I specialize in anxiety reduction in my private practice psychotherapy office and coach people daily in how to reduce their symptoms. The fact is there are a few things you can do on your own to improve the situation. You can actually take steps right this minute that will give you some relief today.
1. Cut the caffeine. I know that’s a toughie, but it’s well worth the effort. Caffeine doesn’t cause all your anxiety, but it will make the anxiety you are experiencing worse and can set you up for heightened anxiety and even panic attacks. On top of that, caffeine will get in the way of any other anxiety reducing remedies you employ. Why? Caffeine can ape anxiety in your body. It raises your heart, respiration, and perspiration rates. Caffeine can give you butterflies in your tummy and bring on the shakes. True, it may sharpen the mind, but so does anxiety, and caffeine can contribute to racing thoughts and speech. Caffeine mimics anxiety well enough that it can actually tip you right over into panic attack in the right situation. You’ll find caffeine in coffee, of course, all those energy drinks you love, tea, and, yikes! chocolate. Set it aside now or start cutting down by introducing half-calf, first and decaf later. The caffeine withdrawal headache shouldn’t last for more than a couple of days. Stimulants of any kind are not your friend when you are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety.
2. Exercise. You know this intuitively. Vigorous exercise, or even gentle walking, can do a lot to bring down your anxious experience. That said, I will often find people, particularly men, who’s primary way of dealing with anxiety is to run it off in the gym. There will be a point when exercise alone isn’t going to make enough difference, particularly if you’re not addressing the cause of your anxious state. In the meantime, exercise is great way to raise all those feel good hormones, reduce anxiety, and raise your positive mood.
3. Breathing. I’m sure you’ve heard, “Just relax and take a deep breath.” If that was all there was to managing anxiety, you wouldn’t be reading this post and I’d be out of business. Those of us who are anxious tend to be shallow breathers. It is deep, slow breathing into our bellies that will help to calm our systems best. One such form of deep breathing is Diaphragmatic Breathing. Do a quick Google search on it and you will fine detailed directions on multiple sites. One very complete explanation can be found in this YouTube video.
4. Talk back to anxiety. Our anxious, negative, repetitive, catastrophizing thoughts are telling us that nothing is going to work out and that worrying about it all is somehow going to magically solve it. Our worrisome thoughts are almost always going to feel true and real to us when we are caught in our anxiety cycle. Here’s the deal, your mind is actually designed to be negative. Searching for potential problems and negative outcomes is a survival skill hardwired into the oldest parts of your brain. The anxious survived. You and I are the result. Your innate anxiety mechanisms were never meant to run the show, however. When you’re stuck in persistent anxious spirals of thought, it’s a great idea to start talking back. Just noticing your are telling yourself an anxious scary story is a good place to start. Challenging the validity of that story is another great step. Actively questioning whether your story is the most likely outcome is another way of challenging your anxious thoughts. If it’s a “what if” worst case scenario line of thinking, it’s not based in reality. In short, don’t believe everything you think.
5. Pick your next thought. You can’t pick your first thought, but you can pick the next one. Making a conscious effort to drop positive thoughts and responses back into your mind is an important self-soothing and re-balancing tool. Studies report we are having 60,000 to 600,000 unique thoughts a day and an overwhelming majority of those thoughts aren’t only the same thoughts we had yesterday, but they are negative. Working with your anxiety is going to require you to start swimming against that tide and consciously reaching for positive thoughts. You might want to make a list of these to read and add to daily. Plug into streams of positive media. Pick reading material that uplifts you. It’s a numbers game and you’re playing to win when you are deliberate in reaching for the positive.
6. Get enough sleep. Here, in the US, we’re a sleep-deprived nation. In fact, we pride ourselves on how little sleep we can get by with. On top of that, your run away anxiety may be disrupting your ability to sleep or to awaken refreshed. Start by planning for adequate sleep. For most adults, this is 7 to 8 hours a night. Creating a soothing sleep routine is one way of promoting sleep. This can include unplugging from all media an hour or two before bed, warm baths, warm drinks, and a good book. It’s a poor idea to catch the 11 o’clock news before you drift off, as well. Caffeine can be a culprit here. Interestingly enough, alcohol is a sleep disruptor, too. It may knock you out for a couple of hours, but it is common to awaken later and have difficulty resettling.
7. Develop a stillness practice. Meditation is a great tool for calming the mind and helping bring higher levels of relaxation to the body. Current science is telling us more every day about the substantial changes meditation can make in actual brain function and creativity, well beyond the benefits of general relaxation. The common response I have from people I work with is, “I could never meditate. I can’t still my mind or stop thinking.” The thing is there are many ways to meditate that don’t require you to empty your mind first. I often refer my clients to the work of George Quant and his Quantum Meditation techniques. George has a great appreciation for the body and the busy nature of our minds.There are many forms of meditation. Try a few and see which one fits you best.
8. Yoga. Gentle stretching and in particular a practice such as yoga can do a great deal to promote well-being within the body and nervous system. In this case, I coach my clients to find a yoga studio that feels comfortable for them and advise them to avoid gyms and venues where it is about speed and/or doing the postures perfectly. There’s even a form of yoga called “Laughing Yoga” (yes, it’s a real thing).
9. Do the things you enjoy. Speaking of laughing, it’s worth making the point that the most anxious of us may have forgotten or lost track of the things that bring us pleasure. Pleasure can be a real healing agent in our lives. Particularly the simple pleasures. Rediscover what you enjoy doing and start doing it. Even a little of it. It’s a very high form of self-care. Many Anxious Folk have never been good at taking care of themselves, prioritizing their needs, or even slowing down enough to figure out what those needs and desires are. Incorporating a few simple pleasures back into your life is a great place to start your self-care plan.
10.Educate yourself. There are lots of great books out there on anxiety. One that I recommend to people I work with is Dancing With Fear, by Paul Foxman. Foxman provides a great explanation for the formation of anxiety as well as tons of self-help tools.
11.Consider getting a therapist. Very often our habits of anxious thought are deeply engrained. It can be very helpful to reach out to a trained therapist for support. When you do, consider choosing a therapist who knows anxiety inside out and is used to working with highly stressed people. While you can help yourself cope a little better by the daily use of tools like those listed here, a therapist can help you sniff out and address the deeper patterns driving your anxious experience over all. You don’t have to do it alone.