Anxiety gets a bad rap these days. The emotion itself is actually an incredibly important for our survival, and without the wiring in our brain that stimulates our fight flight response, we would have never made it past the days of wearing animal skins and carrying around spears. Unfortunately our brains and nervous system have not advanced as quickly as our modern world has. We are operating with an outdated system that doesn’t have the capability to distinguish a real threat to our survival from thoughts and interpretations like “I am so frustrated by this rush hour traffic!” Our minds attach to troubling thoughts and signal down to our limbic system that there is trouble, causing us to feel the effects of hyper-arousal in our bodies. Since our limbic system is set up to respond to threat (real or imagined), we need tools to bring ourselves down from situations in which the fight flight response is not necessary. We also need tools to manage our perceptions on the front end so that we don’t accidentally set off the smoke detector when there isn’t a fire. The key is in realizing when you are getting hijacked by anxiety asap. Here are some clues:
- You feel extremely agitated, tense or afraid
- You are holding your breath or taking shallow breaths
- You are having tunnel vision
- You forget things easily or have racing thoughts
- You are getting chronically sick
- You have difficulty sleeping/insomnia
- You forget to eat or aren’t hungry
- You explode at people
- You avoid things
- You feel out of control
Here are some tips to prevent anxiety in the first place:
- Use mindfulness. Practice noticing thoughts feelings and sensations in the present moment. If you recognize that you are worrying about the future or obsessing over something in the past gently try and re-direct back to the moment at hand.
- Practice good self-care. Are you overbooking yourself, saying yes to everything, barely sleeping or neglecting your basic needs like eating, sleeping and being good to your body? Our threshold to manage anxiety and/or let things go without attaching to them decreases when we put ourselves last. When we aren’t taking care of ourselves, we are more likely to experience anxiety. Self care might look like: exercise, eating healthy meals, spending time doing leisure activities, yoga or meditation, therapy, creative things, connecting with people.
- Practice focusing on what you can control. Often anxiety thoughts and feelings occur when we are feeling groundless, helpless or powerless. Turn your mind towards what you can control (your daily schedule or what you want to eat for dinner, conversations you choose to have with people etc)
Here are some tips to reduce feelings of anxiety in the moment
- Breathe. This is the thing that I absolutely recommend to all my clients. Chances are, if you are anxious, you are holding your breath or taking shallow, constricted breaths. When we exhale, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for calming us down. Practice focusing on expanding each breath in and out.
- Ground. This can be done in many different ways but what I find helpful is to just notice your feet, feeling the weight of gravity and the connection to the earth. It can also be helpful to look around you to see what you notice about your surroundings. You might observe: oh wow, when did it turn into spring? Now you are back in the present
- Contain. Sometimes (most of the time) our feelings are hard to ignore. So practice creating a space for them to go to be dealt with later. Note: there is a difference between healthy containment and suppression.