Top Tricks from Therapists on How to Deal with Anxiety
What's the worst part of having anxiety? Worrying about how much you worry. Here's how to stop.
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Deal with it in down dog
It’s the mental health vicious cycle: Exercise has been scientifically proven as one of the best remedies for anxiety and depression, yet getting sweaty is often the last thing anxious people feel like doing. Even worse, sometimes just the thought of going to a gym full of people in spandex is enough to trigger an anxiety attack. Enter yoga. You can do it in the privacy of your own home and it’s gentle enough that most people can do it. “The endorphins that exercise helps to release are crucial for people with anxiety as they often have a small ‘window of tolerance,’ meaning stressors that seem small to others feel very big to them,” says Kelsey Torgerson, a licensed clinical social worker and anxiety and anger management specialist in St. Louis, adding that she personally does yoga four times a week. “Yoga increases that window of tolerance and builds stress management skills.” Having a full-blown panic attack and need to know how to deal with anxiety? Use these tips for dealing with an anxiety attack in the moment.
Get off social media
Feeling anxious and stressed out? A lot of people will take a brain break by scrolling through Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Unfortunately, this “rest” may be doing you more harm than good when it comes to anxiety, says Rebecca Burton, a licensed marriage and family counselor. “Staying continually plugged in means you are susceptible to the anxiety-provoking events of the day, whether it’s that a good friend is ill or a large-scale disaster is unfolding,” she says. Not to mention how comparing yourself to others on social media can be anxiety-inducing in its own right. Why don’t you have 6-pack abs, an immaculate kitchen, and children that spout wise sayings every 30 minutes? But disconnecting can be harder than it sounds, as social media addiction is a legit problem. Instead of constantly checking your notifications, plan breaks, Burton advises.
Accept anxiety as a part of life
“When a client tells me they have anxiety, I say ‘Great!, which often takes them by surprise,” says Akshay Nanavati, speaker and author of Fearvana: The Revolutionary Science of How to Turn Fear into Health, Wealth and Happiness. “Embracing and harnessing your anxiety will help you control it rather than it controlling you.” He explains that suffering is part of life and you can learn how to build a positive relationship with pain. There’s a myth that life is supposed to be all happiness and if you have a problem it’s because you are doing something wrong. Not so, he says. And one of the worst parts of anxiety is the fear of impending pain but it’s silly to start the suffering early. Accept that there will be struggles and know you are strong enough to deal with them when they happen. If your anxiety feels too overwhelming and you can’t put it in perspective, it may be time to see your doctor about therapy and/or medication. In the meantime, try these natural at-home remedies for anxiety-relief.
Just do it
Procrastination and anxiety go hand-in-hand as a lot of anxiety comes from worrying about future events. For things you have direct control over, like your job performance or to-do list, start working on them, even if you don’t feel quite ready, says Denise Limongello, a licensed psychotherapist and life coach based in Manhattan. “Many studies indicate that people often respond to anxiety with avoidance,” she says. “It might be tempting to avoid doing the thing that makes you anxious but instead of putting it off, do it right away.” And for things you simply can’t control, like hurricanes and your mother-in-law, doing whatever you can do to prepare for them will help ease your anxiety. Can’t pinpoint your anxiety to one specific worry? You may have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a mental illness where you feel surrounded by a cloud of formless worry all the time. But there’s hope: Here’s what you need to know about GAD and how to get help.
Learn to recognize your physical signs of anxiety
Ever read a tip online and think, “Sure, that’s great for other people but it just doesn’t work for me?” Each person feels anxiety a little differently, and therefore each person will respond better to some techniques than to others, Torgerson says. It seems obvious now but dealing with anxiety isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing. Start by figuring out how your body reacts to anxiety. Do you tense up and freeze or do you want to run away? Do you feel it mostly in your stomach or chest? Do you breathe heavily? Feel nauseous? Do your palms go clammy? All of this is information you can use, she says. “As soon as you notice your first sign of anxiety, immediately take some deep breaths then do something you know will help you calm down, not just what works for someone else,” she says. “Being proactive goes a long way in helping to manage your anxiety.” Physical symptoms are just one sign of anxiety, however. These are signs you may have an anxiety disorder.
Create a healthy routine
An easy way for you to learn how to deal with anxiety is to create a healthy routine. “Anxiety feeds on poor sleep, junk food, alcohol, and drugs, and inactivity,” Burton says. The fact that you feel better when you’re taking care of yourself isn’t news but these daily habits can be the first thing to go during a period of intense anxiety. So instead of worrying about how you’ve let the gym slip or whether your insomnia will be bad tonight, choose just one habit to focus on maintaining for one week. Be specific and write your goal down. Examples could be: No electronics after 10 p.m, eating three servings of vegetables per day, or taking a 20-minute walk three times per week. “As the habits you choose become more ingrained, you can add more to the list,” Burton says. “Getting your habits under control will improve your physical well-being and reduce your anxiety by improving your sense of self-efficacy—that feeling of being able to control your own life when situations around you feel stressful.”
See anxiety as a feature, not a flaw
Anxiety can be gut-wrenchingly painful, no doubt about it. But it does have some upsides you can harness to help you, Nanavati says. Instead of being paralyzed by your worries, see them as a call to action for how to deal with anxiety. “A growth mindset is one that believes any event or circumstance is an opportunity for growth and that anyone can achieve anything with the right amount of effort,” he says. Instead of blaming your circumstances or questioning your abilities, let your anxiety motivate you to change the things that are worrying you. Often, it’s the anxiety itself that’s worrying people but remember that some level of anxiety can be helpful, like making you be proactive and work towards goals. Not sure how to do this? Start by repeating these magical phrases that instantly calm anxiety.
Set a breathing alarm
Taking a few cleansing breaths or doing a mini-meditation every few hours is great for reducing anxiety—but only if you remember to do it. This is why Torgerson recommends setting a reminder alert on your phone to go off at preset intervals. “When their reminder goes off, I tell them to take three deep diaphragmatic breaths, breathing slowly through their nose for three counts, and out of their mouth for five,” she says. Or download a meditation app and set it to remind you to do a mini-meditation every day. It’s a simple thing, but just remembering to take a few minutes out of your busy day for yourself can go a long way. Or you can take a few minutes at a certain time each day to “visit” with your worries in what’s called “worry postponement.” Set a specific time; just make sure your visit doesn’t run long. And it’s worth it in more ways than one: Check out these proven health benefits of just five minutes of meditation.
Act it out
If you’re worried about a particular situation, like giving a presentation at work or running into an ex-boyfriend, rehearsing it will both improve your performance when it happens and reduce your anxiety in the present, says Limongello. “Studies show that exercises such as role-playing can lead to increased confidence and reduced anxiety,” she says, adding that you can practice solo or role play with a trusted friend.
Give yourself a break
Worrying about worrying is a real problem, and people who are anxious by nature are often shamed—by others and themselves—with labels like “worrywart,” “killjoy,” or “party pooper.” But calling yourself names and feeling ashamed of your anxiety only makes the problem worse, Nanavati says. (And make sure you’re not confusing your stress for anxiety—you should aim to reduce both but your body experiences each one differently.) “Buddha said we are all struck by two darts: The first is a painful event and the second is how we respond to that pain,” he explains. “Instead of being mad at yourself or asking ‘Why me?’ recognize that you control how you respond to your emotions.” Don’t get caught up in the self-reinforcing anxiety cycle of “What if” and refocus on positive thoughts.
Anxiety can be downright paralyzing, which in turn can cause even more anxiety. Combat this by doing something, anything, to break the cycle, Burton says. “Anxiety is fear plus helplessness. Depending on the scope of the situation, and how much it impacts you, choose to get involved to the extent that you can. Whether it’s calling your sick friend to offer tangible help or giving blood after a disaster, finding a way to actively contribute can help you feel a sense of empowerment in anxiety-provoking situations,” she says. Next, learn the things all people with anxiety will understand.
- Kelsey Torgerson, MSW, a licensed clinical social worker and anxiety and anger management specialist in St. Louis.
- Rebecca Burton, a licensed marriage and family counselor.
- Akshay Nanavati, speaker and author of Fearvana: The Revolutionary Science of How to Turn Fear into Health, Wealth and Happiness.
- Denise Limongello, LMSW, a licensed psychotherapist and life coach based in Manhattan.