We all know the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety. Our hearts race, our fingers sweat, and our breathing gets shallow and labored. We experience racing thoughts about a perceived threat we fear will be too much to handle.
That's because our "fight or flight" response has kicked in, resulting in sympathetic arousal and a narrowing of attention and focus on avoiding the threat. We seem to be locked in that state, unable to focus on our daily chores or longer-term goals.
As a cognitive-behavior therapist with more than 15 years of experience, I have found a variety of techniques that I can teach my patients with anxiety disorders such as phobias, panic attacks, or chronic worry. Some are based on changing thoughts, and others on changing behavior; still others involve physiological responses. The more aspects of anxiety I can decrease, the lower the chance of relapse post-therapy.
Below are six strategies that you can use to help relieve your everyday anxiety:
- Reevaluate the probability of the threatening event actually happening. Anxiety makes us feel that a threat is imminent, yet most of the time what we worry most about never happens. By recording our worries—and how few actually came true—we can notice how much we overestimate the prospect of negative events.
- Decatastrophize. Even if a bad event happened, we may still be able to handle it by using coping skills and problem-solving abilities or by enlisting others to help. Although not pleasant, we could still survive encountering a spider, having a panic attack, or losing money. It's important to realize that very few things are the end of the world.
- Use deep breathing and relaxation. By deliberately relaxing our muscles we begin to calm down so we can think clearly. If you practice this at first without a threat present, it can start to become automatic and will be easier to use in the moment when you face a threat. Deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system to put the brakes on sympathetic arousal.
- Become mindful of your own physical and mental reactions. The skill of mindfulness involves calmly observing our own reactions, including fear, without panicking or feeling compelled to act. It can be taught in therapy and improves with practice.
- Accept fear and commit to living a life based on core values. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an approach that encourages people to accept the inevitability of negative thoughts and feelings and not try to repress or control them. By directing attention away from the fear and back onto life tasks and valued goals, we can live a full life despite the fear.
- Exposure. Exposure is the most powerful technique for anxiety and it involves facing what we fear and staying in the situation long enough for the fear to habituate or go down, as it naturally does. Fear makes us avoid or run away, so our minds and bodies never learn that much of what we fear is not truly dangerous.
I use these techniques regularly in my clinical practice in Mill Valley, CA.
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