We all know the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety. Your heart races, your fingers sweat, and your breathing gets shallow and labored. You experience racing thoughts or worries about a perceived threat. That's because your "fight or flight" response has kicked in, resulting in sympathetic arousal and a narrowing of attention and focus on avoiding the threat. You feel locked in that state, unable to focus on your daily chores or longer-term goals. But there are ways to calm things down and learn to think and behave differently so that anxiety doesn't interfere as much with your life. Below are six key strategies I use in my practice:
(1) Reevaluating the probability of the threatening event actually happening
Anxiety makes you feel the threat is imminent yet most of the time what you worry about never happens. By recording your worries and how many came true, you can begin to notice how much you overestimate the prospect of negative events.
Even if a bad event happened, we may still be able to handle it by using our coping skills and problem-solving abilities or by enlisting others to help. Although not pleasant, we could still survive encountering a spider, having a panic attack, or losing money. It's important to realize that very few things are the end of the world.
(3) Using deep breathing and relaxation to calm down
Deliberately relaxing your muscles helps you calm down so you can think clearly. If you practice this without a threat present at first, it can start to become automic and will be easier to use in the moment when you do face a threat. Deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system to put the breaks on anxious arousal.
(4) Becoming mindful of your own physical and mental reactions
The skill of mindfulness involves calmly observing your own reactions, including fear, without panicking or feeling compelled to act on them. It is something that can be taught in therapy and improves with practice.
(5) Accepting the fear and committing to living a life based on core values
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an approach that encourages people to accept the inevitability of negative thoughts and feelings and not try to repress or control them. By directing attention away from the fear and back onto life tasks and valued goals, you can begin to live a full and meaningful life despite the fear.
Exposure is the most powerful technique for anxiety and it involves facing what you fear and staying in the situation long enough for the bodily fear to go down, as it naturally does. Fear makes you avoid or run away, so you never learn that much of what you fear is not truly dangerous.