Everyone feels anxious sometimes. Our technologically driven society has accelerated the pace at which people live, increasing the pressure to be available 24/7 and handle everything immediately. Along with all the other stresses of daily life in the 21st century, like jobs, family care, food preparation, education, home maintenance, doctor appointments, recreation, and socializing, this creates a sense of urgency that easily morphs into anxiety. While these are all externally driven, and fairly obvious, the deeper culprits are internal thoughts, far more slippery and harder to discern.
A holistic approach to lowering your anxiety (you will never eliminate it completely) focuses on cognitive, behavioral, nutritional, spiritual, environmental, and, if warranted, homeopathic and herbal support.
Many people think fear and anxiety are the same thing. They are not. Fear is when there is an immediate threat, like your house is burning down and you have no idea where you will live. Anxiety is when you are safe, but imagine your house burning down next week.
Whenever you make a demand of yourself, have a perfectionistic goal, assume the worst, or focus on the future, you are stoking your anxiety. It may seem as if anxiety appears unbidden, but it doesn’t. Your repetitive thoughts and worrying create tension. Tension can trigger butterflies in your stomach, teeth grinding, hyper-vigilance, dry mouth, digestive issues, insomnia, sweating, trembling, twitching, nightmares, rapid breathing, decreased concentration, tachycardia, headaches, muscle tension, dizziness, changes in appetite, jumpiness, and exhaustion, just to name a few.
The first thing is to pay attention to your thoughts. When you feel anxious, ask yourself:
“What am I thinking to create this tension?” Then, pretend you are a scientist and ask, “Are my thoughts true? Can I back them up with real data?”
Imagine each thought sitting on the witness stand and you’re the prosecutor.
Challenge your worst case scenarios by asking:
How do I know this will happen?
Even if it does, who says I can’t handle it?
Must I see challenges as awful, horrible, or unbearable?
Haven’t I dealt with everything that has happened to me, so far?
Where is it written that I have to enjoy everything?
How does not feeling or acting in control 24/7 make me a failure?
Do I have to do everything perfectly to deserve some peace of mind?
Everyone’s life is a series of peaks and valleys, why should mine be different?
Now, answer these questions honestly, and you’ll see how much freer and more relaxed you feel.
It is also helpful to keep an anxiety diary where you write down when you feel anxious, and rate each episode on an intensity scale from one to ten. This helps you see varying levels of anxiety, and shows you your biggest triggers. Conversely, thinking of times when you felt relaxed, and seeing what they have in common, increases your chances of finding behaviors that cultivate more inner peace.
One of my favorite techniques to combat anxiety through re-framing your thoughts is the following:
Number a piece of paper from 100, at the top, to one at the bottom, counting down by five. So you have 100, 95, 90, etc. all the way down the left side of the page.
Now, think of the worst thing that could possibly happen to you physically, like an incurable disease, and put it at number 100.
At the bottom of the page, put the most minor physical thing that could happen to you, like a paper cut or a stubbed toe.
Figure out where things like blindness, breaking a leg, a stomach flu, etc. might go until you have filled in all 21 lines.
When you next feel anxious, look at your list and ask yourself which thing you would trade for your anxiety right now.
Try to choose the thing you would really rather have than your current anxiety.
Look at its corresponding number and that will tell you the percentage of badness you think your anxiety rates.
For example, you feel anxious about an upcoming test. After careful consideration, you decide you’d rather have a bad cold than feel this anxiety. A bad cold is number 10 on your list. So, now you know, when push comes to shove, you really only think your anxiety is 10% bad.
This helps you completely re-frame and reduce your perception of how bad your anxiety really is and lowers it. It also stops the tendency to catastrophize about feeling anxious.
Dr. Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, used to suggest Rational-Emotive Imagery as a way to fortify oneself against anxiety.
When not feeling especially anxious, you sit someplace comfortable, close your eyes, and make yourself feel anxious. (It may take a few minutes, so be patient.)
Try for an 8 on a scale of 1-10.
Once you’re there, lower your anxiety to about a 2-4 on that same scale.
Open your eyes and ask yourself what you did to create your anxiety and how you lessened it.
You are likely to discover certain thoughts or images that create and deflate your anxiety.
The more you practice this, the more you will retrain yourself and feel less anxious. Aim for a few times a day for a month.
Remember, all humans experience some anxiety; so, the goal is not to extinguish all of it, but to get it to a manageable level.
Discomfort anxiety is rarely spoken of, but quite ubiquitous. It’s the anxiety you feel when you think you will be uncomfortable in a future situation. It may be anxiety about going for a dental cleaning, asking someone out on a date, or attending a party where you don’t know many people. In your imaginary scenario you won’t be in severe pain, but you may feel discomfort. Sometimes, it’s helpful to recognize discomfort anxiety as different from “regular” anxiety because it helps tamp it down.
You can also try experimenting with anti-awfulizing thoughts, like:
“I have had dental work before and I was fine.”
“Plenty of people ask someone out on a date and live to tell of it. What’s the worst thing that can happen? I’ll be rejected. No one I know has ever died of rejection. I can deal with it, even if it is unpleasant.”
One of my all-time favorite anxiety busters is the 4-4-4 breath. With a closed mouth, breathing through your nose, slowly (slowly means like counting one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc.) inhale to a count of four, hold your breath for another slow count of four, and exhale, for a count of four. Five cycles of this technique will shift your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). It’s incredibly simple, but very effective.
Another breathing exercise that is especially good for hyperventilating is to exhale and hold your breath as long as you comfortably can. Doing this a few times will also redirect your nervous system.
Pursed lips breathing. Inhale and exhale through pursed lips, as if through a straw. just three or four of these breaths will calm you by switching you from the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
Ahh breathing: Inhale and exhale with a long Ahh sound.
Heart breathing: You can do this with your hand on your heart, or not. Imagine inhaling and exhaling from your heart, right through your chest. (Also, check out many other breathing techniques in the breath section of this site.)
Though it may be hard to believe, just lying down with an eye pillow…especially, one scented with lavender…can really relax you. The pillow activates the oculocardiac reflex by exerting a gentle pressure on your eyes which slows down your heartbeat.
If you are near a fridge try the Dive Technique: Grab a cold pack, or bag of ice cubes or frozen veggies. Put it on your forehead. If possible, have it cover the line between your scalp and lips. Hold your breath for 30 seconds. In less than a minute this will calm your autonomic nervous system, lowering your pulse and breath rate. It works the same way your body immediately adjusts to cold water when your face goes into a dive: pulse and respiration slow down. An excellent ally for panic, anxiety, and PTS. To make it portable, just keep one of those instant cold packs in your bag, briefcase, or car.
Here are some vitamin, herbal, and homeopathic suggestions. Please talk with your health care provider before taking any of these as they may interfere with other medications you may be using, or be contraindicated for certain health issues.
200-400 mg of Magnesium Citrate gently lowers anxiety, and is an excellent prophylactic if you want to feel calmer on a daily basis.
Simply staying hydrated can help lower your anxiety as dehydration symptoms, like: dizziness, inability to concentrate and a racing heart can all feel like or trigger anxiety.
Bach’s Rescue Remedy has been helping people decrease their stress, panic, and anxiety since the 1930s. Just a few drops on your tongue, or in a water bottle you can sip all day, will soothe your jangled nerves.
Eat something. Low blood sugar contributes to irritability, anger, low energy (which can trigger depression if you are prone to it) and anxiety, as you can feel physically shaky when it’s too low. Don’t wait until you’re hungry, eat every few hours, even if it’s a balanced snack. Keep food with you as if it were medication; for you, it may be.
Rock Rose, another Bach remedy, is truly amazing at quelling panic attacks. Literally, within 20 seconds of taking a few drops under your tongue you will notice a cellular change in your system. You won’t feel drugged, but you will be soothed enough so you can go on.
Passionflower, an herb you can easily find as a tincture, is very gentle on your liver and can be used 2-3 times a day for many months with confidence. Think of it as a concentrated tea that tames anxiety. You may also notice a positive cumulative effect if you use it for a few weeks.
Melissa, also known by it’s English name: Lemon Balm, is an excellent soporific and anti-rumination remedy. It’s best taken 15 minutes before bed to quiet the mind and induce sleep. This herb is suggested for occasional use, or for a few especially challenging weeks, because long-term use can strain your liver.
While there are a plethora of mantras and affirmations that can quiet the mind, I especially like the following for their emotional strength and brevity:
I may be uncomfortable, but I can handle this.
My anxiety never lasts.
This will pass.
Even a panic attack passes naturally after 20 minutes.
Right this minute everything is fine, even though I may be feeling anxious. I’m still OK.
Last but not least, give yourself a cosmic permission slip to feel anxious. Paradoxically, the real culprit of persistent anxiety is telling yourself it is not OK to feel it. This self-censoring actually increases your anxiety and takes it from anxiety about the original situation (tests, doctors, finances, etc.) into anxiety about feeling anxious. The truth is: you have felt anxious in the past and survived. Thinking this way actually increases your tolerance for discomfort and allows you to start using all the above strategies and techniques.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang