4 Methods and Tips for How to Deal with Anxiety

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Some of these tips (especially the last one) have helped A TON of people cope and provide insight on how to deal with anxiety!If you find yourself identifying with the symptoms discussed in the previous two entries and you’re searching ways on how to deal with anxiety, then there are some things that you can do.
However, if you find that the exercises discussed in this article do not help, or that your anxiety continues to worsen or remains unchanged then it might be time to seek professional help, but we will discuss that a little later.
For those of us with mild anxiety (or even moderate to severe anxiety) the following techniques can be helpful:

1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation helps to relieve the physical tension caused by anxiety, and helps us to focus on something besides our anxious thoughts.

This exercise is simple, and can be done almost anywhere and anytime. It might take practice to get it right, but it has the added benefit of making you more aware of your body and may help you to identify where in your you tend to hold your tension. Here’s how it works:

  • Start with your toes and feet: clench all the muscles in your feet and toes and hold the tension. After holding for a few minutes, slowly release the tension, and notice the relaxation you feel in your feet. You may actually notice (with any part of the body) that after consciously relaxing- your muscles become more relaxed than they were to begin with- if this happens you have successfully identified the part(s) of your body where you hold your tension.
  • Now repeat the same exercise with your calf muscles.
  • Now move up to your knees and thighs.
  • Now move up to your pelvis and buttocks (the buttocks are actually a common area where tension is held).
  • Now your stomach.
  • Now your chest.
  • Now your back.
  • Now your shoulders.
  • Now your neck.
  • Now your face and head.

Notice the calmness and relaxation that you feel in your body.

Notice especially where the tension is released and you feel more relaxed than when you started.

This exercise is helpful, and can be done almost anywhere and anytime (even while driving—just keep your eyes open!).

Also, if you have any kind of physical problem in a particular area of your body, please do not perform this exercise there without consulting your doctor. You want to relax—not hurt yourself!

2. Deep Breathing

You may want to combine this one with progressive muscle relaxation or perform it on its own. If you have done any kind of meditation or yoga, you are probably already familiar with the basics of deep breathing.  The important thing to remember is to breathe correctly.

Here are the instructions:

1. Sit upright, with your back straight, and your shoulders relaxed.

2. Breath in slowly and deeply through your nose.

Note: this is a step where most people mess up. Lots of people breathe through their chest—this leads to shallow “anxious” breathing.

Remember the brain-body connection?  If you are taking shallow breaths through your chest, you are going to tell your brain that you are having anxiety—just as your brain tells your body to take shallow breaths when you are anxious.  So, make sure to breathe from your stomach.

You obviously are not literally breathing from your stomach, but you are effectively opening your diaphragm for a deep healthy breath.

It will probably help to place your hand on your stomach while you do this. Now focus on pushing your belly out while you breathe in.

3. Breathe in slowly through the nose. Hold that breath for a few seconds, and then exhale slowly through your mouth. 

4. Repeat this exercise several times (5-10 is standard). Notice yourself feeling calmer and more relaxed with each breath.

This exercise allows you to clear your mind by focusing on your breathing. For some people, it helps to add this breathing exercise along with the other techniques discussed.

3. Imagery

Sometimes it takes more than physical activities to overcome anxiety. In this case it can help to use imagery.

You may want to imagine a place that you find comforting from your childhood, or a place that is special to you now. This could be a grandparent’s house, a secret spot in the woods, a place of worship, or almost any other special place.

You could also imagine a place that you have never been—anywhere where you feel or would feel comfortable.  When utilizing imagery, it is important to remember to continue to breathe deeply (and correctly—through the stomach.)

Here are the instructions:

  • Take a few deep, healthy breaths to calm yourself a little.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Start to develop a mental picture of your relaxing place.
  • Continue to breathe deeply.
  • As the image develops, first notice what you see. Are you outside?  Are you inside? Are you alone?  If not, who is with you?  Focus on the details.  What do you see?
  • Continue to breathe deeply.
  • Now, what do you hear? What sounds are present? Notice the details of what you hear.
  • Continue to breathe deeply.
  • Now, what do you smell? If you are in the woods or a meadow you may smell grass, flowers, or rain.  Think about what you smell, focus on it and allow yourself to take in the smell.
  • Continue to breathe deeply.
  • Now, do you feel anything physically? Is there a breeze? Are sitting on something?  What is the texture?  What does it feel like?  Notice any physical sensations you feel.
  • Continue to breathe deeply.
  • Now, do you taste anything? Are you eating something?  Even if you aren’t eating, do you have any sense of taste at all?  Notice any taste sensations you feel.
  • Continue to breathe deeply.
  • Now, as you begin to return to the present, allow the image to fade slowly as you continue to breathe. Remind yourself that you can return here anytime you want.

This type of imagery helps us to focus our attention on feeling less anxious, and noticing what it feels like to be relaxed.  This will create a contrast, so that you can become aware of what it feels like to be anxiety free.

4. The ABCs

 Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is one of the most commonly utilized forms of therapy. This type of therapy is very effective with anxiety. In can be utilized on its own or with the help of a professional counselor or therapist.

Keep in mind that there is much more to CBT than the ABCs, but it is a good starting point, and we are able to effectively utilize this technique (especially if you are either uncomfortable with or have difficulty with the other exercises).

The basic idea here is that thoughts create feelings, and those feelings lead us to behave in a certain way. For example, we usually say things like: “My girlfriend made me so mad….”, but this type of statement is very flawed, because your significant other (or anyone else for that matter) cannot make you have an emotion.

We skip a very important part of how our brains work when we say that someone or something caused our emotional experience or behavior.

What actually caused our emotion/behavior was a thought or interpretation of some event.  The following chart can be helpful:

What do I Know? What do I Think? What do I FEEL? What do I DO?
My wife is raising her voice She is angry with me Defensive, confused, angry Yell back, start a fight, etc…

It is often difficult to determine the difference between what you think (your interpretation) and what you know (the facts of the situations).  In the example above, the wife determines that her husband is not only angry, but angry at her. This causes her to become defensive, confused, and angry, and a marital spat ensues. However, she does not know that her husband is angry, and certainly does not know that he is angry with her.

When we experience feelings or symptoms of anxiety, what we need to do is to identify the facts (what I know), our interpretation of those facts (what I think), our emotions (what I feel), our reaction (what I do).  When we apply this to anxiety it is important not to get too focused on our emotions, but to look at the interpretation that we attach to the event which caused us to feel anxiety.

As you practice doing this, you might need to do this in hindsight (that is, after an episode of anxiety has occurred). This is fine- what we are doing here is trying to retrain our brains.

As we look at our interpretations, we must ask ourselves what I call the magic question: “is it possible that…?”  So let’s look at the chart again.  This time we will answer the magic question in the third row.

My boyfriend hasn’t called me in three days He is angry with me Fear, shock, regret, rumination Getting angry with him
My boyfriend hasn’t called me in three days He might be busy Concern, worry, relief Call him, and make sure he is okay

Notice that by challenging the interpretation with the “magic question,” we are not dismissing our initial reaction, we are simply allowing ourselves to explore alternative explanations of the event that seems to set off our anxiety. Even if our initial reaction is correct, we should still notice a reduction in the overall intensity of our emotional reactions.

Now What?

Okay, so we’ve discussed some basic techniques on how to deal with anxiety. If that last one doesn’t make a lot of sense yet, that’s okay, we’ll talk more about it later.

Let’s say that you have tried these things, and you just keep getting more and more anxious, or notice no difference—it might be time to seek professional help.

In most parts of the country there should be a community mental health center (CMHC) which offers psychotherapy services that are based on income. If you have health insurance, you could seek counseling at almost any agency or private practice of your choice.

When seeking professional help, it is important to define the differences between types of mental health professionals, and in next week’s article we will look at how the various professions work with and help people deal with anxiety. Next week we will discuss the ways that various professions work, and what to expect in therapy.

However, if you believe that you have an anxiety problem—seek professional help immediately.