What is anxiety?
Anxiety has become one of those catch-all terms that’s tossed around so often, it seems like everybody these days has it, talks about it, and has a cure for it.
Anxiety comes in different forms from pervasive worrying, to runaway thoughts, to feelings of overwhelming doom, to full blown physical reactions—shortness of breath, escalated heart rate, and tension.
Sometimes anxiety is brought on by thinking patterns. This is often characterized by excessive and unrealistic concerns about the future. These thinking patterns are focused primarily on the future and they can be stories of doom, stories of something bad happening, or an overwhelming feeling that you need to keep your mind on something or else things will escalate out of your control.
Sometimes anxiety is brought on by emotions (or the repression of emotions). Painful feelings like fear, sadness, anger, shame—these feelings don’t feel good, and often, as a coping device, we try to push them away. The byproduct of this repression and denial can be experienced as anxiety, rather than express the true emotion, anxiety is unconsciously offered up as a camouflage feeling.
Sometimes anxiety is brought on by physical sensations. If you’ve had a history of anxiety or panic attacks, the slightest physical reminder of this can set off a cascade of thought-induced anxiety. For example, if you have a history of panic attacks that rendered you weak in the knees—a moment of feeling weak in the knees can begin a tidal wave of thoughts and fears.
Anxiety is a feedback loop.
Whether your anxiety is brought on by thoughts, by feelings (or their repression), or by physical symptoms—you can quickly spiral into a feedback loop that fuels the anxiety and can explode into full-blown panic.
To reduce or stop anxiety, you can learn to target your thinking patterns, your emotions, or your physical sensations.
Here are my top ten strategies for stopping anxiety in its tracks, reducing the power it has in your life, and for taking charge when everything feels out of control:
When you’re experiencing anxiety, your thoughts are most likely speeding past you quicker than you can even register them. To get out of the feedback loop, ask yourself: What’s one true thing in this moment? By focusing on the truth, your mind lets go of the anxiety-inducing-future-centered thinking pattern. This slows your mind down enough to break the cycle.
When you’re in a spin-out, your mind is wanting to find control. This is why it’s hell-bent on trying to think about the future. It becomes almost superstitious in a way, believing that if it thinks about something, that it can prevent it from happening. To get out of the feedback loop: choose to surrender. To surrender means to give up the need for control, on purpose.
Put away the distraction. Whether it’s you’re shopping online, drinking a glass of wine, or obsessively checking your freaking phone… put the distractions away. Any distraction adds momentum to your spin out and adds fuel to your anxiety. Even though it seems like you get a little short-term relief, the anxiety doesn’t go anywhere. It’ll simply wait for you.
Set a timer. You can do anything for a two minutes. Set a timer and be a willing participant in whatever you’re feeling. Don’t allow your mind to start making up future stories. Simply set the timer and wait. Get curious about how anxiety works in your life—does it start with thought, emotion, or physical sensations? Treat anxiety like a visitor that’s invited to stay… but only for a little while.
Be a detective. Look for clues and patterns around your anxiety. Anxiety is often caused by unconscious triggers, so be diligent in looking for things that might have gone unnoticed. Often the trigger can happens hours, even days, before you realize that you’re feeling anxiety. These triggers can be events, emotions, lack of sleep, or even eating different foods. There are no right or wrong answers here. Just treat this as an invitation to get to know yourself.
Shake your hands. When you’re feeling panicky and restless and you feel anxiety coming on, try to simply shake it out. By giving yourself something physical to do, you'll not only change your physical sensations but you’ll interrupt your emotional and cognitive patterns.
Breathe—no really, breathe. When you’re in an anxiety loop, your body reacts by going into fight or flight. This means that your muscles tense, your breathing becomes more rapid, and more blood is sent to your arms and legs to prepare you to fight or to run. By breathing slowly, on purpose, you can override this response and get your physical body to calm down. Calming breath calms the body and calms the mind.
Write out your worst case scenario. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but it really works. By forcing yourself to just write down the worst thing that can happen here, you force your mind to slow down enough to gain a little bit of rational wisdom. Look over your worst case scenario and ask yourself: Can I handle that? Most often the answer is yes. If your answer is no, ask yourself what help, support, or assistance you’d need in order to handle it and then come up with a worst-case-scenario survival plan.
Tell yourself, “I’m just scared.” By naming what you feel (fear) and allowing yourself to own that feeling, you short-circuit the anxiety loop. If “scared” isn’t quite cutting it, use a word that describes what you’re feeling. Give yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling. “This is terror. I’m allowed to feel terror. My body was designed to feel this.”
As I mentioned earlier, anxiety can become a form of superstition and is often the byproduct of wanting an unrealistic amount of control. This seems counterintuitive because when youl feel anxious, you’re typically seeking more control. But, similar to surrender, telling yourself, “I am not that powerful,” often works beautifully to interrupt the mental spin out. This statement gives you permission to relax, and permission to not need everything to be perfect. By reminding yourself that you really aren’t in control, it allows you to surrender the idea that your mind needs to stay fixed on its rumination.