(This post is for informational purposes and should not be considered a substitute for medical or psychological evaluation or treatment. For more on this, please see the end of this post.)
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety and fear are normal emotions. They alert you to danger – both physical and emotional. The trouble comes when the danger detecting systems of your brain go into overdrive and alert you to danger when there isn’t any. This can happen because of past trauma, a phobia, or a family history of anxiety.
Whatever the cause, when anxiety goes into overdrive, suddenly, the novel, interesting, fun things that used to bring interest and passion to your life seem threatening. Life is meant to be full of newness and change. When you get filled with fear and try to halt that evolution, you get stuck, stagnant, and unhappy.
Stories of Anxiety
Anxiety can take on lots of forms, but here are a couple of typical scenarios I see frequently in my office:
Anxiety in Teens
I see a lot of teens who get really anxious about homework. Does this sound familiar?
It’s 10:30 and Becca still has 2 assignments left, including math, which is her worst subject. You try to help and offer some suggestions for breaking things down, taking a break, and letting go of perfection, but this only escalates her anxiety more.
Unfortunately, you’ve found that the only thing you can do sometimes is sit and rub her back. It’s late. You both feel helpless and powerless. She’s exhausted, you’re exhausted. There has to be another way.
I see a lot of adults who have tried very hard to get a handle on their anxiety but can’t.
They have tried exercise, talking to friends, distraction techniques, having a few glasses of wine, or just ignoring it. Unfortunately, things escalate and then they can’t sleep, they feel jumpy and irritable, they avoid their friends, try to hide their problem, and have panic attacks.
Can you see how good anxiety is at making you think you are going crazy? Your rational mind knows what you should do, but you just can’t.
Almost everyone who steps into my office for help with anxiety feels that they are the only one. Let me tell you a secret – you are not alone in your anxiety!
I’m anxious. You’re anxious. We are all anxious. We are an anxious lot in our society.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, while just 1% of the population suffers schizophrenia, 18% of the population suffers from anxiety. That’s nearly 2 out of every 10 people. Women seem to be more prone to anxiety as well. We are twice as likely as men to suffer from panic disorder, for example. (For more statistics and information on anxiety, click here.)
I want you to know that you are far from alone in your anxiety, and you can develop a harmonious relationship with it. Fear and anxiety can be helpful.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety?
There are so many different ways that anxiety can make itself known in your body, but here is a short list of common examples*:
Constantly thinking about your worries
Shallow, quick breathing
Butterflies in the stomach
This list could extend on too, because each body experiences anxiety differently. What in your body tells you that you are feeling fear and anxiety?
Coping Skills for Anxiety
As I reflect on my work with clients and my own experience of anxiety, you know what really strikes me? We all try to ignore it, run away from it, or push it down. And you know what? The more we do that, the more power we give it.
The good news is, anxiety is very treatable, and there are excellent resources to help. The skills take practice, but most people can get a handle on their anxiety.
Here’s an important tip on managing anxiety: Expect a coping tool to help 10%.
Just 10%? Yup. That’s it. Most of us need a varied set of tools in our “Coping Toolbox” to feel calm and in control most of the time.
Here are 10 of my favorite coping tools for anxiety:
1. Acknowledge Your Anxiety, Don’t Push It Away
One of the most powerful tools I know for dealing with anxiety is to acknowledge it. Stop trying to run from it, pretend it isn’t there, block it, or mask it.
Greet anxiety: Pretend your anxiety is a person, a friend of yours. You hear a knock on the door. You open it and invite her inside. Like you would with any guest, find out what she needs – a drink? A seat? Someone to listen to her? What has she come to say?
Take the time to really listen to anxiety and see what she needs. She is trying to communicate to you with the tightness in your back, sweaty palms, and difficulty breathing. Try to listen like you would to a friend.
If it feels hard to imagine this all in your head, write it down like a story. Could you follow through on meeting her needs? Get yourself a drink, have a seat, or journal about what is worrying you. Let anxiety know someone is listening.
For more about embracing your anxiety click here.
2. Get Grounded 3,2,1:
Get into a comfortable seated position with your feet on the floor or lying down. Name 3 things you SEE, 3 things you HEAR, 3 things you FEEL. Then name 2 you SEE, 2 you HEAR, and 2 you FEEL. Now repeat a round of 1 of each. It gets harder to SEE, HEAR, and FEEL new things, with each round, so do your best. Focusing on the here and now sensations is what will help ground you and dissipate the anxiety. There’s a great infographic of this skill here.
3. Write It Out:
Sit down with a piece of paper, the computer, or a journal and write about what is bothering you. This is especially effective when you are struggling to get focused on your work or relaxing for sleep.
4. Water It Down:
Many of us feel calmed by the water and temperature changes, so use water to your advantage. Drink something cold. Take a hot shower or bath. Run ice along your inner arm. Put a cool washcloth on your forehead and take some deep breaths.
5. Doodle It Out:
You don’t need to be Leonardo DaVinci to benefit from doodling. Take an index card and fill it with as many types of circles as you can. Turn on some relaxing music in another language or without words to help you get into a state of “flow” where you aren’t thinking too much. This will give your mind and heart a much needed vacation. Check out this post on meditating through art for step by step instructions.
6. Call a Friend
Be wise here. Don’t call the friend who is always full of “You shoulds” and advice. She’s awesome for a lot of things, but she’s not the person you call when you just need to vent and be heard. Call the person who will quietly listen, validate your feelings, distract you, or make you laugh. Be thoughtful about what you need and how to get it. You deserve that. Yes, you do! Click here for more on how to really love yourself.
7. Get In Child’s Pose
Child’s Pose is a great grounding pose. It helps you shut out outside stimuli and tune into your breath. Of course, while this is a “simple” pose, you should always pay attention to your own body and what feels safe to you.
8.Work Up a Sweat!
A good workout can be a great way to “exorcise” all those feelings. Find what works best for you and do it. Hiking, biking, cross country skiing, dancing, Zumba-ing, whatever it is, get out there and do it!
9. Get Connected to Nature
Standing next to a tree and closely examining the bark, finding images in the clouds, or feeling foamy waves wash over your feet are all ways of connecting to our natural world. It’s called “grounding” for a reason, right? Click here for more on the benefits of getting outdoors.
10. Make Self-Care Coping Cards!
I wanted to offer you a fun, personalized way to remember these coping skills. I’ve created a great printable with which you can create a little book of your coping skills, both new and existing.
Just download and print the two PDF sheets, cut the squares, and paste them onto index cards. If you want to bind them together to create book, you can use a hole punch and an “O” ring from Staples, or sew the cards to bind them like a book. I covered my index cards with high quality, bold colored papers.
Click and Print Your Free Printable Self-Care Cards
How do you know you need help with your anxiety?
Defining when it’s time to get help with your anxiety is a very individual matter. You might start by asking yourself some questions:
How much is anxiety interfering with your life? Is it getting in the way of work? Social life? Relationships? Self-care? Do you avoid activities or people you used to enjoy because of anxiety? Do you feel out of control?
If you are questioning whether you need help, it may be time to consult a professional. Talk to a health provider that you trust. Coping skills training, psychotherapy, acupuncture, and medication are all treatment options. (And there are many more!)
Click here to learn more about Art Therapy in Foxboro, MA and how you and I might team up to help you master your anxiety.
More Coping Tools and Resources for Anxiety:
I think Ingrid Michaelson sums it up well. I like how she takes a sad song and sets it to really happy music so that you can’t help but feel good. Pretty clever, huh?
*This post is meant for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or psychological evaluation or treatment. If you are concerned about your physical health, please see your doctor to rule out any medical conditions.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors, please seek emergency treatment immediately.