Most days you wake up feeling exhausted and on edge. Your overwhelming thoughts are causing you to be distracted and worried. You're really hard on yourself and feel defeated. It feels impossible to control your worry. Throughout your day, these feelings continue to escalate to agitation, sadness, and even panic. You feel tense and struggle with other health problems caused by anxiety. People in your life see your struggle, but they don’t know how to help you. You’re not interested in taking medication and you are wondering if there are natural ways to deal with your anxiety.
You can overcome anxiety. Our thoughts are just thoughts. They are not the truth or reality, and anxious thoughts are your brain’s way of avoiding danger or discomfort. The truth is, our anxious thoughts were used for tens-of-thousands of years to keep us safe. The same anxiety that taught us to run from a lion is the same anxiety that comes up in our modern world. Our society has progressed faster than our brains evolve. Our brains might treat our fear of social situations the same way our brain would treat outrunning a lion. Sometimes our brains are just not very helpful when dealing with modern anxieties. Your brain is a tool for problem solving and uses language to problem-solve. If we are having anxiety about going to a party our brain might tell us, “Maybe I should not go because I have anxiety about meeting new people,” or, “Everyone is going to notice I am _____________ (insert negative self-talk here).”
Not only are you the only one experiencing these thoughts, but you are also feeling them! Anxiety thoughts start to trigger your body’s stress response and can send you into fight-or-flight. Your body can experience anxiety on the spectrum of mild tension to full blown panic, which would be helpful if you saw a lion but is in no way helpful in going to this party. These anxious thoughts are now invading your body making you desperate for any sort of relief.
In our search for relief, all of our unhelpful coping strategies come into action. Here we might be wringing our hands, biting our nails, or canceling our plans. At this point we are just running on the hamster wheel of anxiety plagued by our untrue thoughts, stress response, and unhelpful coping skills. All of this because our brain was trying to problem-solve our discomfort!
The truth is we can’t control our anxious thoughts, and trying to avoid or fix them can make things worse. Humans often try to grasp onto perceived “good” experiences and avoid uncomfortable “bad” experiences. This black-and-white thinking causes suffering. If we want to overcome anxiety we can’t do so by avoiding it or desperately looking to feel good, we have to learn to accept it.
Learning to accept anxiety does not mean accepting the distress that it causes. When we learn to accept something we are no longer fighting with it in our habitual ways. Imagine if you were standing in quicksand and you were trying not to sink. The worst thing you could possible do is to start frantically moving trying to escape the quicksand. Anxiety can be viewed in exactly the same way. If we are in the quicksand of anxiety and we are avoiding it, fighting it, and grasping for safety we end up just sinking faster. So, how do we stop sinking? To survive quicksand we have to do the opposite of what we instinctively want to do, which is to stop moving and lay down. To overcome anxiety, we have to do the opposite of what it is telling us to do. We have to start thinking about our thoughts, feelings, and actions as part of the anxiety web we get caught in.
There is no magic pill for fixing anxiety because at times we do need it to stay safe. Anxiety has a job and can be helpful when we are able to manage it effectively. Walking alone to your car in the dark and feeling a little nervous? This is not a bad thing; in fact, it is just a thing our body does on its own. If we can tell ourselves, “I feel nervous walking to my car, but right here right now I am safe,” we can start to ground ourselves in reality and calm our anxiety. Instead of watering the seeds of anxiety we can teach our brain how we want to respond to anxiety.
Here are some helpful strategies for working with thoughts, feelings, and actions:
- Having an anxious thought? Label it a thought. If your anxious thought is, “Everyone at the party is going to think I’m awkward.” Try, “I am having a thought that everyone at this party is going to think I’m awkward.”
- Implement calming techniques that promote loving-kindness toward yourself. Focusing on our breath literally calms the fight-or-flight area of your brain, so doing some mindful breathing or a guided meditation can help calm your brain and body. If focusing on your breath doesn’t work for you, then get into one of your other 5 senses. Maybe you have a healing stone you like to rub or enjoy the sound of ocean waves. Focusing on one of our senses can help us focus on the present moment and be less caught up in our thoughts. If your thoughts distract you, just notice you are thinking and return to your concentration.
- Get moving! Movement can be an excellent way for eliminating anxiety in our bodies, and exercises like yoga and aerobic workouts have been shown to help reduce anxiety. Feeling creative? Maybe you’d rather pull out the journal, guitar, or paints as a mindful activity to work through anxiety. Anxiety might be present while we are doing an activity, but it does not need to control what you are doing.
Although these strategies can be incredibly helpful for managing anxiety, sometimes we need some extra help. If you feel like anxiety is uncontrollable, overwhelming, and causing distress in your life, you can overcome it. Sometimes we need extra help from a professional who specializes in conquering anxiety so you can feel confident in working through anxiety when it arises. When we have healthy coping skills and feel confident, acceptance of anxiety comes naturally and overtime becomes easier to manage. Those who see me for anxiety often feel at the end of their therapy that their mindset is different in how they approach their anxiety. In their lives anxiety is less intense and more manageable, and they feel positive about themselves and their future.
If you are ready to start feeling confident about managing your anxiety, call me today for a free 15-minute consultation at 248-291-7322 or e-mail me.