Oh, hello again! Here we are, on our final and third post in our anxiety series.
Here is something I didn’t see coming - I genuinely love learning and writing about anxiety. Why is this a surprise? Well, it’s humbling and exciting to know that even though I help my clients with anxiety every day, there is still so much to discover! It keeps me on my toes.
Putting together this anxiety series has helped me reconstruct some of my own ideas about this intricate experience that many of us share. I’ve learned new ways to describe anxiety to clients, and discovered what people really want to know about it.
In other words, writing this series has helped me gather tools I can use in my work.
We all need a mental health toolkit, particularly on those days when we are being challenged in what seems like every way and from every direction.
Here is why.
Let’s say you discover a brilliant, fool-proof, magical device that instantly soothes overwhelming anxiety. A girl can dream, right?
Now, imagine one day this device malfunctions and you can no longer use it. If you had relied on it exclusively to feel better, you are left with a gaping hole in your coping process.
However, if you had multiple coping strategies in place, losing one of them is less scary because you have other tools in your mental health toolkit.
In this third post of the series, we are building a toolkit of short-term and long-term anxiety management techniques.
You may already be doing some of the things I have listed below. The awesome thing about these strategies is that it can be used to help manage different parts of your life, outside of the anxiety itself.
If you are like me and love a bargain, consider this a 2 for 1 deal!
6 Things You Can Do To Calm Your Anxiety NOW
Sometimes we all need a short-term strategy to help get us through a tough moment, hour, or day. It can be soothing or allow us to feel more capable of slaying whatever dragon we are facing.
Here are 6 simple things you can do to ease your anxiety symptoms NOW. Try a few as you are reading this!
1. Deep Breathing
Have you ever been told to "just breathe"? The sassy side of me is thinking "well, I'm already breathing, otherwise I would be, I don't know, dead?".
Then the therapist in me recognizes the wisdom in this common phrase.
Anxiety can affect your breathing, which in turn impacts your feelings of anxiety. I know, weird right?
Deep breathing may help relieve anxiety symptoms and calm the mind as well as the body.
Generally, there are 2 types of breathing:
1. Thoracic (chest) breathing
2. Diaphragmatic (belly) breathing
When we are anxious, we tend to breathe from our chest in short, rapid breaths. This type of breathing does not oxygenate our blood properly, contributing to the physical symptoms of anxiety such as dizziness, increased heart rate, and muscle tension.
In contrast, breathing from the abdomen involves long, deep, even breaths. This is similar to how we breathe in a deep state of sleep.
Try this: place one hand on the middle of your chest and the other on your belly.
- Here is a simple diaphragmatic breathing exercise for you to try:
- Place one hand on the middle of your chest and the other on your belly
- Inhale through your nose for 5 seconds, letting the air fill your belly and rise up towards your chest (notice the hand on your belly rise)
- Hold this breath for 2 seconds
- Now imagine blowing through a straw and exhale slowly through your mouth (notice the hand on your belly fall)
- Repeat steps 1-3 as needed
If you are like me and a visual learner, save the instructions below for future reference. If you want the free printable version, leave a comment below and I will send it to you.
2. Move Your Body
Research has shown that people with chronic anxiety tend to have more sedentary lifestyles and engage in less vigorous physical activity.
This is unfortunate because moving our bodies, particularly doing exercises that get our heart rate up such as walking, biking, or swimming, can have lasting beneficial effects on managing anxiety.
Other studies have found that those who exercised more regularly were better protected against anxiety symptoms than those who did not.
3 Ways exercise can reduce your anxiety
Exercise disrupts anxious thoughts and feelings by diverting our attention from our internal thoughts to our external body
It also increases anti-anxiety neurochemicals in the brain, such as serotonin and GABA
Exercising can stimulate the frontal region of your brain to have fewer anxious responses to real or imagined threats
NOTE: Exercising does not necessarily have to be an elaborate scheduled workout!
Something as simple as standing up and stretching, pulling the shoulders back and expanding the chest, can get your muscles activated.
For instance, you can walk over to get a glass of water, or have a 2-minute solo dance party?
Always start small and build your way up. Even if it means starting at a 2 minute solo dance party or walking up 1 flight of stairs.
If you do wish to start a workout routine, be sure to select activities that you enjoy so it is easier to do them consistently.
3. Muscle Relaxation
Muscle tension is one of the ways anxiety can affect us physically. When I feel anxious, I hunch over and clench my teeth, shoulders and leg muscles.
When the anxiety-inducing event is over, I'm often surprised to find that my body is aching because I had no idea I was holding it so tightly.
What are some things you do physically when you are anxious?
Progressive muscle relaxation is one way to help ease the tension we hold in our bodies when feeling anxious. This is two-step process that involves intentionally tensing muscles and then relaxing them.
2 minute progressive muscle relaxation Exercise
- Find a place that is comfortable to sit or stand. Take some nice deep breaths
- Take a deep breath and clench both your fists as hard as you can for about 5 seconds. It is important to feel the tension, however, be mindful of over-exerting yourself
- Exhale and release the tension you are holding
- Notice the tension flowing out of the muscle, and focus on the difference between the feeling of tension and relaxation
- Work your way up the body by focusing on one muscle group at a time (feet- legs-butt-back-shoulder-arms-face).
NOTE: This exercise becomes easier with practice! Progressive muscle relaxation helps cultivate an awareness of the tension you are holding in your body, as you are holding it.
Save the instructions below for future reference. If you want the free printable version, leave a comment below and I will send it to you.
It helps educate our bodies on what it feels like to be truly relaxed. Eventually, with practice, you may not even need to tense a muscle before releasing the tension.
4. Focus On The Present
Anxiety is inherently future-oriented. It is driven by the discomfort of things that feel like they are not in our control.
Reeling ourselves back to the present is a way to remember that we are not living in the future and have more control and agency over what we are thinking, feeling, and doing in the here and now.
In addition to the belly breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, here are 3 more grounding techniques you can try to disrupt future-oriented anxiety:
Describe a simple object
Rules: You have to describe that object to an artist who has to sketch it. The artist cannot see this item. And you cannot use words such as "pen, mug or glass of water''. Rather you have to describe each aspect of the object.
This description activity requires our full attention to process. You notice the colours, textures, and imperfections. How does it feel in your hands? Having this curiosity towards an object requires us to be fully present with it, disrupting worrying thoughts about the future
The 5-4-3-2-1 method
This is one of my favorites. I played this game with my siblings when I was a kid.
One of us picked a letter and all of us would have to guess a NAME-PLACE-ANIMAL-THING that starts with the letter. The quickest one wins.
The 5-4-3-2-1 method reminds me of that game, so my bias is more nostalgic.
Rules: Using your 5 senses (eyes-ears-mouth-nose-touch) and name 5 things you see, 4 sounds you hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you can taste. You can do this in any order you prefer.
Try and tune into sights, sounds, and sensations that normally fade into the background, like the humming of your laptop, or the way the tips of your fingers feel.
Save the instructions below for future reference. If you want the free printable version, leave a comment below and I will send it to you.
Feel your body
Rules: mindfully notice how your body feels from head to toe
- Focus on feeling the weight of the shirt on your shoulders
- Focus on the weight of the glasses on your nose
- Focus on how the soles of your feet feel on the ground
- Focus on how your butt feels while seated on a chair
5. Fact Check Your Thoughts
If you are feeling anxious about a presentation, chances are that you think about the worst-case scenarios.
Thoughts I regularly have before important events are:
"What if I completely blank out?"
"I'm going to totally mess this up and look like so stupid...it will be SO embarrassing".
To counter your worries, try thinking about how realistic they are.
For example - I remember taking my driving test years ago and on the day the test, I was convinced that I would not be able to parallel park. Then I considered the hours I spent practicing between pylons at the test centre! I was actually quite well prepared. Sure enough, it was the easiest part of the test for me.
Rather than thinking:
"This will go wrong, I am not doing to do well",
Say to yourself:
"I am nervous right now and I am well prepared".
Acknowledge the possibility that you are nervous AND also capable of working through the difficult situation you are facing.
Finally, identifying that some things may not go as planned, but others will, can also disrupt the spiraling thoughts.
6. Get Involved In Your Community
Go to that Paint Nite! Bring something delicious to the community potluck. Maybe attend that film screening or check out the live band at the local pub.
Discover the events, activities, and causes that are active in your local community and try and engage in what interests you.
It will give you a chance to pour your energy into something new and nourishing and provide a much-needed break from worrying.
Volunteering in your community may also help you feel good about yourself and foster a larger support network.
If there is an event that you enjoy, let us know by leaving a comment below!
The Long Game: 5 Things You Can Do To Manage Your Anxiety Over Time
As much as we would all love for this, anxiety doesn't come with an on/off button, and it certainly doesn't disappear overnight.
Many of us need to combine our short-term relief strategies with consistent practices over time.
Here are 5 practices you can incorporate into your life to manage the ups and downs of anxiety.
1. Reframe Your Worries
There is a a good chance you are hanging onto certain worries because you believe they are useful or make you a more caring person. These are some of the beliefs people may have about their worries.
See if you identify with any (the first one has me written all over it):
- Worrying shows people that I care about them
- Worrying motivates me to prepare well and make the right choices
- Worrying about bad things will keep them from happening
- Worrying protects me from difficult emotions- if I worry now, then it won’t feel as bad when it happens
What's interesting is the more you think your worrying is useful, or says something meaningful about you as a person, the more likely you are to keep doing it.
To reframe your beliefs about worrying, practice thinking about whether worrying is accomplishing what you think it is. Let's go through the beliefs above and this time, we'll question their usefulness:
Worrying shows people that I care about them: I know people who care very much and do not worry the way I do. What else can I do to show people I care?
Worrying motivates me to prepare well and make the right choices: Has worrying about something caused me to avoid it or procrastinate, instead of motivating me? Am I confusing worrying with doing something to solve my problems?
Worrying about bad things will keep them from happening: Have bad things happened in my life even though I worried about them? Was I able to deal with it more effectively because I worried about it?
Worrying protects me from difficult emotions- if I worry now, then it won’t feel as bad when it happens: Will I really feel less bad because I worried?
2. Befriend Uncertainty
We have all heard the saying: nothing in life is certain except death and taxes.
Uncertainty exacerbates anxiety. When we are not entirely sure about something, we are more likely to worry about it.
Feeling uncertain can create anxiety around even small decisions and make them seem daunting. This can be challenging to live with because few things in life are certain and we can't predict the future!
If you struggle to tolerate uncertainty and find that it makes your anxiety worse, it may be worth learning to grow more comfortable with the idea.
This is not easy!
We don't simply decide to "be okay" with uncertainty. However, it is possible to increase your tolerance of uncertainty through actions.
Here are some low-risk things you can try to strengthen your uncertainty tolerance muscles:
- Send a text or email without re-reading it
- Set aside specific times of the day to check replies to your emails and messages (and stick to them)
- Make a small decision without asking for anyone’s opinion
- Say yes to a spontaneous plan
- Try a new restaurant without reading any reviews or looking at the menu beforehand
- Ask the server at a restaurant to ‘surprise you’ with their favourite dish
Another way to handle uncertainty is working on your problem-solving abilities. This applies, of course, to ongoing problems rather than hypothetical situations.
When you feel anxious, it's easy to equate all the worrying with problem-solving, when in fact, the only way to resolve an issue is to actively work on it.
Instead, the anxiety makes the problem seem so overwhelming that we will avoid solving it or procrastinate until it becomes worse.
Finding solutions to life's problems naturally demands some tolerance of uncertainty.
If we are tackling our problems, we are doing more than worrying about them. And for every problem solved, there is one less thing to worry about!
3. Develop a Mindfulness Practice
If you liked the short-term grounding strategies mentioned above, you will like mindfulness.
Being mindful means being aware of the present moment and accepting it exactly the way it is, without judgments or evaluations.
Living in the present moment without judgment or evaluations is quite different from what people with anxiety tend to do. We may dwell on regrets, what could do wrong, and ruminate about things we cannot control.
Mindfulness practices allow us to notice when our minds are drifting and gently nudge them back to the present.
Research has shown that mindfulness meditation has beneficial effects on anxiety symptoms, as well as stress reactivity.
These mindfulness-based meditation techniques help increase awareness of the present moment (i.e. emotions, thoughts, body sensations) with a gentle and accepting attitude.
The key is to acknowledge the worries that may cross your mind, rather than fighting them (i.e. "there's that thought again) and then gently redirecting your attention back to the present.
Any activity can be an opportunity to practice mindfulness. You can practice mindfulness while washing the dishes, preparing and drinking coffee, or taking a shower.
For instance, mindful walking may look something like this:
- Notice how the sun feels warms your face and the wind tousles your hair
- Look at the trees you pass- notice their strong trunks and the way the breeze moves, without classifying them as ‘beautiful’ or ‘ordinary’
- Hear the crunch of your boots crushing the leaves or pushing down the snow
Every time anxiety pulls you away from this process, gently acknowledge it, let it go, and return to the present state of the world around you.
4. See A Therapist
Yes, this is a therapist telling you to consider therapy!
I may be biased here, but hear me out. The process of therapy won't necessarily 'fix' you or make your problems go away.
It can help you:
- Uncover the underlying causes of fears and worries
- Learn relaxation techniques
- Re-frame the way you look at frightening situations
- Foster coping strategies and problem-solving skills
Therapy for anxiety tackles more than the symptoms of anxiety. Many people comment on how nice it feels for their experiences to be simply acknowledged and understood.
If there is one thing I have learned in this work, is that it takes courage to recognize you may need help and then to seek it and follow through!
Therapy honours what you have overcome to get here.
A therapist will:
- Be a non-judgmental listener
- Commit to learning about you and your unique experience of anxiety
- Create a safe space for difficult emotions
- Gently challenge the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that are no longer working for you or causing problems in your life
- Be an ally who can advocate for you
- Respect your privacy and adhere to confidentiality guidelines
In other words, a therapist can help you cope and heal through a challenging process, rather than going about it on your own. And of course, we are here to help!
If you have any questions, book a free phone consult with me and I am happy to help you with them.
5. Have More FUN
This may sound like a strange bit of advice in a therapy blog. Isn't improving our mental health supposed to be HARD work? It can be.
However, it can also be as simple as incorporating joy, laughter, and FUN into our lives (I promise this is the last time I will capitalize FUN. Actually, that was it).
Laughing feels good and eases the tension in our minds and bodies. Sometimes anxiety can make us take life a little too seriously and overshadow moments of joy.
Being silly, playful, and opening up to the idea of having fun can be difficult for those who are constantly anxious. Interestingly, these qualities come naturally for many children.
What is it about tiny humans that allows them to find joy in the ordinary and mundane? I think it may be because kids follow their impulses, and rarely have an agenda.
When is the last time you did something just because you felt like it? Not having to worry about its usefulness or value?
For me, it's usually the little things. Yesterday I walked past a bakery on Dundas Street in Toronto I had never been to. It smelled so incredibly delicious, I HAD to go in and get myself a croissant. Just because I wanted to.
Discovering new places is fun for me, and walking out with a warm baked good, even more so. Mmmm.
In case you are interested, the bakery is Butter Baker and YES I highly recommend popping in there for a delicious treat.
Enjoying life more can be a process of re-learning, especially if you are accustomed to overriding life's pleasures. You may need to re-discover what you enjoy doing and that's okay!
TIP: Next week, try scheduling an hour doing something you used to enjoy or a new activity entirely.
Resting My Case
If you have made it this far, I hope your anxiety toolkit is a tad bit more full than it was at the start of this post!
Remember, you are so much more than your anxiety.
Implementing short-term and long-term anxiety management techniques may help take the spotlight off anxiety and allow YOU to enjoy and appreciate the ups and downs of your own life.
If you have any questions, as always, I would love to hear from you.
Leave a comment, or flip me an email.
Until next time!