By Elena Simonsen
Your heart starts racing. Your breath gets short, quick. Your head feels like it might explode from all of the thoughts racing around inside of it, nonstop. You can’t focus on anything to save your life. You can’t sit still so you start pacing back and forth. You want to slow down but you don’t think you can. It feels like the world is coming to an end.
If this sounds familiar, to you, I want you to know that you are not alone, and it will be ok. These are some of the common symptoms of anxiety. Think of them as signals from your body - it is sending you messages and asking you to tune in and listen. And I want to help you do just that!
Anxiety is a normal response to stress. Anxiety alerts us that we need to take action, to make some sort of change in our lives, in order to keep us safe from a threat. For example, if you don't have anxiety about a test, you’re a lot less likely to study for it.
Anxiety can become harmful when it becomes intense, interferes with your daily life, and lasts a long time. What does that look like? Maybe your anxiety has become so unbearable that you can’t get as much work done as you like to. Or maybe you stop seeing your friends because you worry about what they might be thinking about you. Your anxiety might not go away even when there doesn’t seem to be anything to be anxious about.
Stress, on the other hand, is your reaction to a perceived threat. It’s that fight-or-flight response that your body goes through when it senses danger. Stress is the shortness of breath, the quickened heart rate, the sweaty palms that you get when you believe you are in danger. Stress is more immediate and short-term than anxiety and requires the presence of a threat.
When you feel anxious, your body is trying to tell you that you’re experiencing stress, that you’re facing some sort of danger, so that you can protect yourself. This is how human beings have survived over the years - the stress response drives you to take action when, for example, a bear starts chasing you or you walk onto a street and a car is suddenly turning. These types of physical stressors, or events that directly threaten our physical wellbeing, typically do not affect us once their presence has been removed.
In today’s society, it’s not very likely that you’re going to be chased by a bear so this probably isn’t something you’re currently worried about. Things like crushing a job interview or paying your bills are more likely to be the cause of your stress. The worry, fear, sadness, and/or resentment associated with these types of events is known as emotional stress.
Unlike physical stress (think: bear), emotional stress (think: job interview) tends to be longer-lasting and more difficult to fight or flee from. Considering all the emotional stressors you probably experience on a day-to-day basis; it makes sense that you’re likely to feel anxious pretty often.
So, let’s talk a little bit about what anxiety looks like, and how you might know if it’s causing a problem in your life.
Anxiety is the most common mental disorder in the U.S., but many people don’t fully understand what is happening or how to find calm in the moment of feeling anxious
Here are some common signs of anxiety:
● Feeling like you can’t sit still
● Feeling tense
● Feeling like there is danger lurking around the corner
● Increased heart rate
● Breath becomes rapid, shallow
● Shaking, trembling
● Feeling exhausted
● Difficulty concentrating
● Difficulty sleeping
● Digestive issues
● Inability to stop worrying
● Trying to avoid what is causing you anxiety
Now that you've identified what anxiety looks and feels like in your body and mind we can start to think about the best ways to manage anxiety.
The answer? It depends on your individual needs.
There are so many different ways to manage stress and anxiety, so I’ll just name five that I find most helpful for me and for the clients I work with:
1. Grounding- grounding is a mindfulness technique designed to help you bring your awareness to the present moment. When your mind is racing, bringing your attention to your surroundings can help you to get out of your head and back into your life. One simple grounding practice that I love to share with others is the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique. Here’s how it works:
Take three slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Close your eyes as you take these breaths if it feels comfortable for you. Then, take a look at your surroundings. Identify:
5 things you can see (the clear, blue sky or the beige wallpaper of the room you’re sitting in)
4 things you can touch (the plastic chair beneath you, your toes wiggling inside of your sneakers)
3 things you can hear (birds chirping outside the window, cars passing by, the fan overhead)
2 things you can smell (a candle burning, dinner cooking in the oven, the freshness of the air outside)
1 thing you can taste (perhaps a piece of gum or a mint)
One of the best things about this technique is that you can use it anywhere! It’s a quick and easy way to center your mind and turn your attention from your racing thoughts to the present moment.
2. Recognize and accept the anxiety monster- Using mental imagery to decrease anxiety can be so powerful! One way to use this technique is to imagine your
anxiety as a monster inside of you. Maybe he’s a small, purple ball of fuzz with demonic, blood-red eyes. Imagine yourself looking your anxiety monster dead in the eye saying hello. Tell your anxiety monster that you know it is there, and that you are going to allow it to remain there. You can tell your anxiety monster that you don’t like it, but that you are not going to allow it to cause you harm.
This technique can help to normalize the presence of your anxiety and gives you the opportunity to accept that it’s there without judging it.
3. Progressive muscle relaxation- when you feel stressed or anxious, your body tends to tense up, perhaps without you even realizing it. Practicing progressive muscle relaxation can help you to identify where you hold tension in your body (maybe it’s your jaw, shoulders, or chest) and let go of it by having you tense and then relax each of your body’s muscle groups.
When you first try using progressive muscle relaxation it can be helpful to use an audio or video recording. You can find tons if you search “progressive muscle relaxation” on google or YouTube.
To try this technique on your own, you can follow this basic format:
Start by sitting in a chair in a comfortable, upright position
Breathe in and tense the first muscle group for about 5-10 seconds. Be sure to tense hard but not to the point where it hurts
Exhale and rapidly release the tensed muscles
Take 20-30 seconds to notice the difference between how your muscles felt when they were tense vs. how they felt when you relaxed them
Repeat for each major muscle group (hands, lower and upper arms, shoulders, forehead, face, neck, chest, stomach and back, glutes, thighs, calves, and feet)
4. Take a walk- You might feel restless or like you have pent-up energy when you’re anxious. Releasing that energy by going for a walk (or dancing, or running, or riding a bike- whatever works best for you!) can produce endorphins that improve your mood. Taking a walk can also help to take your mind off of your anxiety for a while. You can even practice the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding skill while on your walk to help you return to the present moment.
5. Meditation- Meditating can help reduce stress and anxiety in a number of ways. It can help you to change how you view your worries, increase your self-awareness, and bring your focus back to the present moment. Most meditation practices involve focusing on the present moment, awareness of the breath, getting your body into a comfortable position, and taking a non-judgmental approach to your thoughts and emotions. There are many different types of meditation, and many different ways to practice it. I really enjoy guided meditation, which instructs me to form different images or scenarios in my head that are designed to be relaxing (think laying on the warm sand at the beach, listening to the waves roll in and out). You may also simply put on music composed of relaxing sounds and allow yourself to become immersed in the feelings that arise from this. There’s really no right or wrong way to practice meditation, so do what works best for you!
For more information and guidance on meditation, I recommend taking this free Online Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course or downloading the Headspace app.
The strategies I listed here are all helpful to manage anxiety at the moment, but it is also important to include basic lifestyle strategies for long-term success, such as a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, hydrating, exercise, spending time connecting with loved ones, and taking quiet time each day.
While these practices can be really helpful, sometimes we need more individualized support. If you are really struggling to manage your anxiety, I recommend reaching out for help from a licensed mental health therapist. We can guide you through your journey of overcoming your anxiety and living a more peaceful, happy life.
Be Your Best Self + Thrive Counseling uses a holistic, non-judgmental approach to help you build an alliance with your mind, body, and spirit that work together for your benefit. If you are looking for a therapist who is experienced in working with anxiety, Elena Simonsen is a clinician who can help you explore ways to cope. Book your free 15-minute session with her here.