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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

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 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 The Scary Truth About Nightmare Disorder And Top Treatments that Work How to Improve Focus: 7 Ways to Train Your Brain

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Published on February 26, 2021

3 Common Causes Of Stress That Are Depleting Your Energy

3 Common Causes Of Stress That Are Depleting Your Energy

Are you feeling amplified anxiety, sadness, or anger lately? An astounding 84% of adults have felt at least one of these stress-related emotions in the two weeks prior to being surveyed, according to this recent Stress in America report.[1] Although it’s often comforting to know you’re not alone, the pervasiveness of this particular shared experience is disconcerting. But first, what causes stress?

What Causes Stress?

Lurking beneath the surface of this collective situation are some deeper factors: feelings of powerlessness and a diminished sense of certainty.

Due to a variety of events over the past year, control over numerous elements of our lives has been stripped away, leaving us feeling frustrated, afraid, and unsure about the future. It’s as if someone took the puzzle of our lives, broke apart every segment we had painstakingly pieced together, then shook them up and dumped them into a scrambled mess on the floor. On top of that, we’re trying to put it all back together while slogging through in survival mode, every day, on repeat—it’s enough to make even the Energizer Bunny feel depleted.

From this place of disempowered overwhelm, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like there is little we can do to regain our footing and overcome the stress. However, that is the furthest thing from the truth.

Let’s look on the bright side: We can all improve our energy and relieve stress simply by shifting a few essential habits.

When everything feels out of control, here are 3 often-overlooked areas where you can be in control and obliterate the common causes of stress that are depleting your energy. Each is proven to directly compound stress and deplete energy when neglected but enhance energy and stress relief when managed proactively.

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1. Sleep Quality Secrets to Snub the Stubborn Stress-Fatigue Cycle

You may be well aware of how stress disrupts or prevents a good night’s rest. Frustrations over the day’s events or anxiety about what’s coming tomorrow are common blocks to getting enough zzzz’s. But did you know that the reverse is also true?

Studies have shown that even partial sleep deprivation has a significant effect on mood. One such study found that subjects who were limited to 4.5 hours of sleep a night for one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. They also cited a dramatic improvement in mood upon return to normal sleep. [2]

In addition to these directly mood-related symptoms, lack of sleep can cause muddled focus, fatigue, and impairment of information processing which often result in secondary causes of stress. We feel like the walls are falling around us as we run behind schedule, struggle to collect scrambled thoughts, suffer the consequences of knee-jerk reactions, and fight the inevitable downsides of exhaustion, including clouded judgment, inhibited self-control, and difficulty in making decisions or completing tasks.

Unfortunately, our favorite fixes are actually counterproductive. Two of the most common substances used in direct response to not getting enough sleep—alcohol to relax us enough to fall asleep and caffeine to perk us up after inadequate sleep—only worsen our ability to secure consistent and restful slumber, creating a vicious cycle. Relying on these “band-aid fixes” only amplifies and prolongs our feelings of stress.[3][4]

Ultimately, sleep deprivation secretly undermines our ability to make smart choices when it comes to regaining control over the other causes of stress which are depleting our energy.

Here are two simple tips to help you sleep better tonight:

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  • Turn off all screens at least one hour before hitting the hay to send the signal to your brain that it’s bedtime and ease your mind into sleepy relaxation.
  • Be intentional with your soothing bedtime rituals. Instead of mindlessly passing the time in the hours before you turn in, focus on an activity that feels soothing and nurturing like a foot massage or a few gentle yoga poses.

2. Focus on Comfort Food for Extra Energy and Simple Stress Relief

The word “malnutrition” is commonly associated with poverty-related food shortages. However, in the medical world, the prefix “mal-” is also defined as “defective.” By broadening our understanding of this term, we can see that nutrient deficiencies can happen for people of any socioeconomic status—and they do.

The hustle culture endorsed by the industrialized world has created an abundance of quick and convenient food (and, let’s be honest, “fake food”) options that are minimally nourishing. The USDA’s most recent Dietary Guidelines reports that about two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, yet inadequate intake of nutrients that are proven to both relieve stress and increase energy (e.g., B vitamins and magnesium) remains common.[5][6] The data clearly shows that, for the majority of adults in the USA, the quality of our food is disproportionate to the quantity.

This reality has been compounded by pandemic-related stress eating, which is so prevalent that participants of a study published in September 2020 averaged a staggering 7 lbs weight gain in only 4 months.[7] This snapshot demonstrates that the foods we tend to crave, either for comfort or convenience, are usually high in sugars, saturated fats, and simple carbohydrates—all of which actually amplifies the stress response in the body.[8]

There is a funny-not-funny irony in the fact that the acronym for the U.S. eating style is SAD (Standard American Diet). We readily sacrifice nutrient needs for the sake of saving our time and money, which are poured right back into the culture that requires us to be so busy. We are drawn to unhealthy comfort foods like moths to a flame in an attempt to soothe ourselves—yet these exact foods only lead to feeling even more stressed and depleted.

So, what can we do?

Making smart food choices in itself is inherently stressful for many people. The internal battle can be just as impactful in causing stress and depleting your energy as the food choices themselves. If you can relate, don’t worry. It’s not necessary to focus on calorie counting or weight loss here.

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Instead, take comfort in a couple of easily doable steps toward shifting your dietary habits:

  • Be mindful of your intake of highly processed foods, and enjoy the benefits of simply adding a few stress-relieving, energizing foods and beverages to your daily repertoire.
  • Water, green tea, Brazil nuts, sweet potatoes, fresh baby spinach, brown rice, avocados, oatmeal, bananas, salmon, lean beef, and blueberries are all great choices to get you started.

3. A Surprising Battle for Your Attention, and How to Win the War

The pressure to be “always-on” has long been a major cause of stress for highly driven people. We live in an internet-centric world that has only been compounded by the circumstances of the pandemic. Working from home has blurred the lines between personal and professional boundaries, and many are suffering the consequences.

The combination of issues culminating from the past year has also kept people glued to the media and their newsfeeds. If you ever feel angry, anxious, sad, hopeless, or exhausted after watching the news or scrolling social media, this could be one of the main causes of stress that is depleting your energy. In fact, a study showed elevated levels of stress hormone (cortisol) and increased negative response to subsequent stressors after watching negative news.[9]

Research even shows that smartphones and social media apps manipulate the dopamine-driven reward system in our brains to create a habit that mimics gambling addiction.[10] Even when these tools don’t cost money, they have the capacity to deplete something much more valuable—our time, energy, and peace of mind.

This volatile mix may be generating a baseline cause of stress that has led directly to some of the other causes of stress mentioned in this article, including lack of sleep, alcohol or caffeine use, and unsupportive food choices/mindless eating.

Now, more than ever, we need to resist the urge to bombard our brains with fear-based information and distraction-inducing habits.

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Forward-focused actions to take now:

  • Create firm boundaries around your “check-in” time for reading and responding to emails or social media, both personal and professional.
  • Disable notifications on your devices to eliminate distractions.
  • Eliminate or minimize news exposure and only consume news from deliberately selected sources.
  • Stay focused on your top priorities and make sure your actions are aligned. Put this note on your screensaver/wallpaper as a reminder: “Is my behavior getting me what I want?”

Putting the Pieces Back Together

By flipping our perspective, we can see these lifestyle choices as the active causes of stress that they are, instead of stress aftereffects that are outside of our control. Circumstance might have made a mess of our puzzles, but we each have the power to pick up the pieces.

With a few simple shifts and a dedication to change, we can stop approaching them from a passive or reactive stance and take intentional action to improve our daily life. Just pause, look at the big picture, and reclaim control—then, watch as the puzzle pieces of your life click back into place with more energized ease and calm.

Tips on How to Handle Stress

Featured photo credit: engin akyurt via unsplash.com

Reference

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