Anxiety is by far the most common mental health condition, affecting over 90% of the population of the United States at one time or another in our lifetimes. Anxiety can span from a mild case of nervousness related to a situation or a person we are uncomfortable around, to a terror so great we are afraid to leave our own homes. The good news, however, is that anxiety treatment is effective in most cases, and there are some very simple practices that can keep anxiety at bay in the future.
1. Belly breathing — The first and most simple and direct way to calm anxiety is something we do every day. Breathing. The problem is that when we are anxious, we breathe in a way that can actually make our anxiety worse. Shallow, rapid breathing reduces the amount of oxygen that is getting into our systems and causes us to feel lightheaded and anxious.
Belly breathing is a deeper, slower form of breathing that enables oxygen saturation and tells our bodies and our brains that everything is ok and we are not in danger. When our brain gets that message it stops kicking out stress hormones and slows our heart rate back down, relieving our anxiety.
To practice belly breathing, sit comfortably and put one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. Breathe slowly and deeply so that the hand on your stomach rises, not the one on your chest. It takes practice, so try to find one or two minutes several times a day to belly breathe. If you wait until you are really anxious, you wont have the best results. Practice when you aren’t anxious so that it will work when you need it.
2. Change your self-talk — When we are anxious, we tend to talk to ourselves, or think to ourselves, in very negative ways. These negative messages fuel our anxiety, which increases catastrophic thoughts, and on and on. When our thoughts are telling us that we are headed for disaster, it is only natural that our body would respond with heightened vigilance, rapid heart rate, and tensed muscles. Our bodies are programmed to deal with danger by getting ready to fight or flee.
The simple act of changing our thoughts can change our body’s response to a more calm state. “I’m going to get fired if I’m late!” can be changed to “While it isn’t good to be late, I am not in danger of losing my job.” “Everybody hates me” can be changed to “Sometimes I feel insecure about people liking me, but I am friendly, warm, and likeable.” One message would make anyone feel horrible and frantic, the other is a more reality based message that creates a calm and coping response.
3. Stay in the present — Anxiety is very often a future-oriented condition. We worry about what might happen — the persistent “what if” that can can never be answered in the moment. The sad part though, is that we are sacrificing our moments, one by one, to the unanswerable “what if.”
When you find yourself feeling anxious, look at what you are thinking about. Is it taking place right here and now? If not, shift your focus back on this very moment. Right now I am sitting here in my office, and I am alive and healthy. I can hear the birds outside my window and see the shadows cast by the late afternoon sun. Experience that moment with all of your senses and move back into your self right now.
Tomorrow will come and the questions you worried so much about will be answered. And if experience holds true, those answers won’t be half as bad as you expected yesterday. They might even be quite surprisingly nice.
These practices can reliably reduce your anxiety, but it does take practice and focus. Counseling for anxiety can also be helpful if symptoms are more severe or longstanding.
Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC is a therapist who specializes in Marriage and Family Therapy in Denver, CO. She provides individual, couples, and family therapy through Maria Droste Counseling Center.