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Overcoming Anxiety Starts with Taking Control

How you think about anxiety—and small tweaks to your routine—can be powerful.

Photo by Shelly Pence on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Shelly Pence on Unsplash

For many of us, dealing with anxiety is a fact of life. For some, this may include medication and other physical strategies to reduce distress. But it's also possible to overcome anxiety, or at least dampen it, by doing a few simple things.

Granted, simple doesn’t always mean easy—at least not at first. And assumptions can make it hard to try new strategies to see what might work for us. But as we refocus on our experience and get curious about what else might be out there, we can start to feel more control over our anxiety.

The following strategies all share an element of taking control, which is so often the solution to anxiety. The following are some key methods for overcoming anxiety that may not yet be in your tool kit. Having strategies at the ready is how we cultivate control, and ultimately make anxiety work for us.

1. Seek to befriend your anxiety.

Despite how it may feel at times, anxiety doesn’t have to be our adversary. When we recognize that anxiety’s job is to alert us to people and situations we care about, we can start to appreciate its potential usefulness when it shows up.

It can help to think of anxiety as a supportive, though prickly, friend drawing our attention to things we need to address. And if we choose to learn to listen to the message it carries, rather than trying to simply shut it up or ignore it, we’ll usually discover that anxiety becomes less disruptive.

2. Go easier on yourself.

One way to learn to listen to the message anxiety carries is to practice self-compassion. This may sound counterintuitive when prevailing “wisdom” calls on us to force ourselves through our fears, suck it up, and grind it out.

However, with anxiety this generally doesn’t work. Anxiety can be much better faced and understood when we choose a mindset of self-compassion and courage.

Self-compassion is not about making our lives easier for its own sake. Self-compassion is about making things easier so we can courageously solve the problem we’re facing. The problem to which our anxiety is trying to bring our attention:

"Self-compassion means that we clearly acknowledge our problems and shortcomings without judgment, so we can do what’s necessary to help ourselves." —Dr. Kristen Neff

3. Find ways to feel and show gratitude.

Gratitude helps us see that we are supported and affirmed by others, and it underscores a sense of connection that strengthens us.

Besides helping us reframe negatives as positives, gratitude expands our view beyond ourselves, opening us to our relationships with others and the larger world. This can help pull us out of our immediate feelings of anxiety and the sense of isolation that so often accompanies them.

However, gratitude is not just about counting our blessings. It’s about digging further into our experience of our blessings, the source of them, the interconnectedness of all of us.

Changing our thoughts toward gratitude when we’re feeling anxious can be a powerful tool when we’re trying to decide how to overcome anxiety in a particular moment.

Sharon Begley, who cowrote The Emotional Life of the Brain with neurobiologist Richard Davidson, explains it this way:

“The brain’s emotional circuits are actually connected to its thinking circuits, which are much more accessible to our conscious volition. So, while you can’t just order yourself to have a particular feeling, you can sort of sneak up on your emotions via your thoughts.”

Our feelings and thoughts work together. When we are feeling anxious and can start turning our thoughts toward gratitude, we can begin sneaking up on and begin calming our anxiety.

4. Draw your attention to the here and now.

There are two types of techniques we can use to be more present and therefore calm our anxiety: The first is undoing, and the second is grounding.

“The undoing effect” works a lot like distraction and involves using positive emotions to reduce negative ones. The results of one study suggest that watching a few minutes of a favorite comedy show or scrolling cute animal videos could be a key tool in overcoming anxiety.

Grounding involves attaching yourself to the here and now of your immediate environment. It is about focusing on what’s immediately in front of you, like a table’s surface, the texture of a carpet, or the light coming in a window.

Grounding brings awareness to the most concrete thing in front of us—but outside our bodies—as a strategy to escape the cycle of anxiety inside our minds.

5. Talk it out.

When it comes to knowing how to overcome anxiety, one of the simplest methods we can use is to name what we’re experiencing. Whether talking to ourselves, to someone else, or simply writing, language is fundamental in helping us process anxiety.

Of all the simple things we can do to calm our anxiety, none will help us understand and work through our feelings more than talking about it. Journaling, talking with a friend, and attending talk therapy all share the common thread of identifying and understanding one’s experiences via language.

Researcher Paul Zak and others have shown that when we engage our language centers and name our experiences, we reduce physiological arousal and calm anxiety.

Naming our experience also allows us to better understand our choices and needed solutions, and to steer us toward others. Especially when we construct a narrative of hope and healing, naming our feelings can provide the tools and language we need to reach out to others for help. Social support, in turn, helps lower our threat response and guide us toward solutions.

6. Just breathe.

Most of the time, we breathe without much thought. It’s something our autonomic nervous system takes care of for us.

But simply becoming aware of our breath can give us a leg up when it comes to navigating anxiety. Tuning into our breath activates two areas of the brain involved in awareness and self-regulation of attention and emotion.

Controlled breathing amid anxiety has also been shown to activate the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (the brake pedal) that helps turn off the stress response and dampen anxiety.

One of the simplest and most effective things you can do to calm your nervous system is to tune into and calm your breath, rebalancing the short, choppy breathing that accompanies a threat response with longer, fuller breaths.

7. Get enough sleep.

For people who already wrestle with anxiety, inadequate sleep can be an unwanted struggle that makes things worse, particularly escalating anticipatory anxiety. A brain without sleep struggles to think clearly and manage emotional reactions.

Getting enough sleep isn’t always easy for an anxious person. However, getting enough sleep, or at minimum sleeping when you are tired, is critical to building healthy cognitive and emotional habits.

Knowing how to overcome anxiety before it appears is one of the best things we can do for ourselves when we struggle with anxiety, so thinking ahead about strategies that work for you can be particularly useful. Considering and practicing simple techniques like the ones listed above can help us know what will work for us before we really need them. And as we practice the technique(s) that work best, they become easier and more reliable to access.

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