Everyone experiences anxiety, although not to the same degree or severity, and the experience hits home a little differently for everyone. For those whom anxiety is a considerable problem that interrupts their ability to live, it is a serious issue that needs to be managed and dealt with properly in order for life to be liveable. Of course, knowing how to do that – and gaining the skills and the help to do it – can be very challenging, and that challenge can lead to further worsening anxiety.
However, don’t fear: the truth is, no matter how bad your anxiety is, it is always possible to manage and cope with it. Yes, it might be more challenging for some than for others, but it is possible for everyone. This essential fact is at the core of this article, where we will focus on introducing you to a range of methods you can use to cope with anxiety more effectively.
Anxiety: What Is It?
Before we look at some of the specifics related to how to manage anxiety, it might be helpful to ask ourselves: what exactly is it? With any psychological problem in our daily lives – indeed, any challenge at all – having a full understanding of it is one of the essential keys to being able to cope with it and improve it.
So what is anxiety? Because it can be experienced at many levels, so too can it be defined in all of those levels in differing ways.
At the base level, anxiety can be defined in the manner of the APA: “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure”. This definition is useful for seeing how anxiety is as much a physiological phenomenon as a psychological one – and is therefore a powerful argument against claims of anxiety being ‘all in the head’.
Somebody experiencing anxiety may have any of those symptoms, and that is true equally for someone having an acute episode as it is for someone with a chronic anxiety disorder. In terms of this article, we are going to look mostly at some of the ideas that can help those with anxiety disorders.
Bear in mind: you cannot diagnose yourself as having an anxiety disorder. Only a psychologist can do that. But whether you have received such a diagnosis, or you just know that you experience a lot of anxiety in your daily life, you will find the following items helpful.
Those with anxiety disorders have been identified as having serious enough anxiety that it significantly interrupts their ability to live and work in a reasonable way. Looking back again at the APA definition of anxiety, a person with an anxiety disorder usually has “recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat”.
As you can see, that is quite a more severe situation than the regular anxiety that most of us experience as part of our day-to-day lives.
If you think you might have an anxiety disorder, you should see your doctor and find out. Don’t jump to any conclusions about it, but do take it seriously. And whether or not you end up having a defined anxiety disorder, take on board the remainder of this article, which will constitute practical advice for coping with anxiety more effectively and powerfully.
How Do I Cope With Anxiety? Some Short-Term Approaches
First of all, let’s take a look at some of the short-term solutions for managing and coping with anxiety. Later, we will look in more detail at some of the larger, top-down changes you can make to help cope with anxiety more effectively in the long-run – and perhaps even uproot some of the primary causes behind your anxiety for good.
Connect With The Breath
You can think of the breath as the enemy of anxiety. Whether you are experiencing mild worry or a full-scale panic attack, connecting more fully with the breath is always an appropriate and useful approach to take in order to soothe the feeling. This is not always easy to do, and if you are caught in the grips of a panic attack you might simply feel it is impossible. But by taking a few moments to focus on the breath and purposefully breathe deeply and slowly, you will be doing a few things at once:
Slowing down the heart-rate and pulse.
Calming the influx of thoughts.
Reducing cortisol levels.
Calming your nerves.
Just focusing on the breath can do this, but it might take 30 seconds or more to start noticing the difference. It is easier to use the breath in moments of extreme alarm if you have practised a method beforehand, so it might be worth learning a basic breathing practice such as a simple pranayama routine. For example:
Hold your thumb over one nostril and the ring and pinky finger over the other. Rest your other fingers on your forehead.
Release one nostril. Breathe in for a count of 4.
Replace your fingers over that nostril. Hold your breath for a count of 16.
Release the other nostril. Breathe out for a count of 8.
Repeat in the opposite direction.
You can do this as many times as necessary in order to calm yourself. You can also do it on a daily basis as a kind of meditation in order to greatly calm your mind and body in the long-term.
Practice Not Believing Your Thoughts
As human beings, we have this natural tendency to automatically take for granted the contents of our thoughts. This might work well most of the time, and is probably an evolutionary advantage aimed at making it easier to interact with the world. But there are times when our thoughts are simply untrue and can’t be trusted, and it is useful to be able to identify those times.
During an anxiety episode, it’s highly unlikely that the thoughts that are going through your mind are ultimately true in a real sense. Even if they hold a nugget of truth, the emotion associated with them is probably overblown. With anxiety, the thoughts are, at best, an exaggeration of the truth, skewed by your perception of things being focused on the possible negative outcomes.
Therefore, you can rob anxiety of its power by practising trying not to believe your thoughts when they crop up, especially when they seem unlikely to be true. To make this easier, you need to find a place to stand in relation to those thoughts, as it were. If you can simply watch your thoughts come and go without engaging with them or believing them fully, even if only a little, they are going to be much less powerful, and your anxiety will subside sooner.
Again, this is not something you are going to be able to do right away. But practice it, and over time you will be able to do it at will whenever you need to. This is one of the primary benefits of a regular meditation or mindfulness practice.
Do The 5-5-5-5 Exercise
If you are in the grip of a panic attack, try this: pick out and name five things that you can see around you, five things you can touch, five things you can hear, and five things you can smell. You might not be able to find all of them, but just the act of doing this is known to cause anxiety to soothe and thoughts to calm very quickly.
This is especially true if your anxiety is the kind that causes racing thoughts that you feel you can’t control. Therefore, if you struggle with the above practice of not believing your thoughts, try this first.
Write Down Your Thoughts
Another way to deal with your racing thoughts is to try and find expression for them by writing them down. Just the act of writing them down can act as a kind of buffer, and many find that something of the energy of the thoughts gets transferred onto the page in a very real way.
As with many of the other recommendations in this article, you will find that regular practice helps. So: why not start journaling today? The more of your thoughts you get on the page each day, the more you are going to find that you can keep a handle on them in general, and the sooner you will be able to reach out for the notepad when anxiety really hits hard.
Call Your Counsellor
If you have a counsellor or psychologist who you see regularly, and you have a good working relationship with, you might be able to call them for help if things are getting particularly tough. The best counsellors will be more than happy to take your call and talk you through your anxiety in the moment. Often, this can be a very effective way of overcoming your current anxiety. It’s a kind of support system that you can make use of as and when you might need to.
If you don’t have a counsellor, you might want to consider finding one for just such an occasion. Just having someone that you can call up when you need to can really make a big difference to how you manage and cope with your anxiety.
Coping With Anxiety In The Long-Term
So, those are some of the immediate tactics you can use if you are trying to deal with anxiety better in the moment and overcome a sometimes extreme situation. But what about dealing with anxiety in the long-term? You will already have gathered some of these tips from what we have just looked into, but let’s take a deeper look at the long-term strategies that really tend to work for a lot of people.
Identify Your Triggers & Patterns
A basic tenet of mindfulness – which simply means paying attention to one’s experience – is to learn to see your patterns. We all have patterns, and they are not something to get rid of or wish away. But in the simple seeing of a pattern, we gain a certain modicum of power over it, reducing its influence on our feelings and behaviors.
Therefore: attempt to identify your triggers. This means thinking back to what was happening before your anxiety kicked in. In the future, you will gain more and more introspective awareness, allowing you to spot a trigger as it appears. That’s when the magic can take place: you can actually correct the situation and, ultimately, avoid a panic attack coming on at all.
Over time, you will become increasingly accustomed to what your patterns are, when they crop up, and you’ll learn more and more of their intricacies and complexities. That will help you to get to know them a lot better.
Keep A Good Diet
When you are suffering with extreme emotions, it can often seem ludicrous to suggest that changing what you eat could possibly make a difference to how you feel. But as any psychologist will tell you, keeping a good diet really does make a big difference in the long-term to how much anxiety you experience.
There are a few particularly obvious changes you might want to make: reducing your caffeine and alcohol consumption, for example. Less obvious, but just as important, is to eat a wide variety of vegetables every day. The more nutrients and minerals your body has, the better it functions, and the more chance the brain has to respond reasonably and in a tempered way to any situation.
Start Up A Meditation Practice
We have looked already at some of the benefits of regular meditation, but to recap these include:
A calmer mind.
Fewer racing thoughts.
More of a feeling of control.
Being able to witness thoughts without empowering them, giving them more energy, and encouraging them to return.
A calmer body, producing less cortisol.
Unification of mind – ie. no feeling of being ‘at war with oneself’.
Greater self-awareness, leading to a better ability to identify one’s triggers and make appropriate corrections.
As you can see, regular meditation is a powerful tool. The simple act of spending twenty minutes a day focusing on the breath with your eyes closed could radically change your life. If you don’t believe this, try just meditating once a day for a couple of weeks. You will notice a difference straight away.
You should never feel ashamed to seek out help as and when you need to. In the long-term sense, this probably means surrounding yourself with good friends, as well as finding a local group for anxiety if you like. If you feel you need to, you could also seek the professional help of a trained counsellor.
By helping yourself in the ways listed above, you can gain the ability to cope with your anxiety, no matter how bad it might get. More importantly, you will learn that it is always possible to live with anxiety, even if it seems impossible to do so at times.