Anxiety is a well-known state of mind and each of us will experience it at some point in our lives. For most of us, anxiety will feel uncomfortable — a nuisance to be dealt with the best we can — and will inevitably visit us during some major life occasions/transitions/decisions. For some, it will come more frequently, coloring much of the activities of daily life. For others, it will feel like torture, seeming to control every waking hour and wreaking havoc on a regular basis.
Abigail Brenner M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice. She received her B.A. from New York University and her medical degree from New York Medical College. After completing her internship and residency in psychiatry at New York University-Bellevue Medical Center, Dr. Brenner served as an attending physician at the NYU-Bellevue Adult Mental Hygiene Clinic and as an Assistant Clinical Professor at New York University Medical School.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Looked at in the most positive light, anxiety is a “red alert” telling us that something is wrong and requires our immediate attention — and it won’t kill us.
Many of us are able to handle the discomfort of anxiety on our own with no outside intervention, but others may need some help to learn how to manage the mental and physical discomfort, and gain insight and coping skills.
Here are 5 strategies that can help make anxiety easier to deal with:
1. Challenge anxious thoughts.
A lot of thinking is negative and irrational. You may think the worst will happen and may convince yourself that what you feel is going to happen is based in reality, when there may be no actual basis for believing this. You may be so used to thinking about the worst-case scenario presenting itself that thinking any other way has become alien to you. You need to stop and challenge what you believe to be true about what you fear and what negatively occupies your thoughts.
In other words, you need to retrain your thinking to learn to process what happens to you in a different way, instead of jumping into the usual patterns that feed your anxiety. Ask yourself: How do you know your anxious thoughts are based in reality? How likely is it that what you fear will actually happen? Is there perhaps a more realistic way to think about what could/will happen? Can you visualize a more positive outcome?
2. Recognize some negative thinking patterns that foster worry, fear, and anxiety.
Be careful about seeing things as either/or, should/shouldn’t, right/wrong, or black/white with no shades of gray. Be aware of the tendency to exaggerate the negative and diminish the positive. Become conscious of drawing the wrong conclusions based on incorrect, incomplete, and inconclusive evidence. Understand your tendency to jump to catastrophe as the outcome. Be aware of diminishing your own capability to successfully get through a situation. And challenge the imagined scenario of being humiliated, criticized, and judged because you feel you are incapable of rising to the occasion and conquering your fears and anxieties.
3. Cultivate optimistic thinking.
Psychologist Martin Seligman believes that people can learn how to think optimistically. It begins with teaching yourself to keep thinking about the specific, rather than the general — how your worry or fear fits into the bigger picture of your life, rather than becoming the bigger picture of your life — because your life is much, much bigger than any worry, fear, or anxiety will ever be.
The suggestion is that by creating a thinking strategy that explains a problem or issue, you are better able to make a plan to do something about it. In other words, de-personalize the problem; take yourself out of it so you can do something about changing the situation, rather than being part of the problem, where you may feel helpless and powerless to control the situation. Think about situations or problems as temporary and changeable, rather than long-term or permanent. That way, they can change.
Creating a thinking model that places the outcome within your control allows you to manage the situation. Taking even baby steps can lead the way to constructive solutions, rather than feeling overwhelmed, defeated, and stuck.
4. Take a timeout.
Give your brain a break. Take a mental vacation with mindful meditation or a walk in nature. Relaxation and leisure are essential to a full, balanced life. If this is alien to you, it’s time to start scheduling some R&R into your weekly calendar. Yoga, listening to music, self-nurturing (e.g., massage), anything that takes you out of your head and incessant worrying is beneficial to your all-around well-being. And, of course, focus on living a healthy lifestyle — eating well, exercising daily, getting enough sleep, and anything else that helps you express your healthy, whole presence in the world.
5. Create an anxiety toolbox.
During years of practice, I inadvertently (but thankfully) created the idea of the therapeutic "toolbox." I wanted to give my patients tools to manage their own issues, especially when they left therapy. Following are some tools for anxiety that you can carry with you and use whenever the need arises:
Asking questions. Based on past experiences, have a set of questions ready to ask yourself when anxiety hits: Am I blowing the situation, and my anxiety, out of proportion? On a scale of 1 to 10, where does the situation and the accompanying anxiety realistically sit? Have the catastrophic consequences and the worst-case scenario I always worry about ever come to pass? Even if something is really wrong, am I capable of finding a healthier/more satisfactory solution? In other words, create a better reality (and outcome) based on your successful responses to past experiences.
Taking action. This may include going for a walk, meditating, listening to music, exercising, calling a supportive friend, attending a worship service, journaling, or using helpful affirmations or mantras. Relying on what you know from past experience will calm you, give you a sense of control, and/or ground you should continue to work for you.
Controlling physical responses. How do you handle physical symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat, hyperventilating, numbness and tingling of hands and feet, or even fear of passing out? If these are components of your anxiety, you can employ various techniques — breath work, relaxation techniques, guided meditations — on your own or with a practitioner, so that when symptoms arise, you are prepared to utilize what you’ve learned.