Anxiety

Day 21: Picking the Best Anxiety Management Strategy For You

Day 21 of 30 days to better mental health

Posted Jan 23, 2015

This series supports the free Future of Mental Health virtual conference I’m hosting from February 23 – 27, 2015. Please get your free ticket to the conference now by visiting https://www.entheos.com/The-Future-of-Mental-Health/Eric-Maisel. And plan to attend!

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Each day in this series of 30 days to better mental health I want to propose one simple idea and one simple strategy in support of that idea. If you’d like to view other posts in this series, please visit here:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/experts/eric-r-maisel-phd

You might like to ask a friend to join you for these 30 days. The two of you can chat about the ideas I’m presenting and support each other in your efforts to try out some new strategies. You might even want to get a whole group involved!

Today we look at the following.

Most people who know that they are anxious do not make a sufficient effort to improve their anxiety-management skills and become less anxious, opting instead to “white knuckle” life or medicate themselves with anti-anxiety medication. Our core work as a human being requires more than this: it requires a diligent, systematic effort to find anxiety-management techniques that work for you, especially cognitive ones that retrain your neurons to think differently, and to then actually employ those techniques.

Today, take a little time and experiment with the following 12 anxiety management strategies, learn which ones work for you, and begin to use the ones that work best. Make sure to actually use the ones that you discover work best for you! “Knowing about them” isn’t enough—you must practice them and use them.

1. Deep breathing

The simplest—and a quite powerful—anxiety management technique is deep breathing. By stopping to deeply breathe (5 seconds on the inhale, 5 seconds on the exhale) you stop your racing mind and alert your body to the fact that you wish to be calmer. Begin to incorporate deep breaths into your daily routine.

2. Cognitive self-help

Changing the way you think is a useful and powerful anti-anxiety strategy. You can do this straightforwardly by 1) noticing what you are saying to yourself; 2) disputing the self-talk that makes you anxious or does not serve you; and 3) substituting more affirmative, positive or useful self-talk. This three-step process really works if you will practice it and commit to it.

3. Incanting

A variation on strategies one and two is to use them together and to “drop” a useful cognition into a deep breath, thinking “half” the thought on the inhale and “half” the thought on the exhale. Incantations that might serve to reduce your experience of anxiety might are “I am perfectly calm” or “I trust my resources.” Experiment with some short phrases and find one or two that, when dropped into a deep breath, help you quell your anxious feelings.

4. Physical relaxation techniques

Physical relaxation techniques include such simple procedures as rubbing your shoulder and such elaborate procedures as “progressive relaxation techniques” where you slowly relax each part of your body in turn. Doing something physically soothing probably does not amount to a full anxiety management practice but can prove really useful in the moment to help you calm yourself and when used in combination with your cognitive practice.

5. Mindfulness practices

Meditation and other mindfulness practices that help you take charge of your thoughts and get a grip on your mind can prove very useful as part of your anxiety management program. It is not so important to become a practiced “sitter” or to spend long periods of time meditating but rather to truly grasp the idea that the contents of your mind make suffering and anxiety and that the better a job you do of releasing those thoughts and replacing them with more affirmative ones, the less you will experience anxiety.

6. Affirmations and Prayers

Affirmations (and prayers) are simply short cognitions that point your mind in the direction you want it (and you) to go. If you are feeling hatred, which breeds conflict and anxiety, you affirm your desire to love, the availability of love, or some other formulation that turns you in the direction that you want to go and that, by turning you in that direction, reduces your experience of anxiety. By affirming your talent, your ability to trust yourself, your willingness to show up, and so on, you “talk yourself” into a better frame of mind and as a result feel less anxious.

7. Guided imagery

Guided imagery is a technique where you guide yourself to calmness by mentally picturing a calming image or a series of images. You might picture yourself on a blanket by the beach, walking by a lake, or swinging on a porch swing. You can use single snapshot images or combine images to such an extent that you end up with the equivalent of a short relaxation film that you play for yourself. The first step is to determine what images actually calm you by trying out various images and then, once you’ve landed on images that have the right calming effect, actually bring them to mind when you are feeling anxious.

8. Disidentification and detachment techniques

One of the best ways to reduce your experience of anxiety is by learning to bring a calm, detached perspective to life and by turning yourself into someone whose default approach to life is to create calm rather than drama and stress. You do this by remembering that while you can exert influence in life you can’t control outcomes and by affirming that you are different from and larger than any component part of your life: any feeling, any thought, any ruined project, any rejection, anything. By taking a more philosophical, phlegmatic and detached approach to life (without giving up your desires, dreams or goals) you meet life more calmly.

9. Ceremonies and rituals

Creating and using a ceremony or ritual is a simple but powerful way to reduce your experience of anxiety. For many people lowering the lights, lighting candles, putting on soothing music and in other ways ceremonially creating a calming environment helps significantly. If you’re a creative person, you might use an incantation like “I am completely stopping” in a ritual or ceremonial way to help you move from the rush of everyday life to the quiet of your creative work, repeating it a few times so that you actually do stop, grow quiet, and move calmly and effortlessly into the trance of working.

10. Reorienting techniques

If your mind starts to focus on some anxiety-producing thought or situation or if you feel yourself becoming too wary, watchful and vigilant, all of which are anxiety states, one thing you can do is to consciously turn your attention in another direction and reorient yourself away from your anxious thoughts and toward a more neutral stimulus. For example, if you’re a performer, instead of focusing on the audience entering the concert hall, which you know increases your anxiety, you might reorient yourself toward the notices on the bulletin board in the green room and casually glance at them, paying them just enough attention to take your mind off the sounds of the audience arriving but not so much attention that you lose your sense of the music you are about to play. 

11. Symptom confrontation techniques

A rarely used technique, employed mostly in some forms of therapy and by some teachers in the performing arts, symptom confrontation is the idea that by “demanding” that your anxiety symptoms get worse and worse—that your querulous singing voice or jumpy violin bowing wrist get even more shaky—and by actively trying to increase your experience of anxiety, you reach a point where you break through into laughter and a sense of the absurdity of your worries. This is a powerful technique that however probably works best in the context of coaching or therapy.

12. Discharge techniques

Anxiety and stress build up in the body and techniques that vent that stress can prove very useful. One discharge technique that actors sometimes learn to employ to reduce their experience of anxiety before a performance is to “silently scream”—to make the facial gestures and whole body intentions that go with uttering a good cleansing scream without actually uttering any sound (which would be inappropriate in most settings). Jumping jacks, pushups and strong physical gestures of all sorts can be used to help release the “venom” of stress and anxiety and pass it out of your system.

Do the following simple thing today: practice one or two of these anxiety management techniques and see if they feel congenial to you. The more effectively you manage your anxiety, the better your mental health.

To summarize:

Today’s goal: practicing an anxiety management technique or two.

Today’s key principle: It is better to acquire and practice some useful anxiety management techniques than to try to ignore the fact that you (like every other human being) get anxious.

Today’s key strategy: Choosing from among the many anxiety management strategies available to you the one or two that really work for you.

Good luck today!

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Dr. Eric Maisel is the author of 40+ books including Life Purpose Boot Camp, Rethinking Depression, and Coaching the Artist Within. In 2015 he will be launching a Future of Mental Health initiative. You can learn more about Dr. Maisel’s books, services, trainings, and workshops at http://ericmaisel.com. Contact Dr. Maisel at ericmaisel@hotmail.com. And don’t forget to attend the free Future of Mental Health virtual conference in February: https://www.entheos.com/The-Future-of-Mental-Health/Eric-Maisel