Today I’m going to share six things I do that have given me more power over my anxiety (and I’ll share some of my struggle too). I hope some of these help you!
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting about 18 percent of the adult population. And that’s only those who have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and not including those under 18.
I’ve had anxiety for years, and while I’m managing it well now, there have been times when it’s been a major issue. Long-term anxiety and stress can lead to health problems, so it’s important to find ways to manage it.
My Anxiety Story
To give you a little background about my anxiety . . . I have a type of medical anxiety that is called “health worries.” It started shortly after my Mom died in 2001 (though if I’m honest, I’ve always been squeamish about medical stuff, it just snowballed after 2001).
I remember lying in bed feeling like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. At the time, I was living pretty hard (lots of partying, bad food, crazy hours), and I remember constantly thinking I was having a heart attack or that something else was seriously wrong with my body.
As the years went on, my health anxiety worsened. I was diagnosed with high blood pressure in my early 20s and had to go undergo tests for several months because my doctor was worried my kidneys and heart were damaged. Having to have all those tests when I was already scared about my health put my anxiety in overdrive (thankfully those tests showed everything was OK), and there have been times when I became paralyzed by anxiety.
Every doctor appointment, test, or even a random pain or sensation in my body that was abnormal for me could send me into a multiple-day panic attack. I have had difficulty discerning when a pain or a feeling I have in my body is something that needs immediate attention or is nothing to worry about. And of course, with my anxiety, I’m terrified of going to the doctors (what if they find something terminal?) and also of what happens if I don’t go (what if it is something terrible and I’m ignoring it?). You can see how that loop can be hard to get out of during an episode.
Anxiety as a Quality of Life Issue
A doctor once said to me that people only get help when their quality of life is compromised to the point where they feel it is no longer acceptable. I didn’t understand what she meant at the time, but several years ago I reached a point where I understood.
The amount of mental and emotional energy I was using just to get by was exhausting. I went to therapy, and have also done a ton of work on my own since then. I still have occasional anxious days but nothing that would stop me in my tracks for days like before.
The tools I will be sharing today helped me learn how to halt the progression of my anxiety. I learned how to keep perspective and stay calm and grounded. I would never want to go back to feeling the way I used to (out of control, shaky, and smothered all at the same time).
While my health anxiety manifests differently than other generalized anxiety disorders, the techniques I use to manage it are similar to those used with generalized anxiety—and can be very effective! Try some of these and let me know if they help.
6 Things You Can Do to Have More Power Over Anxiety
Exercise to fight anxiety.
The first thing to go for me when I’m in the midst of anxiety is my exercise schedule. But exercise is the best way to release stress and get feel-good endorphins going again. It helps take your mind off your worries and gives you something to focus on other than anxiety.
When my anxiety creeps in, I make sure to stick to my regular exercise schedule. Doing that usually shortens the duration of my anxiety. Even going for a short walk or a 15-minute yoga session at home can enough. Getting in touch with your body and out of your mind can be immensely helpful.
Tell someone about your anxiety.
This is something I didn’t see the value in until I was in therapy. I used to keep all my worries and fears inside. Part of me felt like my fears would get worse or be realized if I shared them with anyone.
When I did finally share with my husband or a friend that something was on my mind, not only did I feel a huge sense of relief, but it also allayed the extra anxiety that comes from thinking you are acting like a weirdo during an attack (since they now knew the reason I was acting like a weirdo).
Sharing your worries, fears, and anxieties with someone you trust can help put things in perspective. I’m much more likely to think rationally after talking with another person. Hearing their thoughts helps because they can be more objective. Hearing from someone who cares about you that the situation you are having anxiety about isn’t likely to happen can make you feel worlds better. And if the situation is something that may likely happen, those who care about you can also be the ones who support you and help you get through it. Totally helpful either way!
Journal! Get it all out—say as much as you need to. I recommend pen and paper over typing/computer. When I’m dealing with my medical anxiety, I find writing a journal entry helpful.
For me, it goes something like this: What am I feeling? I write down what I’m feeling at that exact moment (for me it’s usually a pain or sensation somewhere in my body). What do I think it is? I write about what I’m worried it could be. Next I ask myself to get into my rational brain for a minute with: What it is more likely to be? Odds are it’s just constipation or my body being run down, etc. Then I come up with a rational action plan. What and when will I do about it? For me, it might be something like, “If this pain gets worse or lasts longer than three days, I’ll go to the doctor.”
Once I put it on paper, I feel relief. Having an action plan helps me relax. Sometimes my anxiety brain can’t understand when something is worth investigating and when it’s best to wait; writing helps me make sense of it all. It’s like I get stuck in a loop but writing halts that loop from continuing.
For general panic/anxiety, your questions and answers might look different—maybe something more like this (but please customize to what makes sense for your type of worries):
- What am I feeling? (physical sensations, thoughts, feelings)
- What am I having anxiety about, or what do I think I might be anxious about?
- Do I have any real evidence that this is likely to be/ happen? If so, what?
- What can I do to feel more in control in this situation? And when will I take those actions?
Writing in a question/answer format might not feel right for your particular type of anxiety. For some folks, anxiety is a vague feeling of fear or worry (or just something not being right), so writing about specific worries and action plans may not be possible. I still encourage you to write in a freeform style to get all your thoughts and sensations on paper. Take some deep breaths and read it over when you are done. For many people just putting down thoughts can be enough to take us down a notch!
Doing this will be hard at first—you may not remember to even do it. But if you keep it in the back of your mind as a tool to try the next time you are freaking out, you may be surprised by how helpful it is. I find this one to be cumulative; the more I’ve resorted to it, the faster it resets me to normal.
Become aware of your thoughts and make the decision to change them.
OK, this one deserves its own blog post because it takes a lot of practice, but to be as brief as possible, know this: Ultimately, we’re in control of our thoughts. I know it may not seem like it, but we are the ones coming up with thoughts (good or bad) and those thoughts make us feel a certain way (anxious, happy, jealous, etc). The problem is, most of the time we’re not aware how ingrained our thoughts are. They’re so ingrained that it becomes an automatic response to a situation. This makes it difficult to change it (unless you are willing to notice and call yourself out on it, repeatedly).
To become more aware of your thoughts, next time you feel anxious, try to recall (write it down) what thoughts made you feel that way. You may not be aware of the conscious thought at first, but it will become more apparent the more you give your brain this task to do. If you don’t want to wait until you’re anxious to do this type of thought work, try it the next time you find yourself feeling down or irritated. Work backward from that feeling and try to find the originating thought that made you feel that way. This kind of work helps us become more aware, which is the starter step for changing your response.
The good news is once you’re aware you’re the one in control of your thoughts, that you’re the voice inside you that is thinking those things, you can work at managing and changing those thoughts.
For me, in the past this meant when an anxious feeling or thought came up that normally would send me into a tailspin, my old way of thinking was to go along with the thought (because our brains like to do what’s easy—and that’s easy) and build on it by looking for evidence of it being true, which would rapidly increase stressful, anxious feelings.
My current response when an anxious feeling or thought comes up is to notice it, pause, say to myself, “I’m not going to give that thought any power over me right now.” A statement like that is powerful because it interrupts the natural evidence-building process that goes with anxious thoughts. Now when I feel anxious, and I halt thoughts in this way, I feel almost instant relief. It feels incredible to have some control over your brain.
It probably won’t work the first time you try this technique. The first few times you try to reroute your brain, you might find that it halts the thought temporarily but then it comes back. Try a powerful statement again (even if you have to go at it a different way), and again, and eventually you’ll find it will have more staying power.
You are literally retraining your brain how to think in these situations. It may help to practice changing your thoughts in less volatile situations at first. Instead of trying it for the first time during an anxiety attack, try it when you have self-doubt about a situation at work or self-judgement about your body.
Becoming skilled at managing your thoughts can be helpful in many areas of our lives!
Watch what you put (or don’t put) into your body.
If you’re a naturally anxious person, it’s important to pay attention to how different foods, drinks, and other substances affect you. Sugar (including carbohydrates from refined grain products), alcohol, and caffeine can increase feelings of anxiety, especially in high quantities or in those who are very sensitive.
Anxiety can also be a symptom of a food sensitivity or intolerance (and one way to determine that is through an elimination diet). Low blood sugar can set off anxiety (if this sounds like you, you may want to keep balanced snacks of protein, fat, and fiber on hand). I know I’m far more anxious if I’ve drank more alcohol than I should (especially the day after) or if I reach for a third of coffee. Know yourself and what you can tolerate.
Many supplements are touted to be beneficial for anxiety sufferers, including magnesium, valerian root, kava, chamomile, fish oil, and several of the B vitamins. If you have any medical conditions or are on any medications, check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking supplements (especially if you’re thinking about taking more than one).
And lastly, a whole-foods diet rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants and light on heavily processed foods can support your body from your toes, all the way to your head. Is a whole-foods diet going to cure your anxiety? No, I’m not saying that, but if you give your body great nutrition, it’s better equipped to support you in every way, including mental health.
Breathwork for anxiety.
Quiet time with deep and slow controlled breathing is one of the best things you can do during a panic attack or during less acute anxiety. A few minutes of slow diaphragmatic breaths will slow down your heartbeat, reduce your blood pressure, and relax muscles. The intake of fresh oxygen will stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which will help you feel calmer.
Unfortunately, breathing is one of the hardest things to do when we’re freaking out, isn’t it? We take shallow breaths, which makes us feel like we can’t get enough air in, we’re breathing too fast, or we have difficulty exhaling fully, all of which increases feelings of panic. If you feel like you’re not getting enough oxygen, it’s hard to think rationally or about anything else so in order to slow the anxiety down, first you have to slow your breathing down.
To slow yourself down, try this breathing exercise: Sit in a quiet place and breathe in fully and slowly for a count of four seconds, hold the breath for four seconds (if this is prudent for your body, it may not be if you have heart or respiratory conditions), and then exhale for four seconds. To make sure you are breathing from your diaphragm, put one hand on your belly when you inhale. Your belly should expand on the inhale and retract on the exhale. If you are breathing from your chest alone (too shallow), your belly won’t rise. Try to breathe deeper into your body and try again. Do anywhere from 4 to 10 of these slow breaths and go back to your normal breath if you find you start to get dizzy. Don’t be surprised if you feel sleepy and relaxed after!
Final Note on Anxiety
If you have been suffering from anxiety and aren’t having any luck reducing it on your own, consider speaking with your doctor or a mental health professional. You don’t have to go through it alone, and there are many resources available to improve the quality of your life.