So here are 13 small decisions, along with suggested action steps, that your conscious brain can choose to make. Try the ones you think would work for you, and heave a sigh of relief as your excess anxiety ebbs away.
1. Decide to blame your brain. No, you can’t blame everything on your brain. Your own mental habits can certainly create excess anxiety (suggestions for those are below). But anxiety also stems from your neurobiology—elevated levels or deficits of certain brain chemicals, for example, or over-activity in certain parts of the brain such as the amygdala, the danger-screening part of the brain. It may be helpful to view excess worry as a result of your automatic brain chemistry and not as a personal weakness.
Possible action step: Tell yourself, “There’s nothing really wrong. That’s just my anxious brain speaking.”
2. Decide to hold hands or get a hug from someone who cares about you. When you are highly anxious, you may find it hard to calm yourself. You may need a Significant Other to start the calming process by holding hands or cradling you in a warm embrace. A variety of studies show that holding hands and hugging can magically lower the stress response. Once you feel soothed, you will be calm enough to make use of the other techniques listed below.
Action step: Hold hands or hug until you feel calmer. If no partner is available, consider a quick massage or the action step in Decision 3.
3. Decide to call on your invisible “circle of support.” If no one is available to be a soothing presence, you may be able to conjure up a mental photograph of your “circle of support.” Studies suggest that thinking about the people who love and value you—family, friends, co-workers, self-help group members—can give you a sense of security that lowers your stress response.
Action steps: Write down a list of loved ones on a card that you can keep in your wallet. Take it out and read it when you’re under stress. Surround yourself with photographs of loved ones at both your office and home.
4. Decide to make “belly breathing” a part of your day. Learn abdominal breathing (a.k.a, “belly breathing”) as a calming technique (see video below). Deep diaphragmatic breathing sends a signal to the mind that all’s right with the world. Calm the body; the mind will follow.
The decision to take a few calming breaths “is the best example of harnessing the brain... to control the body,” according to Dr. Margaret Wehrenberg. Plus, you can integrate this kind of breathing into your day, rather than setting aside a special time to practice it, as with meditation. There's always time for one deep breath—before a meeting, at stop lights, at breaks, or when you catch yourself in a needless worry loop.
Action step: When you start to feel anxious, use that feeling as a cue to take at least one deep abdominal breath. That breath will initiate the relaxation response. Not sure what belly breathing is? This short how-to video by Dr. Kevin Chen is simple, informative, and helpful.
5. Decide to relax. Readers of this blog have suggested meditation, yoga, relaxation techniques, and dishwashing. Yes, dishwashing. (Works for me!) You can also compete with your anxious thoughts by singing out loud or distracting yourself with TV, reading, talking to a friend, knitting, or any pleasurable activity.
Action step: Choose an activity that relaxes both mind and body. Take more breaks.
6. Decide to exercise. Some people are too “charged up” to relieve stress with relaxing activities. According to Wehrenberg, “For the high-energy person with a tense, anxious body, physical activities are better sources of physical relaxation than sitting still.” If you wonder why meditation doesn’t work for you, you may find this observation reassuring.
As little as 20 minutes of exercise makes you feel less anxious and more resilient, according to this research. Aerobic exercise will deplete your “nervousness chemicals,” using up both adrenalin and cortisol, two powerful stress chemicals. Just plain moving around is also therapeutic and counters what we’ve recently learned about the negative health effects of too much sitting.
Action step: Take a 20 minute walk every day.
7. Decide to reframe your anxiety as excitement and fun. Therapist Fritz Perls used to say, “Beneath anxiety lies excitement.” Recent research found that interpreting certain stressful situations like public speaking as “exciting” rather than “scary” led to better performance. In fact, telling yourself, “I am calm,” was much less effective than “I am excited,” perhaps because giving a talk requires a certain amount of energy and enthusiasm.
Here are some “reframes” suggested by psychologist Jeremy Dean of PsyBlog: “It’s not an exam; it’s a fun little quiz. It’s not a scary presentation; it’s a little chat with a few colleagues. It’s not a job interview; it’s a chance to meet some new people.”
Action step: Tell yourself, “I’m excited!” or “This will be a fun challenge.”
8. Decide to practice thought-stopping. When you catch yourself engaged in anxiety-provoking thinking, tell yourself, “Self! Stop it!” (This wonderful phrase is from Margaret Wehrenberg.) I consider this phrase the all-purpose thought-stopper! It’s quick, effective, and humorous.
Action step: Tell yourself, “Self! Stop it!” every single time you begin ruminating over a situation. With persistence and practice, stopping anxiety in its tracks will soon become a habit.
9. After you stop anxious thoughts, decide to replace them with pre-planned calming thoughts. Thought-stopping alone is a powerful technique. But it can be even more powerful when paired with calming thoughts that you’ve prepared and written down ahead of time.
Action step: Make a short list of soothing thoughts to bring up when you catch yourself in the throes of worry. Possible examples:
- “I’ve done the best I can. I don’t need to worry about this any more.”
- “I don’t have to be perfect. Even if something goes wrong, I can learn from my setbacks and try again.”
- “I’ve done it before; I can do it again.”
10. Tend and befriend. Rather than “fight-or-flight,” consciously choose to “tend-and-befriend.” Anxiety and worry can lead to self-absorption. A good counter-response is to “tend”—take care of others. Think about friends and family and what might help them, especially if you know someone going through a hard time.
Action steps: Send a card or write a thank-you note. Call a friend and ask how he is.
11. Decide to make lists and plans. "Download” your worries to a list, leaving your mind free for other thoughts. Similarly, plans can free your mind from the endless drumbeat of “what ifs.”
Action step: Make a list. Then set priorities and make plans. If you start to ruminate over a situation that you’ve already planned for, tell yourself, “Stop! I’ve already made a plan!”
12. Decide to “lose your mind and come to your senses.” (Fritz Perls, again) When you catch yourself playing and re-playing hurtful scenarios in your mind, take a deep breath, and look around you. Notice the trees and sky; listen to the sounds. Remind yourself that waking up from these self-created “day-mares” is a moment of enlightenment.
Action step: Congratulate yourself every time you wake up from a useless or negative thinking pattern. Practice savoring the positive scenes in your immediate environment.
13. Consult with a professional. When anxiety is overwhelming, chronic, or interferes with daily life, consider professional treatment, suggests Margarita Tartakovsky in “Telltale Signs It’s Time to Treat Your Anxiety.” A short course of medication may calm a frazzled brain enough so it can fulfill its “Decider” role.
Action step: Make an appointment with a psychiatrist.
What do all these "small" decisions have in common? They require you to be mindful. Instead of just mindlessly giving in to the pain of anxiety and worry, you can deliberately transform a mind full of “what if” worries into a mind full of awareness, creative problem-solving, and peace.
© Meg Selig, 2014
If you enjoyed this blog, you might also like, "What is the First Step Towards Reducing Needless Anxiety?" and "Three Quick Ways to Curb Catastrophic Thinking." For more on mental health habits, willpower, and health, like me on Facebook or follow on Twitter.
Wehrenberg, M. (2008). The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques (NY: WW Norton): “Self! Stop it!” p.104; “The decision to breathe...” p. 77
Guthrie, C. “Six Surprising Stress Fixes”
"Holding hands." See also, "Social Regulation of the Neural Response to Threat."
Cohen, L. The Opposite of Worry (2013). (NY: Ballantine).
Dean, J., “8 Fascinating Facts About Anxiety.” http://www.spring.org.uk/2013/10/8-fascinating-facts-about-anxiety.php
Dean, J. "Anxiety: Getting Excited Beats Trying to Calm Down"
Tartakovsky, M. “Telltale Signs It’s Time to Treat Your Anxiety”