I wanted to offer a set of daily practices to conquer anxiety, in celebration of the release of my new book, The CBT Deck for Anxiety, Rumination, and Worry. These twelve exercises in mindfulness-centered cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are drawn from the 108 that make up the deck.
If you’re one of the countless people who are dealing with overwhelming anxiety, you know it can affect every part of your being: Your body feels tense and on edge, your mind races with anxious thoughts, and your spirit feels exhausted under the weight of it all. Effectively managing anxiety requires practices that address body, mind, and spirit.
Mindfulness-centered CBT offers three interlocking approaches to deal with anxiety:
- Mind: Cognitive techniques address the runaway thoughts that fuel our anxious preoccupation with danger.
- Body: Behavioral techniques offer powerful ways to face your fears.
- Spirit: Mindful presence helps you come back to center, which provides firm footing for addressing anxiety.
These approaches work together and reinforce one another—for example, mindful awareness helps you recognize and change anxiety-provoking thoughts.
Anxiety often leads to responses that end up perpetuating anxious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Over time these responses can turn into habits, which lead to an upward spiral of anxiety. But you can rewire how the brain responds to anxiety through deliberate practice. By planning in advance for how you’ll respond to anxiety, you’ll be ready to break old habits and build new ones that serve you well.
Here are 12 common difficulties related to anxiety, and effective ways to deal with each of them.
1. Expecting the Worst
Anxiety often triggers terrifying thoughts and images, and it can feel like these fears are sure to come true. You might even think something awful could happen because you thought of it. In CBT we call these predictions “fortune telling.”
Beware of Fortune Telling: When you notice you’re fearing an imagined disaster today, call it what it is: “ That’s a fantasy .” Take a slow breath in and out, smile, and return to reality.
2. Letting Anxiety Dictate Your Actions
Anxiety is a noisy passenger, directing you to avoid anything that makes you anxious: "Careful! Watch out! Don’t go there!"
Who's Driving? Consider today whether you want avoiding anxiety to be the number one priority in your life. Is there something more important to you than being emotionally comfortable? If so, steer your life in that direction, and let anxiety come along for the ride.
3. Mental Wheel Spinning
Worrying is repetitive and unproductive, but it can feel like you’re working through problems. You might even believe that you should worry and that it leads to effective solutions. Actual problem solving, in contrast, is focused and directed, and actually leads to solutions.
Worry vs. Problem Solving: When you’re worrying today, figure out whether there’s a real problem to solve or if your mind is simply spinning its wheels. Then aim to redirect your mental energy toward productive problem solving and things you can actually control.
4. Focusing on What-Ifs
Anxiety often compels us to focus on all the things that could go wrong, and to be preoccupied with hoping things turn out in our favor.
Who Do I Want to Be? When you find yourself worrying about how things are going to go for you today, change the conversation. Ask yourself instead, “ What quality of presence do I want to bring to any challenges I meet? ”
Notice what happens when you shift from what could go wrong today to being the person you want to be.
5. Becoming Paralyzed with Fear
Anxiety can activate not only fight or flight, but the freeze response. Like a deer in headlights, we can be paralyzed with fear; if we stay stationary, it’s easier for the grip of anxiety to keep tightening around us.
Move Through Anxiety: When you start to feel overwhelmed by anxiety today, do three minutes of physical movement. For example, walk up and down stairs, go for a quick walk outside, or simply stand and do gentle circles with your shoulders.
Keep in mind that you’re not running away from anxiety—you’re moving through it. Focus on the physical sensations as you move, letting your body awareness anchor your attention in the present.
6. Harm to Our Relationships
Our connections to others often take a hit when anxiety is high. It’s hard to connect when we’re agitated and preoccupied with thoughts of danger. We’re also prone to irritability when we’re highly anxious, which doesn’t tend to foster healthy connections. Thankfully, caring for others is actually an effective way to interrupt anxiety.
Practice Kindness: When you find that you’re stuck in worry, think of something nice you could do for someone you know, whether a loved one or an acquaintance. What would brighten their day? Allow anxiety to be a trigger for acts of kindness, however unexpected or even undeserved.
7. Unhealthy Patterns of Consumption
Anxiety often drives us to consume—to eat sugar, drink alcohol, watch TV, scroll through social media. These forms of consumption only lead to more anxiety in the long run, because they don’t address the root of our unease, and so we’re driven to consume more and more.
Creation vs. Consumption: Focus on creating when you’re feeling anxious. For example, prepare a meal, write a poem, arrange flowers—anything that lets you express your creative energy. Find a feeling of agency as you seek engagement over entertainment.
8. Physical Tension
When you’re anxious all the time, the body’s stress response is continually turned on. As a result, physical tension accumulates in the body, which reinforces the sense that all is not well.
Shake It Off: Shaking can be an effective way to release built-up stress in the body. When you’re feeling tense and anxious, try shaking the body for a few minutes. Shake out your arms, roll your shoulders, and shake your hips, legs, and ankles.
Let yourself look silly while you do it. This silly practice can have powerfully calming effects on your nervous system. Pause afterward and notice how you feel.
Unchecked anxiety also creates a feeling of mental, physical, and emotional agitation—of being stirred up and on high alert. Synchronizing movement with breath can soothe your nervous system.
Moving Breath Meditation:
- Sit comfortably with your hands in your lap.
- Extend your arms out to the sides as you breathe in.
- Exhale and bring your palms together in front of your heart.
- Inhale and extend your arms again.
- Finally, exhale and place your palms in your lap.
Repeat three to five times.
10. Saying “No” to Reality
Anxiety pushes us to resist reality—to close ourselves off and say “no” to what’s happening. This resistance leads to unnecessary tension, as we struggle against things that are beyond our control.
Can I Open to This? When you’re confronted with something that makes you anxious, ask yourself, “Can I open to this? Am I willing to stay with my experience?” Peace is available when we summon the courage to face life just as it is.
11. Disconnection from Our Senses
When we’re anxious we tend to be stuck in our heads, which pulls us out of the sensory world—which is to say, out of the real world. Being lost in your thoughts, in turn, reinforces whatever scary scenario your mind is playing out.
Look, Listen, Touch : When you find yourself stuck in loops of unproductive thinking, engage with your senses:
- Look: Take a breath and notice what you see around you.
- Listen: Close your eyes, take a second breath, and attend to the sounds around you.
- Touch: On the third breath, feel the points of contact between your body and where you’re sitting (or standing).
Repeat this exercise several times each day as needed.
12. Sleep Problems
Sound sleep is one of the most common casualties of high anxiety. When your sympathetic nervous system is stuck in the “on” position, you tend to carry your worries to bed with you, where they visit you throughout your restless night.
Consecrate Your Sleep: Let your sleep be a spiritual practice of reconnecting with yourself. Trust that you can let go of thinking and doing , and come into a mode of being .
Allow the cares of the day to slip away, knowing that whatever needs your attention can wait until tomorrow. Enter into sleep as a time of renewal for your mind, body, and spirit.
What Does It Mean to “Conquer" Anxiety?
Anxiety is an unavoidable part of life, and actually a necessary experience in order to meet life’s challenges. A manageable amount of anxiety signals to you that something is important, and provides motivation and energy to take care of it.
Conquering anxiety doesn’t mean getting rid of it entirely. To conquer anxiety means to live life on your terms , rather than anxiety’s. It means you do things because they’re important to you, not because they feel safe or help you not be anxious. It means anxiety doesn’t dominate your life or dictate your actions.
Conquering anxiety isn’t a once-and-for-all event, but rather a moment-to-moment choice. It’s deciding to focus on the quality of presence you want to embody. It’s choosing to move through the grip of anxiety instead of being paralyzed. It’s recognizing the mind’s fantasies and choosing creation over consumption. Every one of these practices is an invitation to slay anxiety.
Ready to begin retraining your brain with mindfulness-centered CBT? Choose one of these daily exercises to practice, starting today, as you train yourself to conquer anxiety.
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Gillihan, S. J. (2020). The CBT deck for anxiety, rumination, and worry. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.