News of disease, war, and politics makes our heart pound, and our mouth turn dry. We feel terror in front of an audience, or feel consumed by worries and fears. Sometimes we can ride the storm, put up with the discomfort and get to the other side. At other times the anxiety wins, distracting us with unbearable discomfort or convincing us it’s better to avoid the situation rather than risk these feelings. Learning how to cope with anxiety, and soothe it rather than let it escalate can make the difference between satisfaction and disaster.
Anxiety may interfere with healthy choices
Since anxiety is uncomfortable, we may avoid situations that cause it. We may avoid things such as asking our boss for a raise, or traveling in a plane, or going out on a date, not because our desire is weak, but because our anxiety is strong. We may not even be aware of the anxiety, or if we are aware of it, we may not know how to overcome it. Gaining deeper understanding of anxiety could give us greater control over our own choices.
Drug and alcohol addiction
When the source of anxiety is within us, in the form of memories, imagination, unresolved grief and other internal states, we can’t simply walk away from it. To quell the discomfort we may turn to drugs, alcohol. While drugs and alcohol provide a quick fix to the feelings, they don’t resolve underlying emotional conflicts. And because drugs and alcohol shut down our ability to solve problems, and create problems of their own, we end up worse off than when we started. When we want to stop using the substance, we still must face the anxiety that drove us to it in the first place.
Unbalanced emotional responses
Anxiety often is a trigger, or a doorway, to deeper emotional states. When our feelings are agitated, we’re reminded of other times when we had similar feelings. We may be catapulted into hidden memories that reveal a host of unresolved childhood feelings such as shame, vulnerability and fear of abandonment. When these emotions flood into our awareness, we react with the intensity of a wounded child. We start arguments, become enraged, or shut down, need frequent reassurance, and seem distant and preoccupied. Since anxiety triggered us into these reactions, learning how to keep anxiety under control could help us avoid their destructive effects.
To heal and grow
Instead of being controlled by anxiety, we can learn to deal with it constructively. We need to understand more about these feelings, and then learn life-skills like self-soothing and negotiating with others.
Learning how to decipher our thought stream
One of the best ways to reduce anxiety is by learning how to improve our thoughts. Our mind continually generates a stream of thoughts. Since our thoughts have been chattering in our mental “ear” for our whole lives, most of us are scarcely aware that we are always thinking. As we become more tuned to our inner state, we realize that this constant thought stream has a powerful influence over us. To learn more about our own thoughts, we can keep a journal, meditate or talk with a counselor. It doesn’t take long to realize the astonishing extent to which our thoughts perpetuate familiar patterns of emotion and action.
Anxiety goes hand-in-hand with negative patterns of self-talk. As we feel anxiety, our thoughts tell us we’ll fail, or we’re no good, or that other people don’t like us, or that everything will go wrong. These habits of mind feed our edginess. We can change our mental habits so our thoughts help us instead of hurt us. For example, we can say upbeat, encouraging things to ourselves like, “Go ahead –. you’re doing fine,” or “This one unpleasant episode is not so important in the greater scheme of things.” We feel better when we learn to substitute kinder, gentler more optimistic thoughts for the ones that occur to us automatically. Gentler thoughts foster gentler feelings.
In addition to a constant stream of words, we also have a “movie” playing in our mind’s eye. Like self-talk that is so familiar it is invisible, these mental images are rarely noticed until we look for them. We can bring them to the surface through dreams, art therapy, or visually oriented talking or writing. As we try to heal our anxiety we may find that our automatic images have kept us on the brink of fear. We can counterbalance lurking negative images by inserting positive ones. For example, we could intentionally visualize ourselves or others bathed in white light, or we may picture a beach vacation, complete with sun, sand, and ocean horizons.
Changing our upsetting beliefs
Chronic worriers often hold the unconscious belief that the world will fall apart if they stop worrying. Another common fear is that if we are not perfect, we will no longer be loved. Such beliefs place enormous burdens on us, so naturally we feel anxious. Once we realize we have these hidden beliefs, we can start talking back to them, by explaining to ourselves that we cannot achieve the impossible. However, beliefs sometimes are held so tightly they seem impossible to give up.
One successful method for letting go of the impossible is to share some of our burden with a Higher Power. By embracing the Serenity Prayer, we can let go of our desperate need to maintain control. The Serenity Prayer helps soothe us when we think we have to do it all: “God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”
Compartmentalize our worries
We often experience anxiety at inappropriate times. For example, when we’re home trying to relax, we may be troubled about something that happened at work. Since there’s nothing we can do about it at home, we needlessly spin our wheels, and our agitation may create additional tension with our family. We can improve our feelings by keeping anxiety as closely associated as possible with the actions that will resolve our worries. Following the message of the Serenity Prayer we “worry” about those things we can change.
This principle of compartmentalizing worries into their appropriate time frame is important enough to be included in religious teachings. Christ phrased it beautifully when he said, “Take ye therefore no thought for the morrow. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” This advice applies to each hour and each minute. When we learn to worry about the things we can control, when we can control them, and let go of the things over which we have no control, our lives become more peaceful, poised, and more open to solutions.
One simple technique to help keep things appropriately segregated is to write things down on a to-do list. This helps prevent the anxiety caused by worrying if we will remember to perform a task. Another strategy is to write down our worries in a journal. Once they are written we can let them go. We no longer need to keep it on our mind.
The Body/Mind connection
Anxiety resonates between body and mind. While the mind generates edgy thoughts and images, pours out adrenaline to prepare for fight-or-flight. Learning about this body/mind connection gives us clues to find relief. We can relax the cycle of anxiety in part by relaxing the body, using such techniques as exercise, deep breathing, and consciously relaxing our muscles. Yoga classes and other stress reduction methods teach these methods, and show us how to introduce anxiety relieving skills into our everyday lives.
Our body is also affected by the things we put into it. We should monitor our intake of caffeine. Too much will feel exactly like anxiety. In addition to coffee and tea, caffeine is an ingredient in sodas and headache medications. Other medication, such as pseudoephedrine commonly found in cold medication, also creates edgy, anxious feelings. Reducing our intake of these stimulants could help reduce anxiety.
Turn nervous energy into small victories
We may feel anxious if we are avoiding something we know we should do. Procrastinating before a deadline can flood us with anxiety, and erode our self-esteem. As long as we avoid doing what we know we should be doing, life seems to be passing us by. We feel more and more anxious, and less competent to handle our own problems. Instead of letting anxiety gnaw away at us, we would feel better by pushing ourselves over the hump. When we get up and get going, even if we don’t immediately solve our problems, we may find that we are too busy to be anxious. Converting nervous energy into goal directed, problem solving activity relieves us of the pent up frustration of waiting for something to happen.
Obstacles to peace
As we try to reduce our anxiety, we should be aware of the tendency to hang on to its old habits. This is an excellent opportunity to talk to a therapist about the way we feel about ourselves and the kinds of things that were said to us as children. When we were taught fearful and unsupportive points of view as children, chances are we’re still hearing them in our mind’s ear. We may have become so accustomed to anxiety, we miss it when it’s gone.
Fear of living and dying
Our anxiety may be justified by the very real fear that we are all going to die some day. Since no one can avoid this inevitable end, and hints of it trickle into our awareness whether we like it or not, we might as well work at making peace with it. We may find relief by talking with a counselor, clergy or other mentor, or reading about existentialism, religion or spirituality. By approaching our beliefs about life in an open inquiring manner we may develop attitudes that support our living in the present with more vitality and less anxiety.
Harness anxiety for good
While we can’t always change events, we may be able to improve our responses to those events. We can learn to be more accepting, more confident, trust in others and a higher power, soothe ourselves, or exercise a whole range of other options.
Even with our best insights, we can’t eliminate anxiety altogether. In fact, anxiety may actually be an expression of our deep caring and passion to do our best. In fact, the best performers are those who know how to harness the power of anxiety. By channeling the energy of anxiety into creative and productive activities and attitudes we use our intensity as fuel to energize a healthy, more exciting life.
See also: Affirmations, Assertiveness, Body/Mind, Beliefs, Fight-or-flight, Grief, Higher Power, Self-talk, Soothing, Twelve Steps
Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns
Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers, Ph.D.
Dying of Embarrassment, help for social anxiety and phobia by Barbara G. Markway, Ph.D. et al