Anxiety is our body’s natural reaction to stress and it can feel distressing and be debilitating when it’s problematic. As one of the most common mental health issues, it can be so helpful to have some tools and techniques to reduce our symptoms. We’re going to look at what you can be doing when you’re feeling particularly anxious to directly reduce your symptoms and then what you can do to reduce your overall feelings of anxiety.
Here and now techniques.
The aim with these methods/strategies/tools is to reduce symptoms and calm us to be able to function in the moment. One of our biggest fears is public humiliation and the anxious part of our mind often likes to play with this by throwing us unhelpful and anxiety provoking thoughts at the worst time such as ‘what if lose control in this supermarket queue, what if I vomit, what if I faint’. The common denominator in many anxious thoughts is the term ‘What if’ and we tend to think of negative things. It’s rarely helpful or even positive thoughts like ‘What if the person next to me loves my top or what if most people around me think I’m ok’. Our anxieties and worries have a plausibility in that there’s a possibility it could happen. This possibility is often minimal but our worries and anxiety over inflates it to feel like a probability.
Breathing – Evidence suggests the most effective way to reduce symptoms is to use a breathing technique. There are many but we only need to choose 1 and it’s important to practise it so that when it’s needed, you know exactly how it works. Good examples are –
- Simple 5 in and 5 out. Sit down comfortably and breathe in to the count of 5 and out to the count of 5. If possible, focus all of your thoughts on your breathing and notice how your body moves as you breathe.
- The 4-7-8 breathing technique is where we breathe in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. This breathing pattern aims to reduce anxiety or help people get to sleep
- Box Breathing – Breath in to the count of 4, hold for the count of 4, exhale for the count of 4 and hold for the count of 4.
Breathing techniques work as it helps calm our body. Stress, anxiety and trauma has a physical reaction and calming the body helps calm the mind. Focusing your attention on your breath reduces activity in the part of your mind causing anxiety and stress and increases activity in part of the mind responsible for feeling contentment.
Distraction – This works by focusing our mind elsewhere and it can be helpful to break overthinking (which causes stress and anxiety) and to reduce our anxious feelings. Here are 18 ways to use distraction to reduce anxiety
Exercise – Depending on the situation, if you can, do some exercise when you’re feeling anxious . Whether is dancing about, running, running on the spot, shadow boxing or something else, it’s more than a distraction technique as it burns off excess energy in your body and calms your mind.
Writing – Write down what’s on your mind. This form of expression slows our thoughts down and activates the logical parts of your mind meaning we can see our difficulties with greater clarity and gives a greater feeling of control. This can be done as simply as having a plain piece of paper or a note pad and writing what you’re feeling and where. For example, I feel stressed/distressed, short or breath. This is behinds my eyes/I feel it in my stomach. This can calm us quickly and as with all of the methods within this article, we have to experiment with them to test if they’re helpful for us.
Any form of expression – This can be writing, talking, listening to music (better if you can sing along, even better if you dance) and any creative outlet gets our thoughts and emotions out which calms us down.
Longer Term Methods to Reduce Anxiety.
If we have ongoing difficulties with anxiety, we can seek support to help with this. Ongoing issues are often related to past traumas and the beliefs about ourselves and others that were created as a reaction to them that consequently fuel our ability to feel anxious. For example, if some of our needs weren’t met as a child, we may have created beliefs linked to not being good enough or not worth a great deal. These fuel self-doubts which means it’s easier for us to feel anxious.
Keeping a journal – This can be a key self-care activity and it helps to reduce anxiety and stress. Having a place to offload means we’re processing our stressors and issues as we live which gives us a greater sense of clarity and control. This activity engages the logical parts of our mind meaning we’re more likely to be balanced in our thoughts. Overthinking creates negative and self-defeating thought processes. This article ‘6 Journaling Benefits and How to Start Right Now’ might be helpful
Talk to people more about how your feeling – Similar to writing, this activates the logical parts of our mind meaning we process our thoughts and feelings in a more rational way. It also means that we’re facing our issues rather than avoiding them which builds resilience and emotional strength making us less susceptible to feeling anxious.
Regular exercise – Any exercise is useful and if this can be outdoors and or involve being with others, then the greater the benefits. For many people this is a key activity. Rigorous exercise releases endorphins which are happy brain chemicals that allow us to feel good. It also gives a sense of control and any activity that’s good for us can boost our esteem as we’re telling ourselves that we’re worth looking after.
Meditate regularly – Taking some time, daily if possible, for 10 minutes helps calm the mind and reduces activity in the parts of the mind responsible for anxiety and low mood. I use YouTube as a resource and have several 10-minute meditations saved in a folder. The use of apps such as Headspace and Calm is widely popular. Click her for an article on The Benefits of Meditation and How to Meditate.
Ensure that you sleep well – Sleep is essential for us and sleeping well reduces our ability to feel anxious, increases cognitive functioning and emotional resilience. If you’re finding it difficult to sleep, this article How Do You Ensure You Sleep Well may help.
Be aware of what may trigger your anxiety – Being self-aware is key to emotional regulation. Sometimes your triggers are easy to identify such as worrying about money, work stress, increased caffeine or alcohol intake, change in seasons. In identifying triggers, we can look to limit our exposure to them or understand why we’re feeling anxious. This can aid our sense of acceptance in feeling anxious or low as without accepting how we’re feeling, we can feel distressed about not feeling good. We can also look to deal with these triggers before they affect us or learn from the experience to be affected to a lesser degree next time.
Engage in enjoyable activities – especially things you’re passionate about or can immerse yourself in. This helps with our well-being and can bring benefits such as feeling a sense of expertise, feeling productive, having time where we’re not feeling as low or anxious and feeling calm. This creates greater activity in the pleasure zones in our brain and the more these parts are activated, the more active they can become.
Develop your self-awareness to manage your mood – If we’re aware of how we feel, we can find ways to ensure our needs are met and can look after ourselves well.
Reduce unhelpful thought patterns (such as berating yourself) – When we berate ourselves or think negatively, it increases our ability to feel anxious.
Practise Self-compassion – Having compassion for yourself means you’re treating yourself with the same love and respect you would with others. It’s about being fair and kind to ourselves and to care for ourselves effectively. People who are self-compassionate are less stressed, less anxious and less depressed and are generally happier, more motivated, have healthier relationships and greater physical health. Click here to read about How to be more Self-Compassionate.
Notice where you have meaning in life – We all have meaning in life whether it be the value we bring to our work or in the relationships we uphold. Victor Frankl famously wrote ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ and suggests that as humans we are motivated to seek meaning and this comes from our deeds, from love or from suffering (also viewed as from sacrifice). For example, doing something that positively affects another such as being a teacher or helping a vulnerable person has meaning. Soothing your child or showing love to anyone also has meaning. Working long hours to support your family in a job you dislike has meaning.
Have a sense of purpose – This can be linked to having meaning and relates to doing something that matters to you. This can be goal oriented such as training for a half marathon, completing an educational course or renovating a room. This aids our sense of competence and encourages us to be more active.
Have direction in life – This motivates us to move forward and if this is absent, for some of us this can create low mood and despondency. Our direction in life can alter depending on our life stage. For example, in our younger years we’re developing our life and experimenting then in early adulthood we’re building things such as a home or a career. Whatever our path in life, it can be helpful to be driver with a sense of where you’re heading.
Defining what works well for you.
Having a list of researched suggestions to help us cope with our anxiety is only really useful if we can actually apply it. Most of us know how to look after ourselves very well such as by eating well, sleeping well and having regular exercise but whether we do this is a different matter
Starting points –
1 – In defining what works well for you, you may want to repeat something that you found helpful before. You may want to write down some ideas as this often allows us to expand our thinking too.
2 – Having repeated something that worked well, and provided it is still helpful, can you now do this in an enhanced way. For example, if cycling helped before, can you cycle somewhere new, buy yourself a new bike, increase the frequency or create a fitness plan or routes, timings and distances.
3 – Experiment with something new. Trying something new takes a bit of courage as it takes effort and we also run the risk of failing. When trying something new, talk to someone about how you found it or write down what your experience was like.
4 – Hopefully, when you’ve tried a few new things, there will be one or two things that may fit well for you.
We all have various ways of managing our emotions and looking after ourselves. These are repeated patterns that we’re probably not even aware of how they help us unless they’re taken away (and then we miss them or our mood may falter). Taking this further, you could look to create a self-care plan. If you’d like a template to use for this, I can send you a self-care plan – simply drop me an email with ‘Self-Care Plan’ in the title and it’ll arrive in your inbox.
As always, please feel free to comment or ask any questions.