We all worry. We are anxious about money, our relationships, work, our health, our family's health, and pretty much anything else we care about that we can't absolutely control. We think about overwhelming tasks when we wake up and fall asleep thinking about what calamity tomorrow could bring. Sometimes it's hard to tell what's more exhausting — the things we worry about or the worry itself. You may sometimes find yourself asking, Am I going to be this anxious for the rest of my life?
While you can't control external events, you can control how you react to them. Here are six ways to reduce your stress and anxiety, even if you can't banish them completely:
Identify Your Triggers
I know what anxiety feels like physically, when it's happening. That's easy. It starts in my chest and then works its way up my throat. Sometimes it feels like my tongue swells and blocks my breathing. I have to sip water just to make sure I’m swallowing.
Identifying the cause of my anxiety, however, is much more difficult.
One technique for gaining control over your anxiety is to notice when you experience it. Is it when you're around certain people? At a certain time of day or at night? What are the thought patterns? Are you reading the news, watching television, scrolling through social media sites? Asking these kinds of questions can help identify triggers that set off your anxiety.
Clinical psychologist Elvira Aletta refers to this method of questioning as an "anxiety thermometer": "As you feel the anxiety blip up or down take note of what is going on and what you're thinking. This way you may be able to notice patterns, like always spiking up to 8 when it's time for a staff meeting, or going down to 2 when American Idol is on. Over time this exercise will help you recognize your triggers."
Once you’ve identified some of your triggers, you can decide if any of them could be eliminated from your life or made to occur less frequently. I start feeling pretty down on myself if I’m on Facebook or Twitter for too long, not only because I get caught up in other people’s lives but also because I’m wasting time that I could be putting toward something more in line with my values and desires. I start to think about every bad choice I make, and then I get anxious that I’ll never live the life I want. Boom. Anxiety. Fear. What I have to do is limit my time on social media sites. To do this, I use an app called SelfControl. Another trigger for me are certain groups of people, so I try to limit the amount of time I spend with them.
Tip: Keep a journal with you. Each time you start to feel anxious, write down where you are and what you’re doing. What were you thinking or talking about? Once you’ve identified what kinds of situations and encounters set you off, then you can make it a point to limit the time you put yourself in those positions.
Change Your Perspective
One of the reasons anxiety and stress freak us out is that they cause physiological changes that can feel frightening in the moment. When I'm anxious, my heartbeat quickens and I have shortness of breath. Then I get scared. Then I get stressed, and stress is bad, right, and unhealthy, right? I mean this whole article is about how to reduce anxiety, which is compounded by stress, which means it’s not something we want to experience.
Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal speaks to this thought spiral in one of her TED talks. She references studies that prove changing our minds can change our body’s response to stress. What if instead of seeing our heart beating faster as something to fear, we saw it as our bodies' way of getting more oxygen to the brain to help ourselves overcome what’s troubling us? What if we saw our reactions as helpful, a way to face the challenge?
The next time you start to feel the symptoms of stress and anxiety, try to flip the switch. Pause for a moment, maybe close your eyes, and see your body’s response as a way to help you through the feelings of anxiety. Maybe your heart pounding makes you pay attention to your breath, which reminds you that you’re alive, well, and safe.
How many times do you get up in the morning, check your phone, hop in the shower, grab a piece of fruit and rush out the door, whizzing past people because you’re anxious about getting to where you need to be on time? Or maybe you wake up relaxed, but then the to-dos start multiplying, and you’re suddenly paralyzed. It’s easy to get so caught up in the shoulds and have-tos that you feel you can’t even think of taking a break — but a break is exactly what you need.
The feeling that you can’t turn off or let go of your thoughts is common, but you can help ease your anxiety through meditation. If you sit even for five minutes a day and breathe, you can reduce your anxiety.
Meditation is about witnessing your thoughts as they come in and out: seeing and acknowledging them but not attaching to them. The moment you notice yourself dwelling on a topic, just label the experience “thinking,” let the thought go, and come back to your breath. For meditation instruction, I am a huge fan of Susan Piver’s Open Heart Project. She teaches you the basics of meditation, and each guided meditation comes with a teaching.
If you're in a place where you can't meditate, but you're feeling overwhelmed or notice self doubt creeping in, try breathing into the spot where you feel the anxiety most in your body, then exhaling it out of your body. I do this until the constriction is gone. Then I try to mentally replace the negative emotion with an image that makes me smile, like birds on a tree branch, or my nieces.
I live in a city, so whenever I visit my parent’s house in the suburbs, I feel anxious. I always think someone’s going to break into the house. Then a couple of years ago I learned about the Emotional Freedom Technique, or what most people who know about it call tapping. It’s a combination of Chinese acupressure and modern psychology. So when I went to my parents and felt the same fears rising, I sat up in my bed and I started tapping. After a couple minutes, I felt calm and was able to fall asleep.
The idea is to focus on the fear that’s plaguing you and while doing so tap five to seven times with your fingertips on the 12 meridian points on your body. By the last round of tapping, you’re anxiety is reduced, and you feel safe and secure.
I know it may sound a bit out there, but research indicates that EFT can reduce anxiety. A series of studies at Harvard Medical School showed that fear and stress, which are controlled by the amygdala, can be reduced by stimulating the meridian points, especially those used in acupuncture, acupressure, and tapping. Also, when the Stress Project, created by Dawson Church, Ph.D., taught tapping to PTSD victims, there was an average 63 percent decrease in symptoms after six rounds of tapping.
Here’s a link for the basic tapping sequence for anxiety.
Watch Your Words
When I tell people I have a lot of work to do, or if I keep saying over and over again that I’m swamped, that I can’t go out because I’ve got so much going on, all I’m doing is confirming these facts to myself. The more I tell myself I’m not going to get that job or there’s no way I’ll be able to succeed at an important project, the more I'm basically signing a contract with myself that I will fail. We may not think about it, but how we talk does affect our feeling state. If we say we’re busy all the time or overwhelmed, we attract busy-ness and the feeling of being overwhelmed into our lives.
Studies indicate that positive repetitive thought enables recovery from depression and upsetting traumatic events, which means it’s a great idea to start rewiring our words. A lot of what needs to happen first is to pay attention to what words you’re using to describe your day. When someone asks you how things are going, what do you say? If you notice you’re answering with anxiety-inducing statements, change them up.
Another great way to keep anxiety at bay is to repeat three or four affirmations to yourself a day. Whenever you start to feel the negative vibes emerge, pause, take a breath, and say your affirmation. Mine are, "I always have more than enough time to complete all that I need to with ease and grace." "What I have to say is necessary. My words are valuable." "You never have to convince anyone of anything ever."
To come up with affirmations, on one side of the page write down what you fear or what you’re insecure about. Maybe it’s, "I feel stupid," or, "I’ll never meet new friends." Then translate these into positive statements like, "I am smart." "I make new friends wherever I go." If you need help, feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com. Affirmations are a wonderful way to shift away from the fear-based mantras we tell ourselves daily.
Move Your Body
For me, anxiety shows up as a lot of unused energy. I can be sitting on my couch, then walking into the kitchen, and then head upstairs, all because I can’t sit still. The best thing for me at that point is to head to a class, go for a walk, or take a swim. But I’ve noticed that regularly moving my body helps reduce my anxiety to begin with.
That's not surprising, given that studies dating back to the 1950s show that exercise reduces depression and anxiety disorders.
I’d recommend trying a class you’ve always been interested in instead of just hitting the gym. That way you get a boost in confidence from trying and succeeding at something new (I define succeeding as simply taking the class), and also the stress release from the activity itself.
Hopefully, some of the above techniques will help you as much as they’ve helped me. The more you start to incorporate these easy rituals into your days, the less control anxiety will have over you.