A mind-body perspective on understanding and coping with our anxiety.
Anxiety is… managed through coping techniques.
For the most part, physical and emotional symptoms can exacerbate each other. The more anxious you feel, the more your thoughts may run away from you, and the more negative you’re thinking, the more you increase your physical reaction. The mind-body connection is especially strong when looking at our experience of anxiety. Consider how your thoughts and emotional reactions can make you feel better or worse. The good news is; the mind-body connection is also the best approach to managing anxiety.
Consider some activities, behaviors, or places that help you get your mind off of things when under stress. This technique can be used for overall stress management, to decrease your baseline stress level, as well as in the moment, to calm down
Examples of health distractions include:
- Spend time with someone you love; play with your kids, take a walk with your partner, call a friend
- Exercise; go for a walk or a jog, attend a yoga or other group exercise class, ride your bike
- Create something; draw, paint, write, play music
- Listen to music that is uplifting or soothing; create a favorite playlist for times of distress
Note the use of the descriptive “healthy” in this concept! There are plenty of unhealthy ways to distract ourselves from what we are experiencing. People can use substances (alcohol, drugs, food, etc.) or behaviors (shopping, gambling, sex) to disconnect from themselves in an unhealthy way. Any behavior can become unhealthy if it becomes a compulsion or an addiction, and this is not what we are referring to here.
What you tell yourself when experiencing anxiety does matter! Use of positive affirmations and challenging negative thoughts can help you to talk yourself through anxiety provoking situations
- Self-Talk Reminders
- “I’m Okay right now”
- “This will pass”
- “I am feeling anxious right now, but I will feel better soon”
- Positive Affirmations
- “I am safe”
- “I am calm”
- “I am enough”
- Serenity Prayer
- Scripture verses or Spiritual Mantras
- Inspirational Quotes
These techniques are focused on calming down your physical symptoms of anxiety, and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which does the opposite of your body’s alarm system. If your sympathetic nervous system is the fire alarm, think of your parasympathetic nervous system as the sprinklers that come on to put out the flames.
- Deep Breathing
- This simple technique has been proven to calm the body and the mind.
- You can do this anywhere, without anyone knowing (in traffic, during a business meeting, or during an argument)
- Try yogic breath: inhale for 4 counts, exhale for 4 counts.
- Sensory Visualization
- Incorporate deep breathing with visualizing a safe and positive place, your “happy place” if you will.
- Focus on what you see, hear, touch, taste, and smell in that place, connect with all of your senses
- Guided Meditation Visualizations are available for free online
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- While either sitting or lying comfortably, practice tension and release of all of your muscles, systematically moving from the top of your head all the way down to your toes
- Focus on each area of your body one at a time, tensing and releasing once or twice
- This enhances your body’s ability to relax tension in times of stress, and also tunes your awareness to tension in the body
This is not an exhaustive list of ways to cope, and these techniques are necessarily ones that will be the solution for anxiety right away- they require practice! Think of the first time you played a sport or an instrument, you probably weren’t very good at it. You probably stumbled or sounded off-key. But just like any skill; coping skills take time to master and the more often you practice them, the more benefits you will see. Many times people may try something once and become frustrated when it doesn’t provide immediate relief, and give up. If this were the case with everything else; we’d have no one making baskets or playing symphonies. The key is to continue to implement coping skills into daily life regularly, continue practicing them during times of anxiety, and using different methods. The more you use them, the more effective they become!
Anxiety is… helped by therapy.
The purpose of therapy is to provide a safe environment to explore and learn about what anxiety looks like for you. The therapist will help you assess your anxiety symptoms and triggers. Your symptoms are what anxiety feels like for you. Your triggers are where anxiety might come from for you. Awareness and understanding of your anxiety experience will help you and your therapist choose the right coping skills and interventions for you.
The goal of therapy is to help you learn to help yourself. The individual is empowered by a sense of self-awareness and understanding of symptoms and what to do about them. Having a clinical expert means access to the best practices (or, best ways to treat your condition). Some evidence-based (research approved) methods to treat anxiety include the mind-body approach we look at here; including Bio-Feedback. This technique involves monitoring your body’s functions in order to increase your control of those functions. The hope is to move from involuntary body reactions (i.e. anxiety symptoms) to voluntary relaxation of these reactions.
Your therapist is able to use varying approaches, and you will work together to begin to discover what will work for you. The coping skills listed above are excellent lifestyle based habits that can add immense value to your work in counseling. Research shows that what is most effective for treatment of most mental illness is a combination of therapy/counseling, supplemented by healthy lifestyle interventions.
A word about medication for the treatment of anxiety
Many individuals, especially in the United States, tend to look first to medication-based solutions for the treatment of emotional issues. While it is true that medication intervention can be effective with some disorders which call for a correction in brain chemistry balance -such as Bipolar Disorder or other Depressive Disorders- Anxiety, for the most part, is not an issue of chemical imbalance. This distinction is important; because what this means is that with most cases of anxiety; it is not “corrected” by medication in the way that some other conditions are.
The most commonly prescribed medication for anxiety complaints is a class of medications called “benzodiazepines”. Examples of this class of medications includes xanax, valium, and klonopin. These medications should be prescribed by a mental health professional or a psychiatrist. However, many times they are prescribed by a general physician or family doctor who does not specialize in psychotropic medications. Additionally, these medications were meant to be prescribed sparingly, meaning only in cases of extreme need (panic attacks) or only for very short durations of time (10-14 days maximum). Unfortunately, more often than not these medications are instead prescribed as regimens; meaning to be taken 2-3x per day, higher dosages than may be needed and for longer periods of time than clinically appropriate (even years). The result for many people is a roller coaster of emotional symptoms due to the quick physical dependence of their body systems on the medication. Most individuals who I have worked with in a clinical setting find themselves quickly (within weeks) reliant on the medication itself to re-regulate themselves. Psychological dependence, physical dependence and addiction, and dangerous tolerance and withdrawal are not uncommon. Many patients of mine have stated that their anxiety is worse now than when they first started the pills; many wish they’d never started.
So, what all of this simply means is to err on the side of caution when it comes to medication based interventions for anxiety. That being said; it is most beneficial to consult the professional advice of a mental health clinician or a psychiatrist for a full evaluation and assessment into what may help you most. What I recommend to many patients is to start off with counseling, begin regular therapy appointments, make lifestyle changes, and incorporate relaxation coping skills. Then, medication is viewed as a last resort instead of a first-line of defense.
Anxiety is… not without hope.
The goal of this series is to have shed some light on the concept of what we commonly refer to as “anxiety”. What it is, where it comes from, and how we can take care of ourselves in the best possible way to alleviate symptoms. Symptoms can become manageable so that they no longer have to overcome your life or daily functioning. In experiential therapy, learning more about yourself and your anxiety can even lead you to appreciate your anxiety as part of your whole self, and not be so afraid of it. The more we understand, recognize and work with ourselves, the more we can overcome the challenging parts of life.
Anxiety comes in many forms, and looks different for many people. You are not alone if you know that you suffer from something more than every day “stress” or tension. Millions of people around the world suffer daily with management of their anxiety symptoms. The best news is that there are trained, caring professionals out there to help guide you in understanding yourself and your symptoms. That you don’t have to face it alone.