While it’s normal to get nervous about an important event or life change, about 40 million Americans live with daily anxiety. But, it is super important to remember that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to finding the right way to manage and alleviate anxiety from stress. Each person needs to find her or his own combination of methods that work. Here are a few things to try as part of this mix:
If you're not focused on how to calm your body through slow, intentional belly-breathing, you're missing out. Belly-breathing doesn’t cost anything, can be done absolutely anywhere, and it’s super easy to do. Here's how to get started:
- Sit with your eyes closed and turn your attention to your breathing. Breathe naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control your breath.
- Be aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. Place one hand on your belly, and the other on your chest. Take a deep breath for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of three. Exhale for a count of four. The hand on your belly should go in as you inhale, and move out as you exhale.
- Concentrate on your breath and forget everything else. Your mind will be very busy, and you may even feel that the meditation is making your mind busier, but the reality is you're just becoming more aware of how busy your mind is.
- Resist the temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, and focus on the sensation of the breath. If you discover that your mind has wandered and is following your thoughts, immediately return it to the breath.
- Repeat this as many times as necessary until your mind settles on the breath. Don't wait to begin belly-breathing. The sooner you make this a daily habit, the quicker you'll feel relaxed.
- When you implement belly breathing, you start the day in a here-and-now state. Better yet, you're not wasting time worrying about the future or reliving the past.
2. Challenge negative core beliefs.
Remember that thoughts precede feelings. Negative thoughts lead to negative emotions, which lead to negative behaviors. How to challenge your negative mood:
- Record your thoughts periodically. Pay attention to when you feel stressed out.
- Write the feelings that accompany the thoughts. Think one-word responses, like frustrated, angry, worthless, defeated, etc.
- Challenge your current version of reality. This is hard, because we tend to lack objectivity about the truth. Is there proof you don't deserve that job promotion? Were you written up because of shoddy work performance?
If you commit to recording your daily thoughts and feelings, along with reality testing, you'll see that many of your negative feelings are created in your mind and not based on reality. The good news is you created the negative thought, and you can uncreate it.
3. Accept your anxiety.
Whether you inherited "anxiety genes" from your family, or it's your lifestyle, or both, accept your anxiety. This is not about rolling over and giving up. It’s really about understanding that all of us have to work hard every day to bring calm to our lives and anxiety is a part of most everyone’s life - you’re not alone, you’re not weird.
Often, anxiety can make us feel isolated and alone. Spending some time to remind ourselves that that’s not the case, can help calm anxiety.
4. Question your thoughts.
When people are anxious, our brains start coming up with all sorts of ideas, many of which are actually not very likely to occur at all. These types of thoughts only end up working to heighten our already anxious state.
For instance, say you’re about to give a wedding toast. Thoughts like “Oh my God, I can’t do this. It will kill me” may be running through your brain. You may be anxious, but the worst thing that will happen is that some people, many of whom will never see you again, will get a few chuckles, and that by tomorrow they will have completely forgotten about it. Remind yourself, however, that this isn’t a catastrophe, and in reality, no one has died because they gave a not movie-perfect toast.
Try asking yourself these questions when challenging your thoughts:
- Is this worry realistic? What is a realistic outcome?
- Is this really likely to happen?
- If the worst possible outcome happens, what would be so bad about that?
- Could I handle that?
- What might I do?
- If something bad happens, what might that mean about me?
- Is this really true or does it just seem that way?
- What might I do to prepare for whatever may happen?
5. Use a calming visualization.
Try first practicing the following meditation several times when you’re not feeling anxiety - it will help make it easier to do when you’re actually anxious in the moment. Try not to let wandering thoughts about life jump in - think of this as a type of focused meditation.
Picture yourself on a river bank or outside in a favorite park, field or beach. Think of somewhere that really helps you feel relaxed. Watch leaves pass by on the river or clouds pass by in the sky. Assign emotions, thoughts, sensations to the clouds and leaves, and just watch them float by.
This is very different from what we typically do. Typically, we assign emotions, thoughts and physical sensations certain qualities and judgments, such as good or bad, right or wrong. This type of thinking often ends up letting us amplify our anxiety.
6. Focus on right now.
When we are anxious, we are usually focusing on something that might occur in the future. Instead, try to pause, breathe, and pay attention to what’s happening right now. Even if something serious is happening, focusing on the present moment will improve your ability to manage the situation. Try to identify what can be done today to slightly make things better, and work on that.
7. Go to bed early.
This may sound impossible if you're accustomed to staying up late to catch up on the to-do list. But this one's a must.
Sleep deprivation is a huge anxiety culprit. Inadequate shuteye can amplify the brain's anticipatory reactions, upping overall anxiety levels. We all have anticipatory anxiety. Having moderate levels of anxiety about doing well is important. It's impossible to have healthy emotional functioning without adequate sleep.
8. Write It Down
One way to handle stress is to write things down. One way is to try recording what you're stressed about and then writing down what you can do to help relieve that anxiety.
Another option is jotting down what you're grateful for and how you plan to maintain those parts of your life. Gratitude may help relieve stress and anxiety by focusing your thoughts on what's positive in your life.