Anxiety is like a border collie looking to herd sheep. It gets anxious and runs in circles if it doesn’t have a job. Our brains work the same way. Anxiety can be hard to overcome because your brain is designed to think and our thoughts can make us anxious (especially when we’re stressed, tired, hungry). But anxiety doesn’t have to rule your life. Our brains have what’s called “plasticity,” meaning they can be retrained like that border collie. By repeatedly practicing skills to cope, you’re actually changing your brain wiring. It takes patience, but it’s possible.
Managing your stress and anxiety can make a huge impact on your quality of life. Imagine living day to day without worrying about when the next shoe is going to drop, feeling nervous around people or places, or dealing with the strong fears that have been holding you back.Here are some strategies to try next time you get those anxious feelings (heart racing, nervousness, trouble breathing, lots of negative thoughts, stomachaches and headaches, etc…):
Externalizing anxiety and sharing with others helps folks get out of their head and lessen the pressure of anxious thoughts. Therapists, friends, family, trusted colleagues, pets, support groups: all are great outlets for managing anxiety. For introverts, find one or two folks you trust. There are increasing numbers of therapists offering online and even text counseling. Make a list of the people you can reach out to when you’re having big feelings. Have your list handy if it’s hard to remember in an anxious moment.
When we deep breathe our fight or flight response slows down (it’s like pumping the brakes in a car), helping us get out of survival mode and into a headspace where we can think and make better decisions. Try Four Square Breathing: breathe in for four seconds, pause with the breath in for four seconds, exhale out of the mouth for four, and pause for four. Diffuse a calming essential oil such as lavender or chamomile to help relax the mind while breathing.
Moderate physical activity that raises your heart rate can help discharge anxiety stored as tension in your muscles. Exercise also helps get you breathing and focus on something other than your anxiety. Yoga, walking, lifting weights, jogging, dancing, swimming, or any other movement that makes you feel good can help. Take care not to overdo physical activity and always check with your physician before starting new exercise.
Research shows that being in nature also calms the brain’s fight or flight mode. Mindfulness is the act of paying attention in the present moment. While sitting or walking in a comfortable outdoor spot, try paying closer attention to the colors of the leaves on the trees, the feel of the air against your skin, and the sounds around you.
Using positive statements can help retrain your brain to build confidence, positive outlook, and reassurance. Instead of telling yourself about the worst that can happen, try using different thoughts. For example: “I am good enough.” “I have been successful in the past and I can be successful with this.” “My panic attacks don’t last forever.” “I am healing and figuring things out.” “Anxiety is part of my life but not ALL of my life.” “This is hard, but I can do it.”
This acronym comes from the substance use world. It stands for Hungry. Angry. Lonely. Tired. Any one of these situations can drive folks with anxiety to becoming more anxious. Make sure you are intentional about taking care of yourself. Eat when you’re hungry. Express your feelings when they come up (if you tend to explode, it might be helpful to see a therapist who can help you navigate how to express your feelings in safe ways). If you’re lonely, reach out to your support people and pets. When you’re tired, take breaks or sleep. It sounds simple, but taking care of these needs can make a world of difference.
Good luck trying these strategies and feel free to comment if you’ve got other suggestions or successes!