If you are reading this post, you can probably relate to the feeling of anxiety or know someone else who is currently facing excessive worry or unease. ANXIETY IS NORMAL! Literally every client that walks through my door is experiencing some degree of anxiety, and the reality is that we are biologically wired to have these emotions! In the olden days, humans were faced with many different challenges than we are today, and anxiety was a feeling that made us appropriately respond to these threats. Even though we are not likely to still face the threat of a lion attack, famine or plague as our early ancestors did, we do face a great deal of new threats (social media bullying, gun violence, climate change!) to which our biological response remains the same. As normal as it is to have these feelings, knowing what to do with them is a developed skill that most people have not yet mastered or even practiced for that matter.
Now that we’ve covered a little background on the origins of anxiety, let’s dive into how to these universal human feelings can be best addressed and managed.
My most favorite and personally effective tip is EXERCISE!
Moving your body can stimulate the metabolism of chemicals that are naturally produced by your brain in response to anxiety and also stimulate the production of endorphins, which increase one’s sense of well being. This does NOT by any means necessitate you hitting the gym every day at 5am. It simply means that you should take regular opportunities throughout your day to move about. Yes, regular and vigorous exercise has the biggest impact of reducing anxiety, but something is better than nothing; take a quick walk outside if you have a break from work or to start your day. Stretch when you get out of bed. Do a quick yoga or cardio video if you have 15 free minutes (try these quick workouts)!
Take note of how you felt before and after this movement. It is helpful to scale your feelings, with 0 being a state of super calm and 10 being anxiety through the roof! That way you have a concrete baseline from which to gauge. Find an exercise that works for you and gradually incorporate this into your daily routine. The more you do it, the more your body will crave it in the future.
This is another major player in the battle against anxiety. Insomnia is the most common condition that can intensify anxiety. There are books for days about this topic, and it can be very complex with many possible origins.
Just to keep it simple here, some of the most common culprits in sleeplessness are the following: not enough exercise, over stimulation in the evenings, irregular bedtimes or wake times, too much caffeine, excess stress, deficient sleep environment, and loud partners (or children!).
In order to set yourself up for the greatest chances of regular sleep, try and follow these general guidelines: exercise in the day, wind down in the last hour of your day (avoid too much screentime or mental activity); don’t eat a heavy meal at least two hours before bedtime, and develop a sleep ritual before bedtime (ex: a hot shower, listen to relaxing music).
Please be aware that exercise and good sleep are just a couple forms of SELF CARE – taking time and making time for other areas of self care such as nutrition, relaxation, mindfulness (see my colleague Katy’s blog here!), time with friends, etc. will also positively affect your quality of life and level of anxiety.
Next tip, pause to consider what can you CONTROL?
Sure, there are often many things about our families, jobs or life situations that we would ideally love to be a little different. But we have to realize that we can only exert total control over ourselves and worrying about other people or situations outside our circle of influence will only result in unneeded and unproductive worry. If you are able to let go of things you cannot control, you can decrease your level of anxiety considerably.
Try making a list of things, situations or people you try to control. Next to each item, note whether you have no, some or complete control over that item. Envision what it would be like to try letting go of the things over which you have no control.
If you feel very challenged by the idea of letting something go, imagine that you do and the worst case scenario plays out. In many cases, this would bring negative feelings such as disappointment, embarrassment or inadequacy but you may also realize that you are capable of handling this, and chances are, it’s actually very rare that the worst case scenario happens anyway.
Tip #3: Engage in more positive SELF-TALK
Have you experienced a breakup in a relationship and then blamed the whole downfall on yourself? Or bombed an interview and told yourself what a failure you are? People who feel higher levels of anxiety are more likely to engage in this negative self-talk. Self-talk is our subtle (or sometimes not-so subtle) and internal dialogue that we quickly and instinctively think to ourselves. We often don’t notice it and we certainly don’t realize how much power it holds.
Picture yourself beginning a long roadtrip, with two whining children in the backseat and backed up traffic ahead. One version of yourself may be thinking, “This is horrible, I don’t know how I’m going to make it to the destination” or “Why did I agree to drive here for Thanksgiving?!” Imagine a different version of yourself saying, “I know we’ll get there eventually, why don’t I take some deep breaths and use this time to listen to a podcast or try that new album that was just released, or relive a favorite old memory”. Take a moment to think of a personal example of yourself in a similar situation and imagine how you would feel after the first round of statements versus the second. The power of perspective is real!
Try to take note of the self talk you engage in over the next several days and even jot it down if you get a moment. Were these positive or negative messages and how could you edit them to boost yourself up rather than cut yourself down? Remember that it will take practice to make these changes and that you must rehearse more positive statements to yourself consistently and repeatedly for them to sink in and make a difference.
Another one of my favorite tips to restrain anxiety is to SPEND TIME IN NATURE!
The idea of going outside to improve your mental outlook has been mentioned in several recent blog posts by my colleagues but it is so important in this discussion that its value cannot be overstated!! Please see my colleague Amber’s blog here.
Even better if you can combine the tips on exercise above with the suggestion of going outside for the ultimate release of negative energy. How about a jog on Lady Bird Lake trail or a lap swim at Deep Eddy anyone?!
Last but not least…Tip #5: NURTURE (or awaken!) your CREATIVE SELF.
The grind of everyday life has a way of sapping our creativity. Whether that is managing loads of homework or work projects into the wee hours of the evening or caregiving for others, the responsibilities of everyday life force us to give up what makes us feel good about ourselves sometimes.
When you are feeling super anxious, the path of least resistance can be to let go of things that seem unnecessary but it may be these same things that could most keep you sane if you let them. This tip relates to self care as discussed above but differentiates in the sense that stimulating a creative self can add personal meaning to your life and thereby protect against anxiety on another level.
Think about times before you were stressed or overwhelmed with anxiety. What things did you do to have fun? What activities made you feel most alive or grateful? Not everyone will consider themselves creative, but a spark of creativity hides in all of us. What can do you to bring it out?
Some examples may be to work in a garden, cook a new recipe, bring a sketchbook to a park, cultivate your spirituality or pick up a long lost instrument. Click here to inspire more fun ideas…
In the end, it doesn’t matter what you choose to do, but how you can cultivate your interests to add meaning to your life. For many people it can take an entire lifetime to feel fulfilled in your purpose; enjoying the journey is what is important and not how fast you get there. If you are feeling disconnected with your purpose, consider taking a personal values inventory online such as this one! https://www.lifevaluesinventory.org
I hope that reading this post generated some ideas about how you can take control of anxiety in your life. These tips just scratch the surface, as there are many different ways to cope with such a universal human emotion. The good news is, the power is within you! But as a reminder, here are the tips & tricks recapped:
- Exercise, sleep hygiene and other self care
- Consider what you can control
- Engage in positive self talk
- Spend time in nature
- Stimulate your creative being