When anxiety levels are high it can feel like a vice is squeezing your chest or like you can’t catch your breath. You may get butterflies in your stomach, feel nauseated or woozy, sweaty, or have a flushed face, neck and chest. You may want to yell, scream, run away, cry, or be by yourself. If you’re like many people, your anxiety not only makes you feel awful, you’re also hard on yourself about it. It may feel like no one you know gets as anxious as you do, which makes you feel frustrated and alone. But—you’re not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety is the most common mental health issue in the US.
This actually makes a lot of sense because anxiety is a normal human emotion. We all have it when confronted with certain stressors, or when in danger. If you are in an uncomfortable or scary situation, or have a work deadline, an exam, or an event coming up that you’re dreading, anxiety can actually help by sending you signals to do something, take action, get organized! We’re wired that way to help keep ourselves safe and get through challenges unscathed. The problem is that for some folks, their anxiety feels way more intense than for others, it pops up more often, and they feel like they can’t shut it off. Lots of factors influence our anxiety levels, but for now, let’s focus on a few skills that can help you start to let that shit go!
Take care of yourself.
Think basic here—eat balanced meals, move your body, take any medications as prescribed, go to the doctor for check-ups, and above all else-get some sleep! When our physical health is out of whack it’s harder to deal with anxiety. Your body only has so much energy to go around so something has to give. Bottom line—if you’re not physically ok, that’s going to impact not only your anxiety levels, but also your emotions and how you deal with them.
I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but it’s so important that it bears repeating. Going about our day we typically take shallow breaths, and if you’re a bit more stressed or anxious on a given day, your breathing is likely to be even quicker and shallower than usual. This kind of breathing pattern impacts anxiety, and not in a good way! There’s lots of research supporting the fact that slowing down your breath, and doing breathing exercises reduces and calms anxiety responses. There are many options for this, but I’ll just touch on a few. I recommend you google 4-7-8 breathing, square breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation. Or, you can just take a few deep breaths. Simply taking a few deep, slow breaths can calm things down and keep your emotions and anxiety in check. If you close your eyes to breathe and your mind starts racing—open your eyes! Just keep them fixed on one spot while you’re breathing.
Notice where your thoughts are going.
This is such an important topic that I’ll be getting into this in more detail in a follow up blog entitled, “How to tame negative thinking”. If your thoughts tend to go toward the worst possible scenario, or your worries get stuck on a loop, try to just notice that. Oftentimes, people tell me that they try to get rid of their thoughts, or just ignore them. Sounds like a good idea right? When I ask how that’s working for clients, they say it isn’t! Being mindful of your thoughts and how they are affecting you is a big step toward dealing with them. So, the first step is noticing the thoughts and then saying something like, “there’s that thought again, but I’m going to remind myself that this is just a thought, and I’m going to do my best to let it go and think about something else.” I know it’s not easy, but with practice this simple skill can get you started on tackling negative thinking that’s keeping you stuck.
Get out of your head by using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.
5-4-3-2-1 is a grounding skill that can be really helpful if your anxiety is high, or if you are stuck on thoughts or worries. The basic principle is that when you use all of your senses, it helps get you back into the moment and out of your head.
A few things to keep in mind as you go through this. First, it’s important to just stick to the facts. That means not using words that are opinions or judgments, such as: ugly, stupid, annoying, etc. When we use those kind of descriptions, it can keep the anxiety around by bringing up other negative thoughts that go along with those words. Second, the instructions tell you to say things out loud. While people sometimes feel silly doing it, there’s a good reason for it. Just by using your voice, you are engaging another one of your senses which can be calming, and help you get back in the moment and out of your head. Here’s how this simple, but effective, exercise goes:
Start by taking a deep breath. Next…
5—Name 5 things you see in your environment and say them out loud. For example, "I see a plant" "I see a blue plate".
4—What are 4 sounds that you hear? Say them out loud—"I hear the wind, the rain, my dog scratching", etc.
3—Notice 3 things that you feel and say them out loud—"I feel my cold fingers", "I feel my feet on the ground and the seat beneath me"
2—Notice 2 things that you smell and say them out loud. If you don’t smell anything you can grab a scented lotion, piece of citrus fruit, peppermint candy, or anything with a smell you like. If that’s not an option, you can say two scents that you enjoy.
1—Name one thing you can taste or something you love the taste of. Another option is to name one positive thing about yourself. This can even be that you completed this grounding exercise!
End the exercise with another deep breath. Done!
Change things up.
It’s so easy to do the same things over and over—there’s a lot of comfort in routine. People tend to get into habits of doing things the same way—even when those things aren’t working. So, the next time you’re at work stewing about what someone said at a meeting, thinking about what annoying thing your partner did last night, or just feeling on edge, do something out of the ordinary for you. Go outside and take a 3 minute walk, do some grounding or breathing, color a mandala or learn to Zentangle, dance around to music, call a friend, pet your dog, or even watch animal videos on YouTube. The options are endless and it’s a good idea to try different things to see what works for you, and what doesn’t. Remember that a comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there!
If you want to learn more about coping skills for anxiety, or to schedule a free 15 minute phone consultation, please feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com, or call me at (732) 649-8112. I provide psychotherapy in my Hillsborough, NJ office and online anywhere in NJ for anxiety and stress, relationship issues and working through trauma.