The problem is that sometimes the warning system starts to get a little over-eager. It alerts us to things that aren’t actually very important or that don’t pose a threat and we start getting flooded by anxious thoughts telling us we’re in danger. It’s hard to sort through the flood and determine what’s actually worth our attention and energy when our brains are telling us that everything is a crisis. This is when anxiety crosses the line from something necessary and healthy to something that interferes with our life.
We don’t know all the reasons why some people develop this intense, troubling anxiety while others don’t, but we know some of the factors that contribute. There’s likely a genetic component in some cases, with higher levels of anxiety running in families. Anxious responses can also be learned in childhood from watching adults. Experiencing stressful or traumatic events can contribute to higher anxiety levels even far later in life. Even the mundane stressors of everyday life can pile up and overwhelm our brains so that anxiety levels rise. We live in a fast-paced time when we end up having to juggle far more in a day than we did a generation ago and our brains are simply not adapted to having our attention divided in so many ways.
While the origins of anxiety may be complex, that doesn’t mean there’s no hope. Quite the opposite! It’s one of the most common things that bring people to therapy and years of research and experience mean we know quite a bit about how to manage anxiety. Ahead, I’ll walk you through some of my favorite ways to anxiety-proof your life as well as tackle it once it starts to feel out of control.
ANXIETY-PROOF YOUR LIFE (as much as possible)
You can’t completely eliminate anxiety – and it wouldn’t be healthy to, either – but there are steps you can take that make it harder for anxiety to grow out of control. Try some of the following ideas and see if you can notice a shift in how you feel:
•Limit caffeine intake. Caffeine is a stimulant, meaning it activates the central nervous system in much the same way that anxiety can. Depending on your sensitivity to caffeine, it may exacerbate or even cause anxiety. I’ve seen people be able to stop taking anti-anxiety medication after cutting down on caffeine. Coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks are everyday culprits; a venti Starbucks brewed coffee can have more than 400mg of caffeine, the recommended daily limit for a healthy adult.
•Get enough sleep. I know, this is a cruel catch-22 because anxiety can make it hard to fall asleep in the first place (see the meditation and breathing techniques below for help with this). Any steps you can take to improve the quality of your sleep can make a big difference, though. Practicing good sleep hygiene is a great place to start. Sleep hygiene refers to a set of best practices for helping your body and brain get to sleep and sleep well, and it includes things like limiting screen time in the hours before bedtime, avoiding ambient light in the bedroom at night to create true darkness, and adjusting the temperature in the bedroom to maximize the sleep response. You can learn more about sleep hygiene here.
•Practice meditation. The word meditation can conjure up images of some seemingly unattainable state of enlightenment far removed from the realities of daily life. And while there certainly are kinds of meditation that can get quite involved, at its heart meditation is simply a practice of quieting the mind. Apps like Headspace teach a simple form of mindfulness meditation that uses a gentle focus on the breath to help you notice your thoughts and then let them go without engaging. With even a few minutes of practice a few times a week, many people find it easier to let anxious thoughts go.
•Exercise. Many people swear by regular exercise to help manage high anxiety levels. Aerobic activity like walking, running, or swimming is great for our mental health. Exercise that incorporates focused attention and awareness of the breath, like yoga or lifting weights, can also make a difference. Even regularly taking the dog for a walk or gardening could be helpful – really, anything that gets you moving.
•Manage stress levels. Easier said than done, right? Life isn’t always cooperative when it comes to this one, but it can be helpful to think about what you can control and what you can’t, then focus in on the stuff you have at least a bit of control over. Are there extra things on your plate you could say “no” to in the future? Are there things you could ask for help with or delegate? Could you schedule breaks away from your phone or social media? Could you set limits on time spent with people who tend to increase your stress levels?
ONCE ANXIETY HITS
You might recognize anxiety from the grab bag of friends it brings with it: persistent worry, racing heart, knotted stomach, shaky limbs, clammy hands, constricted chest, difficulty breathing. Oftentimes by the time we notice it, anxiety is in full bloom and it’s hard to think clearly.
It can be helpful to start keeping track of what your particular anxiety red flags are. What is it that lets you know your anxiety levels are rising? Is it a hot, tight feeling in your chest? A stubborn stomachache? A shaky feeling in your legs? Having a good sense of your early warning signs means you can gradually start to notice anxiety earlier, before it’s had a chance to build up steam.
Once you realize that you’re experiencing anxiety, there are lots of ways to calm the mind and body. I recommend that my clients try a variety of techniques, both when they’re highly anxious and also at calmer times, in order to get a sense for which ones are most effective for them. Here are a few of my favorites:
•Diaphragmatic breathing. This is a simple technique for breathing deeply and getting more oxygen to your brain, a great way to short-circuit the body’s anxiety response. Place your hand on your diaphragm (right where your ribs join at your solar plexus) and breathe so that your hand moves up and down. When your hand rises and falls, you know you’re breathing deeply.
•Breathe for a count of three. When you’re really anxious, it can be hard to breathe deeply. One way around this is to focus on breathing slowly instead. Breathe in for a slow count of three, then exhale for another slow count of three. Increase to four if you need to slow down even more. Breathing slowly forces you to deepen your breaths, once again increasing your oxygen levels and helping calm the anxiety response.
•Grab an ice cube or bag of frozen veggies. Cold can send a mild “shock” through your nervous system, jolting it into calming itself. An ice pack or cold water bottle against your hands, wrists, cheeks, or the back of your neck can do the trick. Have you ever heard someone suggest splashing cold water on your face when you’re upset? This is the same idea.
•Use a stress ball or silly putty. The world is awash in fidget spinners and other little doodads meant for calming an anxious mind. You don’t actually need anything fancy, though – silly putty, a squishy ball the size of your palm, or a small smooth stone can all work. The idea is to focus on the sensations from the object, rerouting your brain to pay attention to your sense of touch and dampening the anxiety response. If you don’t have anything convenient with you when anxiety hits, you can do the same thing with pretty much anything around you. Grab the arm of the chair you’re sitting in, reach for the nearest railing, grab hold of a tree branch – whatever it is, focus on the physical feeling of it, the texture, the temperature, the solidity of it in your hand.
•Repeat a calming mantra. “This is just anxiety. It will go away again.” “I am OK. I am safe.” “Just keep breathing.” The idea of a mantra is to give yourself a handhold to keep from getting totally swallowed by the anxious thoughts. Think about what thought would be particularly soothing for you in anxious moments and then repeat as needed. The repetition can also be soothing in and of itself.
•Rate your worry on a scale of one to ten. When anxious thoughts keep flying at you over and over, like a particularly persistent mosquito, they can start to feel more urgent or dangerous than they really are. Try to take a moment and rate how serious the worry actually is on a scale of 1-10. Even if part of your brain still believes this worry is a genuine emergency, rating it this way can help other parts of your mind to start looking at it more realistically.
•Ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen. When we feel highly anxious, we often have a vague feeling of doom that’s worse than the likely negative outcomes. Asking yourself what’s the worst that could happen, even if everything you’re worried about comes to pass, can sometimes bring a welcome shift in perspective that loosens anxiety’s grip a bit.
FINDING THE RIGHT TOOLS FOR YOU
The strategies I’ve talked about here are great tools for working with anxiety, but they’re just that – tools. Anxiety is a complex issue and sometimes you need help sorting through the right tools for you and perfecting your technique with them. If it feels like anxiety is getting in the way of living your life, consider reaching out to a therapist who specializes in anxiety. They can help you hone in on the strategies that make the most sense for you while also supporting you in processing the parts of your life that may be contributing to your anxiety. Millions of people seek help from counselors each year to work through anxiety and build happier, healthier lives – there is hope!