Sara Speed, LMHC
How to Overcome Anxiety
There was a time in our history where fear didn’t just serve a purpose, it was absolutely critical. Our primitive past as a species when the priority of each and every day was survival itself. A snap of a twig in the distance would set our senses ablaze! Our ears would tune in to every sound, our eyes would focus in like a laser beam.
Our systems would be flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, and our bodies would prepare for the fight of their lives. Or perhaps the prospect of a long frigid winter without food would propel our family from carefully crafted shelters out into uncertainty to follow a herd of migrating animals across an entire continent. Our bodies did a phenomenal job of protecting us and ensuring our existence as a species.
Well, we have come a long way, haven’t we?
Safe and sound in our impenetrable pile of bricks. Huge buildings stocked from floor to ceiling with thirty-six different options for breakfast cereal. So, what has become of our fear? Oh, it’s still there alright, and it seems to be lurking around every corner! It doesn’t quite serve the purpose that it used to though.
Now instead of a panther slinking behind us through the forest, it’s the traffic jam on I95. Now instead of a cold winter without sustenance, it’s tax season. It’s oil changes and road rage and homeowner’s insurance. It’s report cards and performance evaluations artificial sweeteners.
The problem is that our bodies don’t seem to know the difference. Instead of the periodic, momentary spike of stress hormones to survive an imminent attack, or a healthy dose of proportional anxiety to spring us into action, we are under a seemingly endless onslaught of biological reactions to a world that feels to have spun out of control.
Anxiety has become one of the most prevalent mental health struggles of our time. It may look a bit different than our primitive ancestors experienced it, but it feels quite similar… and it’s exhausting.
From a gurgling belly to a tension headache. A rapid heart rate to difficulty breathing. Our bodies can often feel like they are being crushed by what seems to be a constant tidal wave of fear and doom. And then slowly but surely, our stressors exceed our coping mechanisms and we have been outmatched.
So, what does the modern Homosapien do in a brand-new world full of unavoidable threats? We dig into our toolboxes to find something that will preserve and aid us. For our ancestors it may have been an ax, or a slingshot, for humans 2.0 it's our highly developed intellects, and awareness.
Though anxiety may be one of the most common behavioral health afflictions, it is also one of the most treatable. For some, medication can be very helpful and there is absolutely no shame in that game. Just as new stressors continue to develop so do the methods used to address them. Chronic stress can change brain chemistry and even structure over time and therefore treatment on a chemical level may be fully appropriate and even necessary. We would be remiss though, to ignore the everyday things we can do to gain mastery over our contemporary landscape of anxiety minefields.
Here are a few that I use on a daily basis when I hear my own proverbial twig snap in the woods:
Knowledge is power!
Having awareness of what is happening in my body when I am experiencing anxiety puts me in the driver’s seat. Knowing that my shallow breathing or thumping heart are normal and purposeful reactions to a perceived threat reminds me that my body is doing exactly what it was designed to do.
Then, I remind myself that feelings are not facts, and just because I am feeling as though I am in danger does not in fact mean that I actually am. I reassess the situation and challenge my perception that doom is imminent.
Now that I know what is going on in my body, I can dig further into my toolbox to gather the resources necessary to address my physical reaction to fear. I am a HUGE fan of breathing apps like Breathly which offer visual cues right on your cell phone to aid in anxiety-reducing therapeutic breathing.
I know deep breathing can sound cliché, but it is so widely recommended because it is pure magic in reducing heart rate and generally regulating your entire nervous system. Hey, even our cavemen ancestors did it!
5, 4, 3, 2, 1...
When I find myself really zoning out or what we in the biz call “depersonalization” or “derealization” I will use an exercise called the 5-4-3-2-1 technique or “sensing in.” This is where you take a moment to notice five things you can see around you, four things you can touch or feel near you, three things you hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
Like grabbing the string to a balloon as it starts to ascend out of control into the atmosphere, this technique brings you back into your body and down to earth. It is incredibly grounding and stabilizing. You can see some very helpful videos and examples of this exercise here.
Physical exertion is another great way to burn off some of that fight or flight energy. When the system floods with stress hormones sometimes giving the body the workout it is expecting can be a great outlet. This doesn’t have to be a full-on boxing match, but a hearty walk around the block or even just standing up and doing some jumping jacks can be good medicine.
Hey, there’s a reason the fidget spinner was one of the most popular toys of the decade… that nervous energy needs somewhere to go! Plus, there’s the added bonus that exercise produces the very opposite of stress chemicals, happy hormones called endorphins which combat anxiety and provide a sense of overall well being.
Sometimes I need to give myself a good old-fashioned talking to as well. I assess, analyze and compartmentalize. My favorite conversation with myself goes something like this: “If that pit in your stomach could talk right now, what would it be saying? What are you truly worried about?
Alright, let's break that down into what you can control and what you can’t? If there is something there that I can control, have I taken all the steps I can to do so? No? Ok, let’s make a list or plan to do those things. Alright now what’s left? Now what is the purpose of worrying over things that are beyond my control?
Let it go...
Worrying will not avoid them or solve them. In fact, worrying will make me more poorly equipped to cope with them if they do come to pass. And, I have come to know that the vast majority of things I worry about never come to fruition anyway. Let it go girl!” It isn’t a panacea for all anxiety, but it does help me use my nervousness to act on the things I do have power over and release the things I do not.
And finally, distraction. Pour all of that frantic attention into something else. Give yourself a brain break! Shift focus and allow yourself to get lost in the mundane for a bit. I usually find that watching one of my favorite shows, reading a good juicy book, or even calling a friend and just hearing about their struggles for a while can really knock that anxiety off of its throne.
Whether you are standing at the threshold of your cave battling off a saber tooth tiger, or an advertising exec with a rapidly encroaching deadline, remember that anxiety is an amazing tool that your body has developed to get you where you are today. It is not your enemy.
It is now our job to get to know it better and dance with it so that it works to serve you and not cripple you. Because at the end of the day there is only one thing to fear… fear itself.