Anxiety has an uncanny ability to rush in like a flood, taking over your thoughts and your body’s reactions without your consent. The worry washes over your mind and drowns out every other thought, creates an unnerving pounding in your heart, and makes it difficult to concentrate on anything else.
Anxiety can feel completely uncontrollable and overwhelming.
The good news is you can learn how to steer through the flood and come out on solid ground with these simple tools and techniques. Each technique, on its own, provides a positive step in the right direction. However, the more tools you practice in conjunction, the more solid footing you’ll find.
Check In With Your Physical Self
When you’re in the midst of a high-anxiety episode, assess your body’s physical cues first. Are you cold? Are you hungry? Could you be over-caffeinated?
The physical sensations related to being cold or hot, having low blood sugar, or over-stimulation from caffeine, to name just a few, can mimic those of anxiety or can heighten anxiety’s effects. They can make you feel lightheaded, shaky, and on edge.
When you address these factors, you may be able to reverse some of those symptoms and calm your nervous system in the process, which brings your anxiety level down.
The takeaway: Limit the amount of caffeine, sugar, and processed foods in your diet if you find these things affect you. When you notice anxiety symptoms, check in with yourself to see if there’s a physical reason for it that might be simple to tackle.
Bonus tip: Create a coping card that reminds you to check in with your physical body first when you’re experiencing anxiety. Add the other strategies from this list as well, and keep the card in your wallet.
Disrupt Your Habitual Thoughts
If anxiety leads you to ruminate about worries or stressors, you can actively disrupt that pattern by shifting your focus. Disruption may involve physically leaving the environment you’re in or performing a different activity to shift your mind out of rumination mode. In addition to shifting away from negative thoughts, also redirect your attention to something more positive.
For example, if relationship anxiety creeps in as you’re doing the laundry at home, go outside for a walk or take a ride to a park with your children. The change of activity and scenery will help your mind and body to reset. Green spaces and sunlight also have a significant impact on lowering anxiety.
The takeaway: The next time you’re overcome by anxious thoughts, displace them by taking a break from whatever you’re doing, even if it feels difficult. Bonus points if you can get outside!
Channel Your Anxious Energy Into Physical Activity
Anxiety and the accompanying fight-or-flight adrenaline response may make you feel like you have an excess of energy. Use that energy buildup to fuel a productive activity such as a trail run or an organizing session at your house.
Physical activity is one of the most effective antidotes to anxiety. The physical activity can be both productive and cathartic at the same time. Not only does it help use up extra energy, but it also boosts natural endorphins that have a calming effect. Plus, if you take a run on a tree-lined trail, you get to reap the anxiety-taming benefits of being in nature as well.
The takeaway: channel your heightened state of arousal into a workout or other physically-demanding pursuit.
Balance Your Nervous System
Anxiety often triggers the sympathetic nervous system to take over, which stimulates your instinctual fight-or-flight response. You might notice your heartbeat picks up, your hands get clammy and shaky, or your breath gets quick and shallow.
The opposite of the sympathetic nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system. In a perfect world, we want these two systems to be in balance, but what that balance looks like will vary from one situation to the next. Sometimes, more sympathetic arousal is appropriate and necessary, whereas other situations might call for more parasympathetic arousal. However, if you’re in a state of anxiety, you probably have too much sympathetic activation. Most Americans tend toward an over-activated sympathetic nervous system and under-activated parasympathetic nervous system much of the time so you’re not alone if this is the case for you.
To help rebalance toward a more parasympathetic nervous system state, you can calm the sympathetic nervous system, by calming your body. One of the fasted and easiest ways to do this is to practice deep breathing. Slowing and deepening your breath tells your body to relax and naturally lowers your heart rate in the process. Make a point to relax your muscles on each exhale, and focus more on the exhale than on the inhale.
The takeaway: Reset your nervous system by taking slow, deep breaths, relaxing more muscles on every exhale, and focusing on the current moment.
These healthy anxiety-busting techniques can be effective for both adults and children, as well as those who experience stress but don’t suffer from anxiety.
If you need additional support for your anxiety or stress or would like a 15 minute phone consultation to get to know our psychiatric providers, you may schedule an appointment through our secure client portal or contact us.