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What to Do When Your Anxiety Won’t Go Away

How to work your psychological game on the daily.

Key points

  • Anxiety can be thought of as a chronic condition that needs constant monitoring.
  • Controlling your inner dialogue, including the “what-ifs,” can help with anxiety.
  • Behavioral strategies and healthy lifestyle habits are also important.
Morgan Sessions/
Source: Morgan Sessions/

“Every time I think my anxiety is gone for good, it comes back worse than before. Can you help me?”

From time to time I get an email asking for advice on how to make anxiety go away. For some reason, I’m reminded of a rude houseguest or a family member that lingers and looms. Perhaps the connection isn’t completely off base.

For the most part, anxiety is a condition that comes and goes. But for some, anxiety never goes away completely. That’s the bad news. The good news is you can manage the symptoms so they don’t manage you. If it's helpful, consider your anxiety as a chronic condition that needs constant monitoring. Miss a day of treatment and you may throw your system off. Having a plan means your daily to-do list includes anti-anxiety strategies.

Because anxiety can occur at three levels—brain, behavior and subjective experience—it makes sense to tackle numerous fronts.

Here are nine things you can do on any given day to get on the right side of calm.

I. Outsmart Your Brooding Ways

1. Fire the “What-ifs Committee” inside your brain. One of the most difficult tasks is talking yourself out focusing on the danger that (you think) threatens you. In reality, it is not menacing and may not even exist. Anxiety is not actually fear, because fear is based on something right in front of you, a real and objective danger. Becoming aware of defaulting to worst-case scenarios will help you avoid being trapped in an endless loop of what-ifs.

2. Control your inner dialogue. Check your vocabulary for unhealthy words such as hate, stupid, always, never, ugly, unlovable, defective, and broken. Replace black-or-white language with more neutral terms.

3. Fall in love with the Cognitive-Behavioral Triangle. Anxious people often feel “attacked” by their feelings. In reality, feelings come after a thought. Being aware of your thought process is crucial, especially because some thoughts are core beliefs, or internalized scripts that are ingrained and automatic. If you struggle with overreacting in the heat of the moment, it’s likely because unhealthy feelings lead to the same ol’ unhealthy behaviors. Remember the following diagram:

Thoughts —> Feelings —> Behaviors

For extra support about rewiring your thoughts, check out this in-depth article.

II. Behavioral Strategies

1. Meditate to promote mindfulness. Your mind simply cannot become calm, confident and clear, if you do not pay attention to paying attention:

  • You can’t stop boredom from bothering you if you don’t realize you’re checking out in the first place.
  • You can’t overcome avoidance if you don’t recognize you’re dreading reality this very moment.
  • You can’t practice steps to feel calm if you don’t listen to your body’s stress signals.

This short video offers beginner tips on meditation.

2. Be where you are. One of my favorite anxiety hacks is giving 100% of my attention to the task at hand. For example, if I’m helping my son with his homework, I put everything else aside and focus my attention on quizzing him on vocabulary words. I don’t try and cook dinner or check email during this time because multi-tasking is bad for us. According to a recent article:

“Every time you switch your focus from one thing to another, there’s something called a switch-cost,” says Dr. Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Your brain stumbles a bit, and it requires time to get back to where it was before it was distracted.

One recent study found it can take your brain 15 to 25 minutes to get back to where it was after stopping to check an email.”

3. Work faster. I know, this seems downright counterintuitive to all the anxiety advice about slowing down and paying attention. But working more quickly and efficiently saves time because trusting your skills and talents means you don't get sucked into the perfectionist trap.

III. Healthy Lifestyle Habits

1. Breathe. Slow and deep breathing is the cornerstone of calm. Start by breathing in and out slowly. After a few seconds practice the 4-4-4: Inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four. Let the breath flow in and out effortlessly. Repeat four times.

2. Drink more water. Dehydration may affect anxiety in a variety of ways.

3. Make sleep a priority. Our culture celebrates those who work hard and play hard, but there’s a price. If you’re irritable, sluggish, and drained, chances are you’re sleep-deprived.

The National Sleep Foundation (NSF), along with a multi-disciplinary expert panel, issued its new recommendations for appropriate sleep duration. Here are the adult recommendations:

  • Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours
  • Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours
  • Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours

In short, seeing your own worry list as a problem to be solved each and every day means minimizing unnecessary anxiety. Best of all, you’re harnessing your excess energy to get things done.

For additional support on calming your anxious mind, check out Holistic Healing for Anxiety.

Copyright 2015 Linda Esposito, LCSW

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