Like many others, I suffer from an anxiety disorder. Basically, that means that I’m usually dragging a huge, unidentifiable feeling of dread and fear with me wherever I go.
It’s kind of like having a really mean imaginary friend that’s constantly tapping you on the shoulder, whispering in your ear that a disaster is on its way. Or that feeling you get when you dive into a deep pool and you start to run out of air as you kick toward the surface, but when you’ve gotten out and dried off, you still feel like you’re about to drown. It’s thinking you left the gas on the stove going all the time and that your house is always just about to explode.
In other words, it’s a bummer. And just writing about it makes my heart race and, for some reason, talking about it makes me feel like I’m about to cause something bad to happen. That’s the nature of anxiety. It’s mean and insidious and I am not friends with it.
So, why am I writing this post? So far, it seems like kind of a downer and doesn’t have any sweet Uncle Rico/Napoleon Dynamite references like you may be used to. Ha, that’s what you thought! Because here is what I say to anxiety:
Stop eating my steak, anxiety.
The question is, how do you cope with anxiety when it feels like you’re totally losing control? I don’t have a foolproof answer (obviously), but I do have some handy tips that I’ve picked up over years of therapy, reading self-help books, hiding in closets/other small spaces during panic attacks, hiding in closets in general (this one doesn’t have anything to do with anxiety – I just like hiding), and generally dealing with anxiety firsthand.
I’m no doctor – I’m just a girl sitting in front of a screen, typing out what she’s learned. Please take that into consideration and consider seeing a professional if you are dealing with persistent anxiety. Or go see a professional anyway! I’m pretty convinced just about everyone can benefit from therapy.
6 Practices for Coping with Anxiety
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” –Jon Kabat-Zinn
“Ha! This surnds lerk a load o’ hippy crayap!” you might say (but why did you say it in such a strange accent?).
Well, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and unpacked in this article by the Harvard Medical School, “mindful meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain.” So, it’s scientifically backed, and wowza*, it’s hard to argue with those credentials!
Here’s what I love about mindfulness:
- It translates into every aspect of your life by helping you be more present every day.
- There are lots of ways to practice it.
- You don’t have to do any of them perfectly. It’s not like you have to be a monk sitting lotus-style in a meditation room with the stars aligned overhead for you to reap the benefits of being mindful. I mean, I practice mindfulness and I only spend about six hours a day in my personal meditation room (kidding! Everyone knows I do my meditation in a monastery).
Here are some great resources to start learning more about mindfulness and meditation: Mindful.org, Pocket Mindfulness, and GoAMRA.org. You can find free guided meditations and other resources at FreeMindfulness.org or by searching “guided meditation” on Youtube. I recommend the Headspace App for a more simple, modern guided meditation (though it does cost money beyond the initial sessions).
*I’d like to apologize for saying “wowza.”
2. Breathing Exercises
“Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.” -Thict Nhat Hahn
A great way to calm your anxiety is to practice some breathing exercises. Controlled breathing physically relaxes and emotionally grounds you.
I personally recommend Square Breathing, which is the practice of breathing in for 4 seconds, holding for 4 seconds, exhaling for 4 seconds, holding for 4 seconds, and repeating. You can increase the number of seconds as desired.
Probably the most interesting part of Square Breathing is the comments under this video explaining it:
3. Riding the Wave
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” -John Kabat-Zinn
When you feel a panic attack or strong anxiety surge coming on, it’s time to ride the wave, my dudes! Surf is up, my bros! And other cool things surfers say!
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), riding the waves is the technique of letting your emotions wash over you without struggling against them. It may be difficult at first, but I have personally found that “riding the wave” significantly shortens my panic attacks. Instead of getting angry at myself, questioning why it’s happening, or trying to force myself not to panic, I just let it happen…and suddenly, it’s over!
According to this article by Linda Walter on Psychology Today, it can also stand for:
R. Recognize: Notice that you’re feeling anxious. Accept it.
I. Involve: Look around and notice what is happening around you. Involve yourself in your surroundings.
D. Distract: Talk to someone, read, sing, anything to distract yourself!
E. End: The anxiety will cease naturally when you are distracted.
Not to be confused with the device S.H.R.E.D. the gnar (as in, Stop Handling Rancid Eggs, Dad).*
*I don’t care what you say. This joke is a winner.
4. Radical Acceptance
“Radical acceptance rests on letting go of the illusion of control and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging.” – Marsha M. Linehan
Radical acceptance, another DBT technique, is the practice of accepting things the way they are and acknowledging reality. It doesn’t mean approving or disapproving of a situation, but just accepting the situation as it is.
It’s easy (and understandable) to rail against anxiety. You might have thoughts like, “Why me?” and “This shouldn’t be happening!” and “I can’t believe I used the word wowza earlier in this post!” But this is just adding more pain and suffering to your situation.
Once you accept something exists, you can face it and ask, “What can I do about this?” rather than powerlessly asking why.
You can read more about radical acceptance in this Psych Central article by Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
5. Cognitive Interventions/Challenging Unhealthy Thoughts
“Your calm mind is the ultimate weapon against your challenges.” -Bryant McGill
Another technique is recognizing and disrupting unhealthy thinking patterns. Anxious thoughts can spiral out of control faster than a fidget spinner (is that what those do? Spiral out of control? No one will tell me and I don’t care enough to look it up). Anxious people tend to overestimate the bad and underestimate their ability to cope, i.e. “There is a 100% chance I am going to ruin this important meeting and a 0% chance that I will be able to recover.”
This is not logical thinking. When you recognize anxious thoughts, ThisWayUp.org suggests challenging them with “cognitive interventions” like asking, “What evidence supports these ideas?” and “How likely is it that these things will actually occur?”
My psychiatrist puts it another way: “Probability vs. Possibility.” So, if I’m worried I’m going to die in a fiery car crash every time I drive to the grocery store, I remind myself that while, yes, this is a possibility, the chances are very slim so it’s improbable to assume it will happen.
I like the way the Executive Editor of the Harvard Heart Letter Blog Julie Corliss’ mother puts it,”Don’t rehearse tragedies. Don’t borrow trouble.”
6. Counseling or Therapy
“When we are willing to stay even a moment with uncomfortable energy, we gradually learn not to fear it.” -Pema Chodron
I put this last on the list NOT because it’s a last resort, but because it might not be accessible to everyone due to cost or situation. But as I mentioned above, if you are dealing with pervasive and overwhelming anxiety, please consider seeking professional help. And even if you’re dealing with a normal amount of anxiety, anyone who engages with therapy can really benefit. Your mental health is worth it. Just something to consider!
But how does therapy help with anxiety? Well, it addresses the core of our problems and allows us to make lasting changes in our thoughts and behaviors. This can actually rewire our brains! Behavioral and cognitive therapy have been shown to be highly effective in combating anxiety and promoting resilience. Plus, you feel less alone while learning more about yourself and the people around you.
For those who think talking about your feelings is weak or self-indulgent, you should know that trying to snuff out your feelings goes beyond poor mental health – it can actually affect you physically. Not to mention the global cost of mental illness! And taking care of yourself leads to taking better care of your relationships and cultivating better connections… the list goes on.
Check out the American Association of Depression and Anxiety’s handy chart to help figure out what kind of therapy might work best for you.
In the end…
Anxiety suuuuckkkkks, but hopefully these practices can help you as much as they help me. I’m not cured and I still feel anxious a lot of the time, but with these practices, I am able to push through without feeling totally overwhelmed or completely stuck.
I also want to add that there’s no shame in needing medication to help with your anxiety. Personally, it has helped me immeasurably.
Finally, September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. If you are having darker thoughts or feel like you may do something dangerous, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They provide a lovely online safe space here.
And here is a kitten to make you feel cozy and calm:
Have a beautiful day, my friends.