The longer I work with anxiety, the more I realize that there is not a quick fix. Anxiety is rooted in our nervous systems and in our search for, or fear of, danger. Maybe that danger is fear that someone or something will hurt you or someone you care about. Maybe that danger is fear that you’ll make a mistake that leads to loss of a job, a friend, or an important source of security. Maybe you can’t identify the fear because everything seems fine, and you still feel anxious.
For whatever reason, your nervous system is activated, and you feel on edge. Understanding that anxiety is a physiological response that occurs to protect you may be helpful, or maybe it just adds to your frustration because that feels like something you should be able to control.
So, how can you feel less anxious and manage your anxiety long-term? Here are some suggestions:
Sometimes the things that everyone recommends work. Take 3-5 deep breaths, take a short walk, do something you like, pet your dog or cat, listen to some calming music. If one of these helps to calm you, make it your practice every time you start to feel stressed or anxious.
Notice the bodily sensations that you associate with your anxiety. (For example, when I feel anxiety I feel like bees are buzzing in my upper abdomen. Some people feel a tightness in the chest or a shortness of breath or a tensing in the muscles.) Try to notice the sensations without attaching the description “anxiety.” Simply note that right now you are feeling these sensations in your body and these sensations will move, change, or go away soon.
Practice acceptance. Maybe you feel sad or lonely or angry. This is where you are right now. It’s not a judgement on you as a person. You are human. Life is hard. You are doing the best you can.
Focus on things outside of yourself, like a sound or a smell or a sight. If you experience anxiety, research indicates that you have a heightened awareness of your body sensations, which is then covered with an often-negative meaning. (For example, I’m not going to be able to do this; I can never go out without anxiety; or I’m a failure.) So, move your focus to something external and let of go of the meaning.
Show yourself kindness. Would you call your friend a failure or would you offer support? Offer the same care and consideration to yourself as you would to your friends.
Practice gratitude. For the smallest thing. If you are reading this, someone taught you to read and you have access to a computer or to someone who does. Start where you can and make it a practice.
Visualize your favorite place, even if you haven’t been there. Then move through that place. Notice any sensations of relaxation: spaciousness, coolness, warmth, or any other sensation that creates ease for you.
Most importantly, establish a regular practice and keep at it for a reasonable amount of time. Be curious about what works for you and what doesn’t work for you. If something doesn’t work, it’s not a reflection of your ability or your effort; you simply need to try something different.
Kathy L. Kain and Stephen J. Terrell. Nurturing Resilience: Helping Clients Move Forward from Developmental Trauma. (These authors discuss current research indicating that people with anxiety tend to have a heightened awareness of body sensations.)
I am a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Registered Yoga teacher in Grapevine, Texas. I work with people struggling with anxiety and the effects of trauma.