Seven In-the-Moment Tools to Lessen Anxiety
Here's what to do when you just can't shake it.
Posted Dec 12, 2017
Over many years of work with people who struggle with anxiety, I've seen that the techniques that change one person's life may not be nearly as helpful for another individual. Even the experience of anxiety can feel vastly different from one person to the next. Some people are more bothered by the physicality of it — the nervous stomach, the pounding heart, and the inability to catch your breath. For others, it is the racing thoughts that show no sign of slowing down or being able to be controlled. They can quickly make you feel like you're in a mental black hole, and make the physical symptoms seem like a cakewalk. Anxiety always involves an interplay of physical symptoms and cognitive interpretations, but the aspects that people choose to focus on can be very different — as can their experiences.
When you're trying to tackle your anxiety in the moment, the more tools you try, the likelier you'll be able to escape it. With that in mind, here are some of the generally most useful strategies:
1. Go for the cocoon.
Sometimes when you're anxious, feeling snugly contained can be soothing; it hearkens back to being securely grounded within the womb or held by a parent. The growing popularity of weighted blankets speaks to this: There is evidence that they can reduce insomnia and provide a calming effect for those who struggle with ADHD, autism, and anxiety. The firm pressure of a weighted blanket can bring about a feeling of safety and comfort. If you like the idea, but don't want to try that particular object, you might come up with your own way to feel cocooned — through a warm and soothing bath, being held by a partner, or enveloping yourself in a series of textures that feel soft and soothing.
2. Shift your senses.
When our thoughts are flying out of control, regurgitating endlessly our past ("Why did I say that in that meeting? My boss looked annoyed.") or hurtling way too far ahead to our future ("My knee has been bothering me. I bet I'll need a walker by 60!"), it is important to bring them back to the present moment. The practice of mindfulness does this, of course. To break it down further, though, first start with your senses. Are there particular smells you like, visuals you find calming, or specific music that can snap you out of your swirling thoughts? Even a particularly beloved type of candy or gum — if savored and used to switch the focus to the here and now — can serve as a punctuation mark, a physical reminder to stop the thought cycle and just focus on the sensation you're experiencing right in this moment. From carrying around a small essential oil inhaler to walking yourself through a crystal-clear visualization of a beach that makes you happy, you can better focus on your immediate sensory experience. And in doing so, you can often step out of the mental anxiety cycle.
3. Focus on your breath, and then do it some more.
Yes, even most children have been told many times to "take a deep breath" when they're feeling nervous. And it's advice that can sound empty, because many people just breathe deeply a few times and bemoan the fact that it did nothing to help them feel better — hey, rush right back to being worked up. Truly and mindfully focusing on your breath brings much better results, however. First, get comfortable. Then watch your abdomen as you breathe. True deep breaths should fill and expand your middle with air on the inhale, with the gradual and prolonged release of it on the exhale. Challenge yourself to draw out your breaths longer and slower, counting if you need. Don't flip the switch between inhaling and exhaling too quickly; that transition is important too. When your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath, focusing on how it feels, how it looks leaving and entering your body, and how the oxygen fills you up. It is very hard to have an anxious mind if you can truly relax your body, which is why this type of mindful breathing often stops the anxiety cycle in its tracks.
4. Write it out.
In this day and age of snap a picture, caption it, and post it, it seems to be growing more rare to spend longer times letting our thoughts and feelings unwind themselves onto paper. But many people with anxiety find that there is something about making their negative thoughts more tangible that can make them feel easier to manage. And when your head is swirling with anxious interpretations of things going on in your life, putting them down on paper can sometimes be a simple way to begin organizing what to pay attention to, what to try to ignore, and what to use to help you plan a strategy. There is even data which suggests that writing down negative thoughts and throwing them away can even make it feel mentally easier to discard those thoughts. That's pretty striking.
5. Convert it to energy.
For some people whose physical anxiety makes them want to jump out of their skin, the only place for it to go is out. A brisk walk around the block, a round of jumping jacks, or even a physical sparring session with a mental stand-in for whatever roadblock is in your way can allow some of your central nervous stimulation to have an "out." Better yet, it can help you create more positive attributions about the nature of that physical arousal. It's the difference between being stuck in the cycle of "My heart keeps beating fast; I am feeling scared" and "My heart is beating fast, because I'm taking a jog and getting some exercise and getting a stronger body." Many people who are not even avid exercisers still feel a surge of endorphins after breaking a sweat in a positive way. So why not see if you can turn some of that nervous energy into a more positive form of it?
6. Allow some distraction.
If your anxiety involves racing thoughts that are looking to find a permanent home, and thereby become "sticky" in your mind, sometimes distraction can be just what you need. We don't always recommend just trying to distract yourself from negative emotions, because such avoidance can lead to a lack of coping with the actual problem and an increased inability to tolerate tough feelings. Nonetheless, in small doses it can be a useful tool. Some people find that when they are particularly worked up, a phone call with a friend, a video that makes them laugh, a few minutes of coloring (yes, even for adults), or a little project like cleaning off a desk can shift their focus just enough to get out of the rut of the thought loop they were stuck in. Of course, if you have continued worries about the same things over and over again, distraction will not solve the root of the problem. But in the moment, it can bring you a bit of relief to allow you to reset your thoughts for a while before the next go-round.
7. Open up to someone you trust.
For most people, it is our relationships with others that have the potential not only to create the most profound meaning in our lives, but also to bring us the most comfort when we are feeling at our worst. It is a natural human tendency to affiliate and seek out closeness with someone we trust when we are getting scared. This may even be bred into us biologically through the role of oxytocin. So the next time you feel yourself getting swept up by a storm of anxiety, think about whose voice you'd like to hear, whose cuddle you'd like to feel (it may even be a pet), or whose words you will find most soothing, and seek them out. As a bonus, showing that vulnerability to a friend or family member may strengthen your connection over the long run, and giving them the opportunity to help you can give them a mood boost as well.
Do you have other techniques that work for you? Let me know in the comments!
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