With various root causes, types, and degrees of intensity, anxiety is a complex mental health condition. And, when left untreated, anxiety can produce a plethora of negative effects—everything from trouble sleeping or concentrating to panic attacks and depression.
Anyone who has felt the onset of anxiety knows that it can quickly feel overwhelming and difficult to manage. But there’s good news, too: Anxiety can be reduced through a variety of treatments—both ongoing efforts, like professional therapy, and on-the-spot calming practices, such as breathing and journaling.
Here are 7 essential strategies to help manage this common condition.
Anxiety may stem from a variety of sources, from the biological (such as head injuries, addiction, or genetics) to psychological (like past trauma) and social (for example, stress at work). To pinpoint the causes, as well as potential methods of addressing the issue, it’s helpful to employ psychotherapy. A variety of therapeutic approaches can produce positive effects on anxiety: EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), hypnotherapy, couples or individual therapy, and more. These modalities offer multiple benefits, including strategies to cope with anxiety, a reduction in symptoms, and improved well-being and social relationships.
2. Killing the ANTs
Automatic negative thoughts, or ANTs, can creep in and drive anxiety levels higher. ANTs can take many forms, including all-or-nothing thinking, blaming others, and focusing on imagined doomsday scenarios. These negative thoughts rob you of joy in the present moment, but that’s not all. Research shows that repetitive negative thinking over time can increase the risk of long-term conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Eliminating these thoughts involves employing techniques inspired by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: writing down the negative thought, asking if the thought is completely true, and imagining yourself without the thought. Over time and with consistent practice, killing those ANTs helps reshape thought processes and diminishes anxiety.
3. Diaphragmatic Breathing
When anxiety or a panic attack strikes, there’s a simple way to soothe the system in as little as 2 minutes, using the skill of diaphragmatic breathing. In times of anxiety, breathing may naturally become erratic, fast, or shallow, but diaphragmatic breathing teaches us how to breathe deeper, doubling lung capacity and feeding more oxygen to the brain. To practice this technique, lie down on your back and place a book or other light object on the stomach (the belly, not the chest, should rise and fall with the breath). Take in a slow, deep breath for 4 seconds, hold for a second, and breathe out for 8 seconds. Practice this twice daily so it feels natural when it’s needed most—i.e., when anxiety surfaces in response to a sudden stressor.
Breathing techniques can be combined with meditation practices for improved results in lowering anxiety. For example, mindfulness meditation, a form of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), has been shown in one study to lower symptoms of anxiety and even improve cardiovascular health by lowering pressure on the arteries. The American Psychological Association reports that mindfulness—which involves paying attention to the present moment without passing judgment—reduces stress and anxiety, improves physical health, and may even boost the immune system. Ultimately, mindfulness practitioners learn, over time, how to face stressful situations with fewer reactive negative thoughts and emotions.
5. Learning to Say No
Find yourself overextended and exhausted because you just can’t say no? Taking on more than you can handle may seem like a selfless impulse, but in reality, it creates an anxiety-producing stream of overwhelm, leading to long-term resentments and chronic stress. This habit is often spurred on by anxiety and low self-worth, as those who practice it falsely believe their willingness to help will earn them approval. Furthermore, saying yes to too much can occur without thought; this habit is associated with low activity in the prefrontal cortex, which leads to less ability to think ahead or consider consequences. Hence, one way to battle the habit is to pause. Instead of automatically saying yes, say, “I’ll have to think about that,” and honestly evaluate whether you have time. If not, politely but firmly decline. Luckily, learning to say no—a skill often learned in Dialectical Behavior Therapy—feels easier and more natural with practice.
6. Knowing your Values and Purpose
A form of acceptance and commitment therapy, defining core values—and allowing those to drive your actions—helps create a happier, lower-anxiety life. Researchers have found that living in a purposeful way is associated with less depression, higher levels of satisfaction, better sleep, improved mental health, greater self-acceptance, and more. To determine core values, outline your most important 1 or 2 characteristics or traits in 4 categories (biological, psychological, social, and spiritual), and consider the values that draw you to your most influential heroes. Then, to find your purpose, examine what you love to do, how it can connect to and help others, and how you’d like to be remembered in years to come. A sense of values and purpose helps foster personal growth, gives back to others, and can even increase life longevity.
Starting a practice of journaling was shown in one study to positively impact participants who otherwise experienced increased psychological distress. But one approach in particular, gratitude journaling, offers a bevy of benefits for those with anxiety by shifting the focus from the negative to the positive. Specifically, gratitude practitioners activate the parasympathetic nervous system, reduce inflammatory markers, experience less depression and stress, and increase overall happiness. Particular subsets of the population have also been shown to benefit—think boosted life satisfaction in the elderly and less stress among healthcare practitioners. To practice, simply write down 3 things to be grateful for on a regular basis. Over time, gratitude will become ingrained, so looking for the positives in life will start to feel like second nature.
Yours in Health,
Prof Sundardas D Annamalay
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“Psychosomatic experiencing is about working directly with your nervous system. You are about to become intimately familiar and comfortable with your inner survival system. You will learn how to shift the different emotional states to a manageable level within a few minutes.
When our emotions are running our lives, we are not in a state of calm aliveness. Rather, there are imbalances in the nervous system that cause problems. It causes imbalances in other systems and organs in our body. Not to mention how these imbalances influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviours towards ourselves and others.”