As a mental health therapist and coach, I often hear my clients say phrases such as:
“I wish my anxiety would go away.” “I just want to fix it.” “I shouldn’t be anxious.” “I was doing well with my anxiety, but now I can’t control it. All my progress is lost.” “I am defective.”
My response: Let’s start with where you are and work towards where you want to go. There is no quick fix and change is hard work, but it is possible.
First step: Change how you view your anxiety
Most people don’t want to have anxiety because it is associated with our mental health and there is still stigma and shame around having mental health challenges. People are afraid they will be seen as defective or others will judge them and oftentimes work hard to keep their struggles a secret. It is physically and emotionally exhausting to have a mind that is constantly worrying and in overdrive. This can prevent people from doing things they enjoy or just being able to be calm, present, and enjoy the day.
While any formal mental health diagnosis is known as a disorder in the DSM (the book medical professionals use to diagnose mental disorders) and the term mental illness can be associated with all disorders, from my perspective, there is a difference between long-term, chronic diagnoses (e.g., schizophrenia, psychosis, bi-polar, chronic severe depression, and more) and conditions we all are susceptible to encounter in our lives, such as anxiety and situational depression. National prevalence data indicate that nearly 40 million people in the United States (18%) experience an anxiety disorder in any given year. Approximately 8% of children and teenagers experience an anxiety disorder with most people developing symptoms before age 21.
40 million. Take that number in. It is extremely common for everyone to experience anxiety and face stressors that cause anxiety throughout their lives. You are not alone.
Using the term mental illness is intentional as it helps people frame these conditions within a medical model rather than a moral model. Attributing the condition to genetics or brain chemistry that needs tuning is less judgmental and shameful than telling people they need to do better, do more, and just stop feeling a certain way. If only it was that easy!
However, I think it is more helpful to talk about general anxiety in terms of mental health or mental wellness and not illness. There is a difference between your doctor diagnosing you with cancer vs. asthma. Cancer is an illness that ravages your body, much like schizophrenia is an illness that ravages the brain. Asthma is a condition, and while sometimes severe, can be managed with medications and behavioral changes. Similarly, diabetes is a condition that can be managed with the correct diet and medication. All of these conditions have a set of criteria they have to meet to name the problem but differ in levels of severity and treatment approaches.
Seeing anxiety through the lens of “this is a condition I can manage” can help you feel empowered to make the necessary changes to feel better and not feel defeated by an illness or disorder.
I view our mental health the same way I view our physical health. We have to take care of our body and mind to have the best overall health.
Second step: Accept it is here and a normal emotion
Do you like that you have anxiety? No, probably not. You want it to go away. Life would be more pleasant without it. But accepting that you do have it and it is present can go a long way to actually helping it quiet down. Understanding and accepting you need to work at being calm can help you develop the habits to do so. Accepting the fact does not mean you like it. But if you don’t accept it, you are adding on unnecessary emotional suffering. Getting frustrated and being critical of yourself (“You shouldn’t be anxious.” “You should have a handle on this.” “Why are you____?”) only piles on the misery and shame. This can also lead to feeling hopeless that the anxiety will never go away or feeling powerless over changing it, and this can lead to depression.
Let’s look at this from a different angle. I have asthma. Do I like that I have asthma? No. But if I accept that it is part of my life, I am more likely to do what is necessary to keep it from flaring up. I also have to accept I can never go scuba diving, which is disappointing. But wishing the asthma was gone or I didn’t have it doesn’t change how my lungs are and that I can’t do something adventurous and amazing like diving the Great Blue Hole in Belize.
Anxiety is a normal and necessary emotion. It is our brain’s way of protecting us. Looking out for danger. Keeping us safe. Staying in our comfort zone. And sometimes this is a helpful and necessary thing which can spring us into action to protect ourselves. Think of walking down an unfamiliar street in the dark. Your senses are heightened, you are more in tune with the environment to look for danger. Anxiety around the coronavirus is here to help us take the necessary safety precautions to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Anxiety also tells us the stakes are high. Think of a big project, or an exam, or a big athletic event when you had that nervous energy. This helps increase focus and attention and a small amount of anxiety increases performance.
Sometimes anxiety is not helpful and we need to talk back to our worry brain and tell it to quiet down. Worrying about what other people will think of you, not taking action on a big goal or dream because you are afraid of failure, not speaking up in honesty with friends or loved ones because your anxiety says don’t rock the boat – these are just a few examples of when anxiety is not helpful.
But, to be human is to experience a full range of emotions and anxiety is just one of those. It is one of our most primitive emotions and has been with humans since the beginning of time. It served as our ancestor’s security system before we had home security systems. It still serves as our security system, we just need to have control over shutting off the alarm.
Third step: Understand it takes daily practice to calm anxiety.
Maintaining good physical health requires daily choices in the areas of eating well, exercising, hydrating, and getting quality sleep. These are daily practices. You can’t eat salad for one week and then pizza and junk food the following week and expect to lose weight. And the mindset of “Well, I ate salad for one week and it didn’t do anything, so it’s no use,” is all-or-nothing thinking and sets you up for failure. It is a daily practice over the years of implementing healthy habits that leads to good physical health.
Managing your anxiety requires the same mindset of making daily choices to regulate your autonomic nervous system – especially in times of heightened stress. Doing a mindfulness exercise one time a day for one week is not going to rid you of anxiety forever. In fact, it’s probably not going to have an immediate effect in that first week. Retraining your brain and body takes repetitive, consistent practice. Our brains are like muscles. If you haven’t lifted weights, you can’t start out lifting 30 lb dumbbells and expect to do 20 reps. Or, if you want to start running, you have to start small and build up your endurance to run 5 miles. Approach your mental health and managing your anxiety the same way. Start small, build habits, and build up stamina.
Now that you’ve reframed anxiety, accepted it is here, and understand it will take daily work, here are 26 ways to calm it down.
The good news is there are many habits you can work on changing or implementing that will calm your anxiety.
Meditation may work for some, but not all. Running daily works for some, but not all. Below is a brief list of behavioral changes that can help you calm your nervous system (and I’m not even listing the cognitive or mindset changes that reprogram our automatic thoughts and tremendously reduce anxiety):
- Deep breathing
- Listening to calming music
- Many forms of exercise, especially cardio
- Drinking lots of water daily
- Drinking green tea
- Eating foods that reduce anxiety. There is a strong connection between our gut and brain health.
- Having specific scents in your environment
- Drinking green tea
- Reducing caffeine
- Spending time outside
- Organizing and cleaning your living space – clearing clutter
- Visualization techniques
- Prescribed worry time
- Limiting or stopping alcohol
- Counting to 10 slowly
- Watching something funny or finding humor in a situation
- Physical relaxation training (noticing where there is tension in your body and relaxing those muscles)
- Interacting with water – taking a shower or bath, sitting by a lake or pond, etc.
- Reducing or eliminating sugar
- Reach out for help – schedule a therapy or coaching appointment
You have a large menu of options to choose from. Pick one or two and try doing them daily for a few weeks and see what happens. Keep track of your progress and acknowledge your efforts. If you had a day where it didn’t go so well, be kind to yourself and remember tomorrow is a new day. And remember, even if you had a handle on anxiety before, it is normal in times of extreme stress (e.g., a global health pandemic) for anxiety to increase. You can do this!