“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” – Lao Tzu
Anxiety is something that we all experience to some degree. Anxiety can serve us. It helps us to heighten our sense when we are walking to our car at night. It was sure to keep us from taking the hand of a stranger when we were young. It kept us from jumping off the diving board into water that felt too deep. Okay, maybe that was me. It serves us. But what happens when it doesn’t? What happens when anxiety is disruptive? What happens when it causes us to tremble fiercely when we have to present in front of a group, or when it keeps us awake much too late at night? Here are some ways to manage your anxiety when it is not serving you.
Tzu said it best in stating that we are living in the future when presenting with anxiety. I was great at mapping out how my future might look. Sometimes it did serve me and I became excited about what was to come, although the disadvantage in that excitement is that I forgot about the beauty in the moment.
When you find yourself feeling anxious, divert your thoughts to present. Notice what is going on around and you and name it. Challenge yourself to find something in the room that you have never noticed before. Notice the top of your head, then move to your eyes, your nose, your mouth, shoulders, chest, stomach, thighs, knees, calves, toes and do it all again if you still are feeling anxious.
We often try to talk ourselves out of feeling anxious and say, “Stop worrying about it” and “It’s not a big deal” or “calm down!. Does that work? It probably does not. Instead you can say to yourself, “this is really hard for me” or “I feel really anxious about this.” I had an experience in which I spent months talking myself out of my worry. It remained until one night, I thought to myself “this is really hard for me” and the tears started and didn’t stop for a bit. Once I moved through it and accepted that I was having a hard time, I could share it with my husband and process what needed to happen with a clear mind instead of judging myself.
Relax (no, really!)
I often tell my clients to be conscious in relaxing. If you get a bath, or take a walk, or do yoga to relax but the thoughts that are causing you anxiety continue to go on in your head then you probably don’t really feel much better afterwards. People often say that they just don’t have time to relax but truly, you only need a moment or two. Grab a cup of coffee from the Keurig at work when you need a break and just for a few moments, be present and mindful when you drink it. Notice what it tastes like and the warmth as you swallow. Close your eyes for a moment and just breathe in the smell of it. Look out the window while you are in class, just for a moment and take in that big tree that is at the end of the parking lot. Notice the trunk and how it remains so still despite the wild movement of its branches and leaves in the wind.
This is a big one. Deep breathing is a signal to your brain that you are safe. Our brain wants to engage in a fight or flight response when we feel anxiety and the problem is that often running away or physically fighting is just not an option so we sit in our anxiety and feel helpless. Deep breathing from your diaphragm tells your brain “it is cool. You are safe!” You can quickly find a video on YouTube to make sure that you are doing it right.
Thank Your Thoughts
I learned about this in two different contexts and both, I believe, are brilliant. ACT Made Simple author, “Russ Harris” cites a technique called “thanking your thoughts” as a way to manage unhelpful thoughts. I was stuck in traffic and running late for something that was really importing to me and the thoughts began, “I should have never left so late,” “I do this all of the time…” I caught myself, after studying ACT, and said, “Thank you, that’s helpful and it’s definitely going to get me there faster.” I giggled over the absurdity of it all and was able to decrease my anxiety and accept what was going on immediately.
Elizabeth Gilbert, the author or Eat, Pray, Love is someone that I could listen to talk all day long. She recommends talking to your thoughts kindly. Say to yourself, “I know that you are just trying to take care of me and I really appreciate it, but I’m good. I’m just writing a book.” Those aren’t her exact words but you get the message. Because remember, anxiety does serve you.
Just remember, you are not alone in any of this.