it or taking steps to make it happen?

Along with this, as the old saying goes: helping others helps yourself. Do you give back to your community, help others, and volunteer your time?

10.Ok!! I have done all of these things and I am still anxious!!!
There are certainly people who dedicate themselves to relieving their anxiety (meaning: at least a few solid months of hard work to relieve your anxiety symptoms) and, unfortunately, their anxiety continues to be unrelenting. Typically there are two last things to consider in this situation:

  • Some people have a chemical make up that is sending anxiety signals in their body no matter how well they take care of themself. If this is the case, you may need to consult with a psychiatrist or psychologist to find other ways to manage your anxiety.

  • For other people, there is a major part of their life that needs to change, which is driving the continued anxiety. Ask yourself a few questions to see if this is you:  
  1. Am I in a toxic relationship?
  2. Am I completely neglecting one whole area of my life (such as having no friends or avoiding friends)?
  3. Are you not meeting your personal goals? For example, have you been talking about going back to school for years but haven’t? Have you been single for years on end despite wanting to have a marriage and family someday, but aren’t getting out in the dating world?
  4.  Do I absolutely hate my job but refuse to change my situation.
  5. Am in major financial debt with no financial plan?
  6. Am I living my life in a way that is not congruent with my values and goals?

If this is where you land, go back to #6 above and take action!!! Remember, this is your life: Embrace it, take charge, love it, and create your own reality!!

All the best to you and yours,

Sarah Ray, Psy.D.

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