by Jennifer Martin Rieck, LCPC
Sigmund Freud, famous Austrian neurologist and the father of psychoanalysis, labeled anxiety “something felt”: an emotional state that individuals feel. Anxiety usually causes a person to feel apprehension, dread, excitement, tension, nervousness, and worry. Anxiety might be experienced as a rapidly beating heart, cold sweats, tightness in the chest, butterflies in the stomach, or tingly hands and fingers. Along with these feelings, individuals with anxiety also experience heightened physiological arousal. You’ve probably heard somewhere along the way about the Fight or Flight systems of the human body. These systems are cascades of physiological response that happen in the body due to stimulus in the environment. These responsive states are a form of supercharge aimed at helping humans to survive. In caveman days, a sudden jolt of anxiety might cause someone to escape a bear or lion by a sudden surge of energy that helps them to run (a flight reaction). Similarly, they might not fall off of a cliff when they freeze, paralyzed by fear.
Dealing with Modern Day Anxiety
Now let’s fast forward to modern times, when on a day-to-day basis most of us don’t encounter life threatening situations. Our anatomy and brains are still hardwired to protect us and so there are times when our physiology still kicks in and takes over. In 2019, research indicated that roughly 8% of Americans suffered from excessive anxiety. Since the COVID pandemic began, that number is 2-3 times higher according to recent research. To put this in layman’s terms: if you suffer from anxiety, you are not alone. Especially now.
There are, however, things that you can do to be proactive when combatting anxiety. Below are five techniques that help to alleviate anxiety. Remember, as with anything, practice makes perfect. The more you practice these 5 techniques, the better you will get at sensing your anxiety coming on and the better you will get at managing it effectively.
5 Techniques to Practice When Your Anxiety is Getting the Best of You:
- Deep breathing. Often when we get anxious, we start taking short, shallow breaths. This actually increases the carbon dioxide in our bodies which worsens our symptoms. When you feel yourself starting to panic or be anxious, be intentional about pausing and taking a few minutes to practice deep breathing. Take a deep breath, filling your lungs completely, hold it while counting to five, and then exhale slightly longer than you inhaled, letting out all of the carbon dioxide. Practice repeating this until you feel the anxiety lessen.
- Self-talk matters. It can be extremely helpful to practice new ways of thinking. It can be tempting to catastrophize or over exaggerate the negative aspects of situations. However, research shows that we have more control over our feelings than we might think. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is often an effective therapy for anxiety and depression because it focuses on changing our thoughts and thought patterns. Sometimes simply reframing, or describing our situation in a more positive light, helps us to control our anxiety. Practice rewording how you talk about your situation to yourself and others and see if this helps to lessen your anxiety.
- Practice talking through worst case scenarios. It can be helpful when you feel overwhelmed with anxiety over the future to consider what, within reason, is the worst that could happen. Again, focusing on a complete picture of what the worst thing that may occur and how you would respond, often times helps decrease anxiety by giving you a sense of empowerment. Especially if you can immediately follow up the worst-case scenario by thinking of a time in your past when you have overcome a similar circumstance or event. Often our fear of the unknown is actually worse than the realistic possible outcome. Once we name the worst situation likely to occur and problem solve how we might overcome it, we feel empowered to take action and our anxiety lessens.
- Seek support. Never underestimate the power of a support system. Whether you prefer to confide in your partner, a parent, a friend, or a therapist, sometimes just processing your feelings with another can help to alleviate anxious symptoms. If you don’t have someone in your life that you feel safe confiding in, a therapist may be a helpful option. A therapist can help to normalize your experience and offer alternative ways to think about your situation, which may lessen your anxiety. In fact, research indicates that even for individuals taking medication for depression and/or anxiety, individuals usually experience the greatest improvement of symptoms by including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in their treatment plan.
For more extensive information on managing your thoughts and defeating negative self-talk, see my previous post Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda:Fighting Words.
For more information on how you can change neuropathways in your brain, read The Starting Lineup: Addiction and Change.