If you've ever been anxious, you've likely also heard someone tell you to "just think about something else" or even to "calm down." Obviously that kind of advice doesn't work. But sometimes, that sort of thinking ends up invading how you see your own anxiety, when really, the best anxiety relief often comes from ideas much more counterintuitive than simply "letting it go."
"[Many people don't] understand that you can't just change your thoughts to calm anxiety," licensed professional counselor and certified life coach Nancy Jane Smith tells Bustle. "Anxiety isn't solved by comments like 'just stop worrying,' 'think positive,' or 'be grateful.' Anxiety is irrational and hard to calm." So, if you've been trying to reason with your anxiety, the good and bad news is that likely won't work.
First, you need to understand that anxiety is a very common biological response. "We’ve gotten somewhat confused about anxiety and have gotten the idea that it is something to be quelled and calmed," licensed clinical psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety, Dr. Alicia Clark, tells Bustle. "In hearing how unhealthy anxiety can be, we have come to fear anxiety, and have complicated our relationship with this all-too-normal human emotion." Reworking your response to anxiety can, in turn, change your relationship to these emotions in general.
A key to making this shift is facing anxiety head on, as scary as that seems. "Like diving into an oncoming wave, embracing anxiety to hear its message and use its energy is counterintuitive," Dr. Clark says. "Our instinct is to avoid, but this only makes it worse. The more we fear anxiety, the more it escalates." Getting to know your anxiety is actually really healthy.
Here are nine counterintuitive ways to stop anxiety in its tracks, according to psychologists.
Ask Questions About Your Anxiety
This counterintuitive anxiety hack is similar to acknowledging your feelings, but goes one step further. Next time you're having a bout of anxiety, try exploring it by literally asking yourself questions about it.
"Anxiety usually shows up when we’re experiencing uncomfortable feelings like, anger, resentment, abandonment or fear, just to name a few," Cush says. "So, get curious. Where do you feel it in your body? What are you thinking? Are there uncomfortable feelings beneath the anxiety?" These questions, and their answers, will not only help you discover some valuable insight about your anxiety, but also get your head out of the cycle of unknowns and misplaced feelings.
Talk To Your Anxiety In The Third Person
Calling out your anxiety by name, and separating it from yourself, may seem silly or difficult, but it's a tried and true method of taking power away from the worst anxiety feelings.
"I encourage clients to name [the anxiety] voice, so when they feel anxious they can say 'Hello [Name],'" Smith says. "This reminds them that they are not their anxiety ... It allows us to start seeing options, not just black and white solutions. The more distance between us and the anxiety, the faster we can ride the wave of anxiety." So give your anxiety an appropriate name, something that feels right to you, and talk to it. The thoughts might start to lose some of their control.
Just Wiggle Your Body Around
If approaching your anxiety from within your head isn't working, there are luckily a lot of physical anxiety hacks as well. These types of exercises may seem counterintuitive, since it may feel like anxiety takes place in your mind, not your body, but they're quite effective.
"I often encourage clients to wiggle their whole body (or a part of there body if they're too embarrassed)," Smith says. "It has an immediate effect of getting them out of their minds and into their bodies. Wiggling also tends to make you feel like a child and inspire laughter, which pulls you out of your anxious thoughts." So face your fears of looking silly, and just wiggle around. The tension may subside during the silliness.
Walk Through Your Five Senses
If you can't get your thoughts calmed down by simply wiggling them out, you can combine the mind and body approach by taking inventory of your relation to the world around you during a moment of anxiety. Just walk through how your body is currently experiencing your five senses.
"[Ask yourself] what are you seeing hearing and feeling inside and outside?" Smith says. "As you look around ... start naming what you're seeing, hearing, and feeling one word at a time. This helps you calm down and get into your body while doing something mental." You may notice that your anxiety is centered in a certain sense, or that you're calmed by a sound or smell you didn't notice before. In the very least, it will be a moment to break up the painful thought pattern.
Do Jumping Jacks
Jumping jacks takes most people's idea of what helps anxiety, and specifically panic attacks, and flips it on its head. But it really works.
"Common wisdom is to take deep breaths and change your thoughts. But those activities might inspire more anxiety in people because the idea of slowing down is stressful," Smith says. "Although the feeling of anxiety is distressing and painful, your brain with anxiety convinces you that you can't slow down. So, for example, doing jumping jacks allows you to regulate your breathing, get out of your head, and into your body while also matching the energy level of the anxiety." So try it out sometime. This small activity can rewire some of the worst anxious feelings, as well as regulate physical symptoms like irregular breathing.
Channel Your Anger
Getting angry is often seen as a negative emotional response. But if your anxiety is something that makes you frustrated, taking out some of that frustration can actually be quite helpful.
"Have you been hanging on to some negative emotions that you haven't expressed? Shoving down emotions that deserve to be acknowledged can cause a whole lot of inner turmoil," licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Liner tells Bustle, "... You may find yourself feeling more calm and at-peace once you have let yourself experience those feelings." So whether this means making art, screaming a song in the shower, or simply venting to a friend, expressing anger can actually be a really good use of your time.
Try Flooding Your Senses With The Thing That Makes You Anxious
This is an anxiety hack that is best done with the help of a professional, but it's one of the strongest, most counterintuitive forms of anxiety treatment out there.
"[Flooding] is a technique where the patient is forced to face their anxiety," Dr. Nancy Irwin, addiction specialist and primary therapist at Seasons in Malibu, tells Bustle. "For some, it seems counterintuitive in that they feel it is re-traumatizing, yet [facing the underlying causes] can organically address and heal anxiety." Flooding means literally being faced head-on with your fears, whether through conversation or literal exposure.
Allow Your Anxiety To Happen
In the end, perhaps the most counterintuitive thing about calming anxiety is that sometimes you need to just sit and let it happen. "Allow it to be there and offer yourself compassion," Cush says. "Own that the circumstance or situation is making you anxious without trying to 'fix it.'" Just name your feelings, allow them to wash over you, and give yourself care and forgiveness. It's like treating yourself the way you'd treat a friend in a similarly difficult situation, and it can be very helpful.
Instead of minimizing or catastrophizing, hacking your anxiety in these ways will help you treat it as a normal, valid emotion, and deal with it accordingly.
"The reality is most people think that being busy, avoiding anxiety provoking environments, and may be using substances to manage when we’re anxious are good ways to cope ... What we really need to do is learn to live with the anxiety," Cush says. "Anxiety will be there, it’s a natural response, and if we’re always ignoring it or pushing it away, it’s going to dig in and make us feel worse." So whether you find that it's physical activity or mental exercises that does the trick for you, sometimes it takes exploration of the less-obvious to stop the worst feelings.