Working with Anxiety
This page offers some tools for working with anxiety. I have found that tools for transforming anxiety fall into two different camps: strategies that help us calm or soothe the nervous system so that we feel more regulated, and tools that help us actively move or shift the anxiety so we feel more empowered. I find that many of the most commonly known anxiety management strategies fall in the first camp, and less is written about those that fall in the second camp. In my therapy practice, I have noticed that tools that help people connect with their warrior spirits are every bit as important as those that help people feel calmer (because feeling connected to our inner strength can help us feel safer).
Something essential to know about anxiety is that it thrives in isolation. As Anne Lamott wrote, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood, I try not to go there alone.” It’s easy to get trapped in our anxious thoughts and feelings, to the point that our painful inner worlds feel more real that the world around us. We can make great progress working with our anxiety on our own (especially if we include loved ones in the process), but sometimes we need the support of a therapist in order to uncover and heal the roots of our anxiety, see our patterns more clearly, and discover and mobilize our innate strengths.
A Word About Neuroplasticity
Please take heart! So much has been written in recent years about the neuroplasticity of the adult brain. Our brains are wired to predict and plan for danger; when this system goes on overdrive, we can find ourselves living with excruciating, pervasive anxiety. However, it is possible to retrain our brains! In fact, most of us need to retrain our brains in order to live fulfilling lives where joy outweighs fear, and peacefulness outweighs discontent. Therapy can support us in “rewiring” our brains into healthier patterns, as can many of the tools listed here.
Tools that Calm and Regulate: Connecting with Inner Safety
When we are anxious, our breathing becomes shallower and more rapid, which can actually contribute to increased feelings of anxiety and panic. Learning to breathe in a slower, more rhythmic way (especially when we breathe in and out of our diaphragms rather than just in our chests) can often calm worry by cueing our bodies that we are safe enough to relax. There are many types of breathing that can help us calm ourselves. Here are just two:
4-7-8 breathing: https://www.drweil.com/videos-features/videos/breathing-exercises-4-7-8-breath/
7-11 breathing: https://www.hgi.org.uk/resources/delve-our-extensive-library/resources-and-techniques/7-11-breathing-how-does-deep
Often, when we feel anxious, we can feel sort of floaty and disoriented. Sometimes the experience of feeling not quite there triggers increased anxiety. Grounding is a simple tool that helps us sink into our bodies, which can help us feel calmer and more present. Next time you’re anxious, try pressing your feet into the floor, laying a hand over your heart and breathing into your hand, or picking a color and noticing 4 things in the room that are that color. Even better – go outside (if you can) and lie down on the grass face down. These are tiny tricks – they won’t cure a lifelong experience of worry – but they can help us to come back to ourselves. And every moment we come back to ourselves and to this moment we teach our brains that we are actually okay.
We’ve all heard of meditation and by now, most of us know it’s supposed to be good for us! There is plenty of research suggesting that meditation can relieve anxiety. There are so many different kinds of meditation – and so many classes and online resources - that it can feel a bit overwhelming just knowing how to start. I recommend starting small and experimenting. Starting small means trying meditation for 3-5 minutes, rather than aiming for a longer sit, and experimenting means trying different ways to meditate until you find one you like. For a simple exercise, just sit quietly, with your spine as straight as possible, breathe deeply into and out of your belly, and at the end of each exhalation, count your breath mentally (without speaking aloud). When you reach the count of five, go back to one. Here are a couple links describing this type of meditation:
There are also many apps that offer meditation support: Insight Timer, Headspace, and Calm are just a few. Here is an article about free apps: https://www.mindful.org/free-mindfulness-apps-worthy-of-your-attention/
Here’s a review about meditation and anxiety: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/01/07/260470831/mindfulness-meditation-can-help-relieve-anxiety-and-depression).
Mindfulness is closely linked to meditation (we usually become more mindful when we meditate regularly), but we can also practice mindfulness without meditating. Mindfulness basically means being aware – noticing what is happening within and around us. Mindfulness is key to transforming anxiety, because as soon as we become mindful of our anxiety and our triggers, we are no longer merged with the anxiety. There is just the littlest bit of separation between the anxiety and us, and the anxiety loses some of its power. Over time, we can learn to relate to anxiety as just a passing mental/emotional state and not the all-consuming experience it is when we are merged with our anxiety.
Our minds can drive us nuts, but the mind can also be a powerful ally. Research shows that what we think about affects many other systems in our body. When we think about scary experiences, our heart rates increase and we may begin to sweat; when we reflect on positive, loving experiences, our heart rates decrease and symptoms of anxiety may diminish. We can make use of our mind’s power by visualizing safe and loving places, people, and experiences. (This can be much harder to do if we have a history of trauma; sometimes, we may need to start by creating safe and loving experiences in therapy).
Guided visualization and hypnotherapy are two tools I use in therapy to help foster your ability to imagine and actually experience a sense of relaxation and safety. (Visualization can also be helpful if you have specific fears/phobias, because you can gradually expose yourself to what frightens you in a way that feels safe enough to be manageable.)
Emotional Freedom Technique- EFT (Tapping)
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is a psychological acupressure technique that is relatively easy to learn and use on yourself. There are plenty of videos online that can teach you how to use EFT to calm anxiety and shift distressing thought patterns and beliefs. (This is also something we can do together if you choose to work with me.) Here is a link to a therapist describing how to use EFT to calm anxiety; the link includes many instructional EFT videos, including one about how to use EFT to help with panic: https://eft.mercola.com/
Identifying and Shifting Thought Patterns
Working with our thoughts is key to facilitating healing and transformation. You may have already noticed how a single thought can affect your mood, your feelings, and your physical sensations. In therapy, we work with thoughts in a variety of ways, including noticing the distressing thoughts at the beginning of an anxiety chain, and the positive thoughts that lead to a feeling of comfort or safety (even just a tiny shift towards feeling more safe). Over time, we learn how to choose and practice the more positive (and usually more realistic) thought patterns, which contributes to the healthy rewiring of our adult brain.
Cultivating Compassion and Curiosity for the Part of Us Who is Anxious
A number of psychological theories (including Internal Family Systems or IFS) posit the idea that we are not one unified “self”, but rather a multiplicity of self-parts. IFS suggests that each of us has at core a Wise Self – the part of us who is driven to heal and grow, and who knows what’s best for us – as well as many other self-parts who each have their own needs and agendas. (NOTE: this is not the same as multiple personality disorder!!). Ultimately, what we want is for our Wise Self to be driving the bus, and for all of our self-parts to be sitting in their seats – chiming in, but not running the show.
When we cultivate curiosity and compassion for the part of us who is anxious (usually a self part that has roots in childhood), we both “un-merge” with the anxiety (which reduces its power) and learn how to support the young part of us who feels so scared. How would you treat a child you loved who is feeling frightened? That’s how we want to relate to the part of us who feels unsafe and worried.
Physical Regulation of the Nervous System
When we are anxious (and constantly predicting or experiencing danger), our sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system is on overdrive. We experience agitation, stress, worry, and a feeling that it’s not okay to relax. In order to feel better, we need to support our nervous system by stimulating the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system, which restores calm and helps us get the rest we need. (Most of the tools listed here help us regulate our nervous systems by fostering calm and quieting our fight/flight mental states.)
There are a number of simple physical practices that can help us regulate our nervous system in this way. Restorative yoga, gentle stretching in a dimly lit room, tai chi, and lying down with an eye pillow covering our eyes while gentle music plays are all possibilities.
Here’s a link to my favorite restorative yoga pose: https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/reclining-bound-angle-pose
If you want something quite simple, just try a seated forward bend, supported by pillows: https://katieovercash.com/2016/10/03/restorative-yoga-pose-of-the-week-seated-forward-bend/
Tools that Move Energy: Connecting with the Warrior Within
Physical Activity: Exercise
We all know that exercise is good for us; there has been plenty of research demonstrating that regular aerobic exercise can reduce anxiety and depression. Moving our bodies regularly is especially important when we are anxious, as it helps relieve physical tension, contributes to our sense of strength and capability, and releases endorphins that can help us feel more relaxed.
Connecting with our Anger
Often, people with high levels of anxiety are sensitive, conditioned caregivers – people who work hard to please and care for others but may have a harder time taking care of themselves. In my practice, many people with anxiety have had a hard time feeling and expressing their anger. We often think of anger as “bad” – an emotion that is damaging for all. However, anger is often the emotion that lets us know when a limit needs to be set, or when we are tolerating something that isn’t good for us. Connecting to our anger and learning how to express it in ways that are healthy and safe (for us and others) can be liberating, and can help free us from anxiety.
When we can trust ourselves to take care of ourselves and keep ourselves safe physically and emotionally, we are likely to be less anxious. Learning to assert ourselves and set clear boundaries with others (including in those relationships where this feels most scary) can significantly reduce anxiety. Sometimes, we can have a strong voice at work, but find it more difficult to advocate for ourselves in our most intimate relationships, or with our biological family.
Fear is designed to create a response; its purpose is to get us to take action (fight or flight) in the face of threat. It’s important to examine fear/anxiety and see if there are specific actions we can take to help us eliminate potential threats or perceived threats, so that we can feel (and perhaps be) safer. Perhaps our anxiety is telling us that a particular individual is not safe to be around, or that it’s time to prepare our earthquake kit. Sometimes, taking specific actions that address the cause of the anxiety can help us to feel better.
Move the Fear: Connect with Strength
As mentioned above, fear wants us to move – to take action. When we are anxious (ie, when fear takes up residence in us as a pervasive sense of imminent danger), all those “action tendencies” get bottled up inside of us and create the feeling that we should be doing something right now to reduce threat. We can go in circles in our mind and feel trapped by the relentlessness of our anxious thoughts and constricted hearts. Moving our bodies physically at these times can help release the pressure and connect us to our inner strength. I recommend going to a private space and dancing, stomping, punching, extending your arms out to feel the boundaries of your personal space, and practicing saying “No!” or “Back off!” This may sound crazy, but it can really help you to feel the power of your body and your voice. And as soon as we start feeling powerful and strong, anxiety diminishes.
Finding creative ways to express anxiety and the feelings underlying anxiety (often sadness, hurt, anger) can help shift the anxious energy as well. Grab some markers and draw, belt out a favorite song, write a dialog between the part of you who feels anxious and Wonder Woman. Anxiety tends to grab hold of us and grip our inner world in an iron vice. When we allow ourselves to get creative, the grip loosens a bit, and as we experience our ability to shift the energy of anxiety even a little, we can feel more empowered (and even have a bit of fun!).
Open Your Heart
Many of us experience anxiety as a constriction in the heart, a physical and emotional tension in our chests and throats. When we feel this way, it’s hard to relax, to feel as loving as we know we are, and to connect with others. Finding activities that help our hearts to soften and feel more open often helps anxiety to diminish as well. Brushing a cat or dog, stepping outdoors in the sunshine, walking in a garden or park, remembering and replaying moments when we felt safe and loved, watching a video of puppies tumbling or of someone engaged in a benevolent act – all these experiences can create a softening in the heart. (Research actually suggests that watching cute animal videos can have a range of positive effects, including fostering greater resilience to stress: https://www.verywellmind.com/stress-relieving-benefits-of-watching-cute-animal-videos-4150074). Find the activities and thoughts that help your heart to soften, and then give yourself the gift of enjoying those moments as much as possible.
When we take charge of what we put in our bodies, we feel empowered. There is an increasing body of research that highlights the link between gut health and brain health, and the relationship between what we eat and how we feel. Food is so central to our lives; it can feel overwhelming to imagine re-hauling our entire diet. I again recommend starting small, picking one or two changes that can support you in having more even mood and less worry. This is something we can talk about in therapy, or you can research online, or you can meet with a nutritionist. (I know a great one who works online; feel free to contact me if you want a referral.)
Here’s an article about nutrition and anxiety: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-strategies-to-ease-anxiety-201604139441.
A Closing Word
Again, take heart! If you look at this list of tools as something you have to do in order to feel better, that could increase anxiety and distress. These are all just suggestions – tools to have in your personal toolkit – and you get to figure out which tools help you the most and which may not. Just by reading this page, you are suggesting to your brain that help and healing are possible. I know from my work with clients as well as from my personal experience that it is possible to use our anxiety as a gateway for transformation, that we can liberate ourselves from fear and open ourselves to joy. If you are interested in learning more, feel free to contact me.
May you always respect the Warrior within!