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How to Manage Anxiety: Sound Advice from a Mental Health Expert

How to Manage Anxiety: Sound Advice from a Mental Health Expert

We all know what anxiety can feel like; it can be utterly debilitating and soul-destroying. Many of us are familiar with the pounding chest where you feel your heart is about to explode. Your face flushes or goes suddenly quite pale. You can feel the blood draining from your face.

The panic inside you says: “People are going to notice you experiencing this. Get out of here!” And the stinging fear of embarrassment and humiliation can overwhelm you to the point of tears.

Such experiences can be completely terrifying. We often want to stop feeling these symptoms altogether, however we need to recognize that in many cases, experiencing anxiety actually serves us well.

Our brains are biologically wired to help us survive. What’s happening here however, is our innate fear response has become hyper vigilant in a way that no longer serves us. It’s working in overdrive when we perceive (often subconsciously) there is a threat to our safety but there may not actually be a physical and real threat.

There are strategies you can use to regain control but you will need to consciously learn how to manage anxiety and reduce the emotional, mental and physical experiences you’re suffering.

1. Work with a Professional to Identify and Get Familiar with Your Triggers

Your experience of anxiety will be different to the next person and the next person after that. It’s important to recognize that the specific prescription of tools and techniques that work for you will be different to how they work for someone else.

Spending time to recognize patterns and common features of your anxiety should be a primary step in your management and recovery plan.

Despite popular belief that we need to go back to the root cause of how and why your anxiety started, it’s important to know that sometimes significantly traumatic events and/or experiences are better contained in the box with the lid on. In other cases, accessing the catalyst can be a lengthy and experience and near impossible.

Working with a qualified and trained mental health professional can greatly help you to gently and safely assess and determine things which can derail you. Doing so will not only help you protect your emotional and mental health, but add a greater sense of control in mapping and identifying graduated steps to work through as a treatment plan.

Look to partner with a supportive, empathetic trained professional in your corner who can see risks and help you develop suitable tailored action plans to manage and reduce symptoms that trigger your symptoms. You’ll increase control of your own progress, and your growing confidence can exponentially increase your recovery than trying to go it alone.

If you can’t access face to face or group workshops, online therapy (e.g. Better Help or Talk Space) is becoming much more widely available. There are options available for everyone.

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2. Have Breathing Techniques up Your Sleeve

The mistake often made by those in the throes of experiencing heightened symptoms, is trying to recall specific ‘helpful’ thoughts to eradicate the unhelpful ones in that moment. This doesn’t work very often. It’s like trying to open the door of a front loader washing machine just commencing a spin cycle to put more laundry inside!

If your symptoms are highly intense, such strategy is unlikely to succeed. Your mind is the washing machine, by the way.

The way we breathe has incredible power beyond simply inhaling oxygen and expelling it from our lungs. The rhythm, pace and depth all have significant calming and healing effects on us.

Neuroscience documents that by switching focus to managing your breath halts certain neurons sending panic signals throughout your body.[1] The result is calmer physiology.

Making it your job to calm your breath first helps reduce intensity of those tangible symptoms screaming at you.

We breathe in two ways: through our thoracic region and through our diaphragm. The latter is the one you want to focus your attention to:

  1. Place your non-dominant hand, palm down flat over your chest and place the other just under your ribs on your diaphragm.
  2. Either close your eyes or drop your gaze to a 45° angle and choose a spot to loosely focus on.
  3. Draw a breath in through your nose, gradual, slow and smooth as silk for three counts.
  4. Hold the breath for a split second.
  5. Purse your lips and expel your breath again for 4 or 5 counts, slow, smooth as silk. Control the exhalation.

The next breath cycle, you may want to breathe in for three counts and exhale for five counts. Practice this for at least 5 cycles or at least till you start to notice you are physically calmer in some respects.

If you suffer from panic disorder,[2] you can initially feel increased panic or anxiety doing this technique. Stop and practice again a little while later. You need to switch focus from thoracic (chest) breathing which is common during panic attacks, to diaphragmatic breathing.

Don’t wait until you’re in the heat of the moment to try putting the technique into effect. Practice during a time when you are calmer so your brain and body develop a familiarity of the process and what a reduction in your symptoms feels like.

Like a competitive sport, you practice off the court so that when you get on the court, you’re well familiar with what you need to do. You only need to press the proverbial button and let a more automatic, practiced process wield its magic. Practice.

3. Learn Grounding and Distraction Techniques Which Give Your Mind Something to Do

Such techniques are distractions. Do they get rid of your anxiety? Unlikely. Do they help to cope with and reduce the intensity of your symptoms? Yes, so that you can recalibrate yourself to a more organized mental state from which you can engage cognitive exercises that challenge and reframe unhelpful thoughts.

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If you’re never thought games such as eye-spy would ever come in handy in your adult years, here is news for you!

Start with the letter ‘A’ and look to name everything you can see around you starting with ‘A’. Move on then to the letter ‘B’ then ‘C’ and so on. Search as far, wide and deep as you can looking for objects that start with your letter of focus.

Or, use colors. Work your way through the colors of the rainbow sequentially identifying as many things as you can that showcase that color. Fully immerse into the exercise and give your mind something to focus on. Spend a few minutes to do this.

A tangible grounding technique is to focus on what you have physical contact with. Pay attention to the sensations; how your bottom touches and squishes into the chair or your back muscles press into the back of your seat.

How do your feet feel in your shoes? How do your clothes feel against your skin? You’re tasking your mind with an activity which decreases capacity for it to focus on your present symptoms of anxiety.

4. Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Professor Jasper Smits and Professor Stefan Hofman have conducted extensive research into the most effective treatments for managing adult anxiety. They published findings in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry from an extensive meta-analysis which revealed CBT to consistently have strong impact in the treatment and management of anxiety.[3]

CBT involves addressing, challenging and reframing negative thoughts and re-shaping unhelpful behavior. A task-based, practical approach is applied to help clients recognize maladaptive thinking and habits, learn more helpful and positive ways to behave and think; and in turn, transform their symptoms.

For individuals to really experience benefit, undertaking regular applications of doable homework exercises is most effective. CBT is highly effective but requires individuals’ regular commitment.

Expect to work with a mental health professional on a weekly basis for three to four months. Find someone who won’t just give you homework sheets (that’s lazy therapy) but is closely attuned to providing you with good education, comfortably assess any resistance to change, and be able to modify and adjust exercises that best enable you to do them.

You won’t just experience a reduction in your symptoms because you develop such strong self-awareness and self-monitoring skills. You’ll learn mental skills that will strengthen your resilience and propel you further forward toward goals of how you want to feel, think and behave.

5. Try the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)

EFT which involves applying light repetitive pressure to meridian points, is becoming increasingly documented as an effective symptom reduction technique for anxiety.[4] Also known as ‘tapping,’ anyone can learn to self-administer it with the guidance of a practitioner.

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In collaboration with professional associate Gary Craig, Clinical psychologist Dr Roger Callahan[5] developed a simple yet effective self-administered process where individuals self-apply pressure to acupressure points on their body.

Using techniques from neuro linguistic programming and thought field therapy, individuals consciously lean into degrees of discomfort concerning their thoughts, feelings and physical symptoms.

Best learned under instruction and support of an EFT practitioner or trained professional, you initially apply mindfulness to consciously become aware of your anxiety symptoms – thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.

As you tap, you gradually start to experience relief and reduction in your symptoms. However, remember the level of impact felt will differ and progress at different rates from one person to the next.

Research shows that the positive effect of tapping is long lasting, particularly for anxiety disorders and post traumatic stress. It is becoming used more widely for other mental health challenges including weight loss, grief and loss, low self-esteem and confidence.

6. Use Imagery to Help Manage Anxiety

This is such an under-utilized but very powerful mechanism of our brain when it comes to directing our thoughts and behavior in a way to serve us, particularly in the context of anxiety.

Our brains are neuroplastic. We can train and rewire them to work better in our favor, yet we often live the majority of our day unconsciously by default.

Think about how many times you have day-dreamed today. When your tummy starts growling just before lunchtime, can you easily hook into images of what you want to satiate your hunger?

Often we engage imagery without thinking, but guided imagery is a key technique that helps with the reduction of anxiety with diagnoses of PTSD, social phobia and performance anxiety.[6]

Your brain’s amygdala plays a key role in emotional regulation[7] and hence those emotions connected with perceived fear responses when you feel anxious.

Imaginal exposure therapy (vividly imagining the feared object, situation or activity) works to dampen amygdala activity and reduce the intensity of emotions experienced in anxiety. You have the advantage of visiting memories in a safe, controlled space interspersed with grounding/relaxation, and gently exposing your mind’s eye to that which you feel anxious about. Starting this process should be done with a trained professional.

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7. Ensure Relaxation Techniques Are in Your Toolkit

Being anxious is exhausting. For those who suffer from general anxiety, your stress response mechanisms are constantly running, so you need to learn how to tell your body to relax.

Having a couple of meditative instructional relaxation apps you can instantly access through your phone should be on your list of essential management strategies.

In your choice of apps and relaxation techniques. consider choosing one which engages as many of your senses as possible. The more physical feedback you’re directed to notice a reduction in your physical symptoms throughout the relaxation exercise, the more likely you will stick to it and be motivated to repeat it.

Progressive muscle relaxation should be in your anxiety management toolkit. This method directs you to focus on noticing the different feeling between active tension and resulting relaxation when you release the tension of a muscle. Sequentially working through muscle groups in the body from head to toe, your mind is directing and telling your body to become calmer.

You need to be sensible with this one where you might be recovering from an injury or be at risk of developing a physical injury. Certainly avoid this exercise (and meditation) whilst driving.

Again, practicing this one at regular times throughout the day gives your brain and muscles a mental blueprint to relax such that it will be more effective in anxiety-provoking situations. Because you can also feel immediate tangible differences, it can boost your confidence earlier than starting with exercises that are purely cognitive.

The Bottom Line

Reviewing your diet and exercise regime is a given. Reducing caffeine intake, processed food and improving physical movement you engage in daily has incredibly strong impact and makes the strategies above even more effective when you do them.

However, for you to get a strong handle on how to manage and reduce your experience of anxiety, you’re going to have to develop a commitment to regularly applying changes.

If you don’t know where to start, get in touch with a therapist. Your first step is to develop a strong awareness of what you’re experiencing and what could be triggering it.

When you know and understand more, you can do far more in the pilot seat to land your anxiety back on the tarmac and potentially never let it take off from that runway again.

More Resources to Help Relieve Anxiety

Featured photo credit: Hector Gomez via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Helen D'Silva

Performance Psychologist for Business and Entrepreneurship, Sport and Personal Development

How to Improve Focus: 7 Ways to Train Your Brain How to Calm Down When You’re Stressed and Anxious How to Cope with Anxiety at Work: 5 Psychology Techniques How to Cultivate a Positive Mindset (A Step-By-Step Guide) How to Manage Anxiety: Sound Advice from a Mental Health Expert

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Last Updated on November 9, 2020

10 Real Reasons Why Breaking Bad Habits Is So Difficult

10 Real Reasons Why Breaking Bad Habits Is So Difficult

Bad habits expose us to suffering that is entirely avoidable. Unfortunately, breaking bad habits is difficult because they are 100% dependent on our mental and emotional state.

Anything we do that can prove harmful to us is a bad habit – drinking, drugs, smoking, procrastination, poor communication are all examples of bad habits. These habits have negative effects on our physical, mental, and emotional health.

Humans are hardwired to respond to stimuli and to expect a consequence of any action. This is how habits are acquired: the brain expects to be rewarded a certain way under certain circumstances. How you initially responded to certain stimuli is how your brain will always remind you to behave when the same stimuli are experienced.

If you visited the bar close to your office with colleagues every Friday, your brain will learn to send you a signal to stop there even when you are alone and eventually not just on Fridays. It will expect the reward of a drink after work every day, which can potentially lead to a drinking problem.

Kicking negative behavior patterns and steering clear of them requires a lot of willpower, and there are many reasons why breaking bad habits is so difficult.

1. Lack of Awareness or Acceptance

Breaking a bad habit is not possible if the person who has it is not aware that it is a bad one.

Many people will not realize that their communication skills are poor or that their procrastination is affecting them negatively, or even that the drink they had as a nightcap has now increased to three.

Awareness brings acceptance. Unless a person realizes on their own that a habit is bad, or someone manages to convince them of the same, there is very little chance of the habit being kicked.

2. No Motivation

Going through a divorce, not being able to cope with academic pressure, and falling into debt are instances that can bring a profound sense of failure with them. A person going through these times can fall into a cycle of negative thinking where the world is against them and nothing they can do will ever help, so they stop trying altogether.

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This give-up attitude is a bad habit that just keeps coming around. Being in debt could make you feel like you are failing at maintaining your home, family, and life in general.

If you are looking to get out of a rut and feel motivated, take a look at this article: Why Is Internal Motivation So Powerful (And How to Find It)

3. Underlying Psychological Conditions

Psychological conditions such as depression and ADD can make it difficult to start breaking bad habits.

A depressed person may find it difficult to summon the energy to cook a healthy meal, resulting in food being ordered in or consumption of packaged foods. This could lead to a habit that adversely affects health and is difficult to overcome.

A person with ADD may start to clean their house but get distracted soon after, leaving the task incomplete, eventually leading to a state where it is acceptable to live in a house that is untidy and dirty.

The fear of missing out (FOMO) is very real to some people. Obsessively checking their social media and news sources, they may believe that not knowing of something as soon as it is published can be catastrophic to their social standing.

4. Bad Habits Make Us Feel Good

One of the reasons it is difficult to break habits is that a lot of them make us feel good.[1]

We’ve all been there – the craving for a tub of ice cream after a breakup or a casual drag on a joint, never to be repeated until we miss how good it made us feel. We succumb to the craving for the pleasure felt while indulging in it, cementing it as a habit even while we are aware it isn’t good for us.

Overeating is a very common bad habit. Just another pack of chips, a couple of candies, a large soda… none of these are necessary for survival. We want them because they give us comfort. They’re familiar, they taste good, and we don’t even notice when we progress from just one extra slice of pizza to four.

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You can read this article to learn more: We Do What We Know Is Bad for Us, Why?

5. Upward Comparisons

Comparisons are a bad habit that many of us have been exposed to since we were children. Parents might have compared us to siblings, teachers may have compared us to classmates, and bosses could compare us to past and present employees.

The people who have developed the bad habit of comparing themselves to others have been given incorrect yardsticks for measurement from the start.

These people will always find it difficult to break out of this bad habit because there will always be someone who has it better than they do: a better house, better car, better job, higher income and so on.

Research shows that in the age of social media, social comparisons are much easier and can ultimately harm self-esteem if scrolling becomes a bad habit[2].

6. No Alternative

This is a real and valid reason why breaking bad habits is difficult. These habits could fulfill a need that may not be met any other way.

Someone who has physical or psychological limitations, such as a disability or social anxiety, may find it hard to quit obsessive content consumption for better habits.

Alternately, a perfectly healthy person may be unable to quit smoking because alternates are just not working out.

Similarly, a person who bites their nails when anxious may be unable to relieve stress in any other socially accepted manner.

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7. Stress

As mentioned above, anything that stresses us out can lead to adopting and cementing an unhealthy habit.

When a person is stressed about something, it is easy for bad habits to form because the mental resources required to fight them are not available[3].

We often see a person who had previously managed to kick a bad habit fall back into the old ways because they felt their stress couldn’t be managed any other way.

If you need some help reducing stress, check out the following video for some healthy ways to get started:

8. Sense of Failure

People looking to kick bad habits may feel a strong sense of failure because it’s just that difficult.

Dropping a bad habit usually means changes in lifestyle that people may be unwilling to make, or these changes might not be easy to make in spite of the will to make them.

Overeaters need to empty their house of unhealthy food, resist the urge to order in, and not pick up their standard grocery items from the store. Those who drink too much need to avoid the bars or even people who drink often.

If such people slip even once with a glass of wine, or a smoke, or a bag of chips, they tend to be excessively harsh on themselves and feel like failures.

9. The Need to Be All-New

People who are looking to break bad habits feel they need to re-create themselves in order to break themselves of their bad habits, while the truth is the complete opposite.

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These people actually need to go back to who they were before they developed the bad habit and try to create good habits from there.

10. Force of Habit

Humans are creatures of habit, and having familiar, comforting outcomes for daily triggers helps us maintain a sense of balance in our lives.

Consider people who are used to lighting up a cigarette every time they talk on the phone or eating junk food when watching TV. They will always associate a phone call with a puff on the cigarette and screen time with eating.

These habits, though bad, are a source of comfort to them, as is meeting with those people they indulge in these bad habits with.

Final Thoughts

These are the main reasons why breaking bad habits is difficult, but the good news is that the task is not impossible. Breaking habits takes time, and you’ll need to put long-term goals in place to replace a bad habit with a good one.

There are many compassionate, positive and self-loving techniques to kick bad habits. The internet is rich in information regarding bad habits, their effects and how to overcome them, while professional help is always available for those who feel they need it.

More on Breaking Bad Habits

Featured photo credit: NORTHFOLK via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] After Skool: Why Do Bad Habits Feel SO GOOD?
[2] Psychology of Popular Media Culture: Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem.
[3] Stanford Medicine: Examining how stress affects good and bad habits

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