Understanding and Tackling Your Anxiety
As a clinical social worker and life coach I have worked with many individuals suffering from anxiety. I know how damaging its effects can be and I have faced the paralyzing effects of anxiety myself.
When I was younger, I had a terrible fear of public speaking, a common form of anxiety. It prevented me from expressing my thoughts and hindered my performance at work. Slowly, I forced myself to do small group talks to try to face my fear. As I gained exposure to that uncomfortable feeling, my fears slowly faded. Eventually, I was able to speak to larger audiences and it felt great!
So let’s dig deeper and examine and tackle the common problem of too much anxiety!
Anxiety is an uncomfortable or debilitating feeling that arises from fear where no real danger exists. Fear is a natural and normal defense mechanism that has served the human species well. It stems from our autonomic nervous system which gives us our automatic self-preservation programing i.e. the fight or flight response. See a lion = feel fear and body prepares to run or fight. The problem is that many people feel fear where no real danger exists and of course, in modern times we don’t get chased by too many lions.
Much of our daily anxiety stems from our self talk, continually imagining that the worst possible things will happen to us. And once anxiety takes hold of us, it sets up camp all over our bodies. It can live in your stomach, chest, head or lower back and it often becomes a kind of new normal.
Anxiety can be fleeting, popping up now and again like before a speech or an interview, or it can be chronic, lingering on and on like an uncomfortable emotional background hum in our body.
So what can you do to help manage and minimize feelings of anxiety?
Firstly, it is important for me to say that anxiety can be a very serious condition and should not be taken lightly. I would always encourage professional help, as the health and wellness consequences of anxiety are far-reaching. If you have mild anxiety and want to find ways of coping with the condition on your own, or as an adjunct to some form of medical or mental health treatment then I have some suggestions.
BREATHE Most of us breathe incorrectly, taking shallow, quick breaths without much thought. Being deliberate with your breath is a fantastic way to improve your mental and physical health. It is well understood that deep, slow breathing has a significant calming influence on our nervous system. Taking deep belly breaths or diaphragmatic breathing, signals to your body that you are safe and that you can be in a state of relaxation. To do this, take deep slow in breaths, expanding your entire core, allowing the drawdown of your diaphragm and the extending of your belly as you draw in air, expanding as far as possible at the top of your inhale through your nose. Hold the in breath for a few seconds feeling fully inflated. Then allow a relaxing, slow, complete outbreath, as you gently push all the air out beginning from your belly, ending with your chest. Pause and hold for a few seconds at the top and bottom of each breath. Performing this simple exercise for even 15-30 seconds can short circuit a stress response, giving you feelings of peace and calm allowing you to be less stressed and more resourceful.
GET SOME EXERCISE Exercise has many proven benefits including; reducing fatigue, improving cognitive functions such as alertness and concentration, decreasing stress, elevating and stabilizing your moods and improving sleep and self-esteem. It’s pretty amazing that even a few minutes of exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects and this can be particularly important if stress has depleted your energy or ability to focus. So if you’re feeling anxious , try moving around and you may be surprised at how much better you feel.
PRACTICE POSITIVE BODY POSITIONING You would be surprised to know how much your body positioning and posture affects your mind. Recall how runners winning a race raise their hands high, smile and demonstrate a big, open and expansive posture. By training your body to look straight or up (not down), keep your shoulders back and chest open (not rounded forward and closed), arms relaxed and open at your sides and back aligned, you are telling your mind that you are safe, confident and generally feeling good. The next time you start to feel anxious, try walking around a bit, head up, shoulders back, chest open and proud, hands overhead in triumph or open and relaxed at your sides.
TAKE PRODUCTIVE ACTIONS Feelings of anxiety are sometimes our own subconscious signals telling us that something is not right in our life. It could be that we are putting off something important to do, or possibly we are doing something we know is bad for us and we just don’t want to recognize it consciously. By taking some tangible positive actions such as, starting or finishing that assignment or deciding not to indulge in some unproductive behavior you will feel much better and decrease your anxiety. FACE YOUR FEARS As I mentioned regarding my own fear of public speaking, facing your fears can be a very productive way to overcome them. Fear of the unknown and expecting the worst, diminishes greatly when we understand where our fear is coming from and through exposure to that experience. By forcing yourself to walk in those fearful shoes, you may just find that there was really nothing that bad to be afraid of. In the end, you may even come to like what you previously feared! TALK AND GET IT OUT Most of us know how much better we feel when we talk about something that’s bothering us and get it off our chest. If you go over and over negative things in your mind or refuse to even acknowledge that an issue exists, that often produces anxiety. We all need that release so let’s get it out. Whether it's a trusted friend, family member or better yet, a professional listener such as a therapist or a life coach, expressing your feelings and allowing them to breathe can be immensely therapeutic.
PRACTICE MINDFULNESS Anxiety often arises when we over think things. Mindfulness practice is a form of meditation that helps to quiet your mind and decrease anxiety through focusing on something other than your thoughts. Being mindful or present, is a state of just being, where your thoughts drift away and you get lost in the present moment, focusing all you attention and awareness on your senses and actions. Imagine an athlete in training, lost in a state of flow. Or a writer, totally consumed in their process, as hours and hours pass unnoticed. So find something that keeps you engaged and feeling relaxed. It can be reading, playing an instrument, cooking, or anything that helps quiet your unnecessary thoughts. As you get the hang of being mindful, you will find that even in normally stressful situations, such as in traffic or waiting on line, you can focus your attention on the present and enjoy the ride.
TRY GUIDED MEDITATIONS While meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, recently, as a result of studies conducted with improved brain imaging techniques, we have begun to better understanding the science based health and wellness benefits of meditation. There are many forms of meditation and with the rise of YouTube, you have free access to many great guides. So search around, experiment and find the guides that work best for you. I would definitely recommend also checking out the excellent MindSpanse Guided Meditations.
I wish you an anxiety free, happy and healthy life.
Susan Kaufman received her Master's Degree in Clinical Social Work from New York University and a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology and Sociology from Western Connecticut State University. She is also a Certified Life Coach and has decades of experience with individual and group counseling and coaching with children, adults, families and business professionals. Later in her career she became an Executive Coach, Management Team builder and entrepreneur alongside her husband in the Venture Capital industry. Susan is driven by family, friends, helping others and personal achievements including becoming an accomplished artist, private pilot and Black Belt in Karate.