"Help! My anxiety is out of control. Where do I begin to calm myself down?"
This is the kind of email message I receive far too often, but it's understandable, given the barrage of anti-anxiety advice out there. Should you practice deep-breathing or practice mindfulness, count to 10 or count your blessings, think about your worries or think about pink unicorns? While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, few would argue that not reacting to everything is a fine start.
You'll be two steps ahead of the game by knowing that anxiety is an over-reaction to the content of your worries and an under-reaction to problem-solving. Alas, there's a big difference between what you know and what you do.
Whether you suffer from panic disorder, generalized anxiety, or social phobia, the key to slowing down your mind and body is learning to tolerate frustration .
Frustration tolerance is the ability to overcome obstacles and withstand stressful events. Low frustration tolerance occurs when a goal-oriented action is delayed or thwarted. The resulting feeling is dissatisfaction from unmet needs or unresolved conflicts.
If this sounds like you, you're not alone. Reacting with frustration in the heat of the moment trips up many anxious individuals. You may be wired to react more intensely to problematic events.
A study by Frontiers of Psychology found that differences in temperament play a role in coping with stressful situations. Subjects with a low tolerance for arousal showed increased activation of the structures in the brain involved in processing the subjective effects of stress.
In order to feel less aroused by stress, you must accept that problems are a part of life. Doing so allows you to let go of the notion that something must be wrong if you’re feeling unhappy. Acceptance is knowing that feelings are cyclical, and sometimes the only way through is to ride out the uncomfortable emotions.
In fact, if you impulsively avoid discomfort, you paradoxically prolong your mental distress. For example, text messaging your partner incessantly during a night when you're apart isn’t likely to make him or her respond any quicker. This behavior, in fact, may earn you the label of a jealous, controlling partner—and perhaps ultimately of "single," if you don't start acting differently.
Here are 10 questions to ask yourself the next time hasty behavior threatens to hijack your mental health:
- What is my body trying to tell me?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how angry do I feel?
- What would happen if I didn’t give in to these feelings, and chose to sit down for five minutes and accept this discomfort?
- Can I close my eyes and practice slow, deep-breathing until I feel calmer and in control?
- Is there another way to look at this situation to gain a more realistic perspective?
- If I react now, will I be using my rational mind or my impulsive, irrational mind?
- Is my behavior aligned with my values?
- Does this situation have to be resolved now, or is it possible to wait 24 hours to make a decision?
- Am I procrastinating because I don’t want to deal with this problem?
- Are these choices responsible, or will I regret them down the line?
Frustration tolerance is a learned behavior that can be strengthened with mindful attention, time, and patience—although those are three things anxious people formidably struggle with. Although anxiety’s automatic reaction to alleviate suffering is strong, you don't have to react to everything. To quote Stephen R. Covey, “Between what happens to us and how we react to what happens to us is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose.” Feeling frazzled is a choice.
For more strategies for calming your anxious mind, read here.
© 2017 Linda Esposito, LCSW
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