Because anxiety is an emotion that is experienced not only in our minds (stories we tell ourselves, mental images), but also through our feelings (dread, fear), and in our bodies (racing heart, tense muscles), the following targets these three areas.
Though the physical reactions to stress are not conscious (raised heart rate, increased breathing), we can consciously modify them to alleviate anxiety.
Learn to Relax. We can train our bodies to relax using imagery-focused and muscle-focused relaxation strategies, breathing exercises, and breath-focused meditation. Try to practice relaxation daily: three to four times a day (even five minutes while walking or traveling to work) can reduce heart rate and muscle tension.
Physical care. Research has established that diet, exercise, and sleep all have powerful effects on anxiety levels; neglecting them can intensify anxiety levels whilst attending to them can calm ongoing anxiety. For example, lack of sleep or broken sleep can stimulate anxious thoughts and feelings (1).
All the usual (and the most fun) food suspects can heighten anxiety: alcohol, saturated fat, sugar, and caffeine. Alternatively, tryptophan-rich food (turkey, dairy), complex carbohydrates (beans, legumes), and Vitamin B-rich foods can soothe anxiety (2). Smartphone apps like Healthwatch360 and Fooducate track nutrition intake and highlight deficiencies in diet.
Physical movement. Trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk, suggests that traumatic events in early life can have a profound effect on our anxiety levels as adults. In his book, The Body Keeps Score, he describes how our bodies hold traumatic memory and he advises on physical ways that one can rehabilitate. He suggests mindful movement exercises such as yoga, dance, or Tai Chi, to name a few (3).
Neurologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson, suggests that exposure to positive experiences even for a very brief amount of time can counter overactive anxiety (4).
Intensify a positive experience. What Hanson calls ‘taking in the good’ is the deliberate internalisation of a positive experience into memory. He suggests these four steps:
- Have or create a positive experience. Having a positive experience means enjoying a situation, event, or object long enough to activate a positive mental state. Become aware of a physical pleasure, an accomplishment, or positive feelings of being close to someone. Or you can also spend some time thinking about things for which you are grateful.
- Enrich the experience. Stay with the positive feelings for 10 seconds or longer. Engage your senses: sense it in your body, let it fill your mind, and enjoy it. Intensify it by becoming aware of why you find it pleasurable, why it is personally relevant, or how it will make a positive impact on your life.
- Absorb the experience. Visualise and sense that the experience is sinking into you as you sink into it. Feel it soothing you. Know that the experience is a resource that you can use.
- Link the positive experience to negative or anxiety-provoking material. While having a vivid and stable sense of a positive experience in the foreground of your awareness, also become aware of a negative experience in the background. For example, if you feel that you have a sense of belonging in the present experience, you can conjure a time when you felt lonely in the past. I would suggest that you conjure a non-traumatic experience or an experience that is not overly upsetting for you.
Connect with someone. Connecting with someone who you care about, even with just a short phone call, can release bursts of oxytocin (and other bonding and soothing neurochemicals) into the brain and calm your mood as a result (5).
Distressing thoughts may be causing and sustaining our anxiety. But, as anyone who has tried to just stop worrying knows, anxious thoughts can be stubborn. Trying to ignore or argue with anxious thoughts does not stop them and often times intensifies them. Here are a few alternatives.
Remind yourself that thoughts are just that: thoughts. We have thousands per day, they don’t require action, and they only have the power that we give them. Think of your unproductive worries as an anxiety symptom rather than evidence of looming danger.
Set a Worry Appointment. If your anxious thoughts are getting in the way of your everyday functioning, you can set aside a time during the day (10 to 30 minutes) to concentrate on them. When unwelcome concerns pop up other times of the day, jot them down and refocus on what you were doing. Repeat this whenever anxious thoughts arise.
During the worry appointment, brood on your worst-case scenarios. Write down what comes to mind. Often we find that this frees up the rest of day and allows us to see the repetitive (and often unconstructive) nature of our worries.
Assess them. After you write them down, label which worries are productive (those that lead to problem-solving and planning) and which worries are unproductive (those that are outside of your control). Then choose to either act on them or accept them as they are.
Act on them. If you can, take small actions. Anxiety often stems from uncertainty. You may not be able to control the future but you can do something small towards alleviating your fears about it. For example, if you worried about a family member, check in with them. Little steps can go a long way.
Accept them. When anxious thoughts arise, don’t ignore them, judge them, or try to stop them. Acknowledge them and let them pass. Practice meditation to get good at this. Meditation teaches us to be aware of our thoughts and emotions without judging them as positive or negative. When we judge a thought or feeling, we give it more attention and more power. Meditation teaches us that we don’t have to be carried away by our thoughts.
Though these strategies can help you alleviate anxious symptoms, they don’t address the underlying causes or maintaining factors of anxiety. It is not always easy to know how to address your anxiety. Most importantly, you don’t have to do it alone.
FIND OUT MORE: How Psychotherapy (and Monkey therapy) Helps You
References and Contributors
- Neil Schneiderman, Gail Ironson, & Scott D. Siegel. (2005). Stress and health: psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Annual review of clinical psychology
- Michael W. Otto & Jasper A.J. Smits. (2011). Exercise for Mood and Anxiety, Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-Being.
Bessel van der Kolk. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
- Rick Hanson. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness. The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence
- Dan Siegel. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.
- Linden, D. E. (2006). How Psychotherapy Changes the Brain: The Contribution of Functional Neuroimaging. Molecular Psychiatry.
- Catherine Pittman & Elizabeth Karle. (2015). Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry.