If you read the last post What the Heck is Anxiety, you got a glimpse at what anxiety is and that it’s often about our brains trying to keep us safe from what it thinks is dangerous. That’s a simplified example but it gets the point across. Now, you may want to know your options to stop anxiety when it happens or how to prevent it all together. This is a short yet comprehensive list of this therapist’s favorite coping skills.
While anxiety it incredibly uncomfortable, it is here to stay. We can do some things to make it go away temporarily, but it will not go away forever. Would you think I’m crazy if I said you wouldn’t want it to? Here’s the deal, anxiety is nature’s way of keeping us safe and alive. Anxiety tells us to walk and not run. Anxiety tells us back off from the car we’re tailgating so we don’t cause an accident. Anxiety tells us to cross the street if we see the neighbor’s dog outside growling at us. If anxiety didn’t exist, we would likely get ourselves hurt a lot more frequently than we care to. So let’s give anxiety a high five for doing its job!
Now that we’ve given anxiety the recognition it deserves, let’s talk about boundaries. Anxiety is meant to keep you alive, not run your life. So while we are grateful for its hard work, we don’t need it to work overtime. There are two major approaches to managing anxiety: keeping it to a minimum and learning to subside it when it’s already present. Let’s start with the first:
Keeping Anxiety to a Minimum
There are times in which we can predict that we will feel anxious like before a big test or when you have to present something in front of people. All of the work to manage your anxiety comes before these events actually happen. When you know you’ll feel nervous, you should plan ahead. Here are my favorite coping skills for managing anxiety ahead of time:
- Acting “As if”
Mantras are quotes, music lyrics, Bible verses, etc. Something that you can repeat to yourself over and over again that has meaning to you. It helps if this mantra instills a feeling of hope or bravery within you. You can also try choosing a quote from someone you admire. One of my personal favorites is, “Learn to bend so I don’t break.”
Acting “As if”
Who is someone you admire? Whoever they are, I’m willing to bet they are either kind, brave, or wise. Borrow their skills and make them your own. For example, if you have to give a presentation in front of a group of people, envision JFK, Oprah Winfrey, (or another talented public speaker) giving your presentation and embody his/her mannerisms and attitude. How would it sound? What gestures and facial expressions would they use?
Peace. Serenity. Relaxation. Calm. When you read these words, what comes to mind? Where is your safe place? What does it look like there? Does your safe space have a certain smell? What’s the temperature like?
In the days or moments leading up to your anxiety-provoking event, practice closing your eyes and picturing this place. Personally, I like to imagine Waikiki Beach or a lake surrounded by trees on a sunny day. Know that you can imagine this safe place while you’re feeling anxious to prevent your anxiety from getting worse.
Using visuals is one my my favorite coping skills because it can also be used for trauma. If something anxiety-provoking and traumatic has already happened and currently bothering you, visualizing a safe space can remind you than the trauma isn’t currently happening and you are safe in this very moment.
Grounding is a skill of immediately connecting you in the present moment. When we are anxious, we are often picturing how hard the future will be or that we might fail. We overthink about something that is not currently happening. Grounding helps live in the present moment, which is often a much calmer place than the one we picture in our heads.
Tokens are a great grounding tool to help stay in the present moment. People often like to wear or carry something with them that helps make that happen. When I was a kid I used to wear a small necklace that had the definition of “friendship” written on it. I wore this when I felt lonely and needed a reminder that I was loved. It worked!
This is a little difficult to explain but simply put, humans can be taught to think or feel certain ways based on things like smells and noises. I conditioned myself to feel calm in the months leading up to a big test. Every time I studied for my test, I made myself as comfortable as possible. I wore my favorite band t-shirt and wore the same lotion on my hands. I made sure to keep my hands close to my face so I could smell the vanilla-rose scent, which is one of my favorites.
On the day of the test, I wore the same shirt and lathered my hands in the same lotion. During the test, I rested my chin on my hands and took a deep inhale when I felt anxious. The scent of vanilla-rose reminded my brain of all the times I studied before in the comfort of my home. And it worked!
While it can be difficult to concentrate when you’re in a state of anxiety, it’s still possible to manage your feelings and learn to calm down. Here are some tricks to try:
Change of temperature
A teacher in college once told me that nothing changes brain chemistry faster than a change of temperature. If you have access to ice, you can try holding it to sensitive areas of your body like the back of your neck, chest, underarms, or even your feet! Placing something cold to your neck, specifically on your vegus nerve, can help reset your mind and focus on the present moment. Adding this to your list of coping skills can be really effective as long as you have access to something cold like ice, water, or even a cold soda can.
One way to look at anxiety is that it is an increase of energy. Anxiety gives you the energy to fight or run away from danger. We refer to this as fight or flight. But if you have an anxiety attack while doing menial tasks, you can actually play into the anxiety and use the energy. Go for a run, dance, kickbox…whatever gets your heart pounding! Eventually, the energy will wear off and your brain will think you’ve successfully escaped the “danger” it thought you were in.
Exercise is one of the many great coping skills as the mind and body are connected. What we think in our minds we can feel in our bodies and exercise may be a great option to help process some of the thoughts that take over the head.
Talk to someone
Even if it’s yourself! As a therapist, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encouraged clients to talk to themselves. Again, if anxiety is an increase of energy, releasing it can help to let it go. Talk to someone who is willing to sit patiently and listen to you; a friend, family member, or your pet! If you’re alone, talk to yourself! You might be surprised what you can learn about yourself if you gave the space to let it all out.
Look at you! Equipped to handle your next anxiety attack! Well, sort of. Regardless of how great these tools work, nothing will trump the effectiveness of working with a trusted therapist on your specific needs. In the meantime, I hope you find a little more ease in your day with these new skills.