It’s the last thing you want to do when you’re anxious — that is, to be kind to yourself. After all, you’re anxious for no good reason. Again. And this is the third time today that you’ve felt your stomach take a nosedive and your entire body shake.
Having anxiety is incredibly frustrating. Our first impulse might be to lash out at ourselves. But what’s more helpful is to be kind, instead — even though it might feel unnatural at first. Because lashing out only boosts our anxiety, worsening our symptoms (not to mention it also sinks our mood). Self-compassion, on the other hand, calms us. It means soothing ourselves when we need it most.
“Kindness comes in infinite forms,” said Lea Seigen Shinraku, MFT, a therapist in private practice in San Francisco. Sometimes, kindness is taking a walk or talking to a friend or watching your favorite TV show to distract yourself, she said.
Kind actions and activities vary depending on the person. “What’s helpful for someone else may not be helpful for you.” That’s why it’s important to experiment with different techniques and see what’s best for you. Below are four tips to try.
Use soothing touch.
Shinraku cited this 2014 study, which found that there are three universal triggers of compassion: soothing touch, gentle vocalizations and physical warmth. She suggested finding a physical gesture that feels supportive to you.
For instance, this might be “one hand (or both hands) on the heart or belly; a hand on your face; or giving yourself a hug. It can give you an immediate dose of oxytocin and help you feel more safe and secure.”
Remember you’re not alone.
When you’re struggling with anxiety, you might feel embarrassed and ashamed. You might feel very alone. But “anxiety is part of being human … At any given moment, there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people who are feeling anxious,” Shinraku said. Remind yourself that your struggles are universal.
Anchor yourself in the present.
According to Shinraku, “Anxiety typically involves projecting yourself into the future.” When you engage in an activity that anchors you in the present moment, anxiety usually decreases, she said.
For instance, you might have a cup of tea and focus your attention on the sensations of holding the cup, she said. You also might focus on the taste of your tea and how it feels going from your mouth down to your stomach.
Get out of your head.
Our thoughts can trigger our anxiety — everything from “What’s wrong with me?!” to “I shouldn’t get anxious over something so stupid!” to “Oh no! Not this again.” Focusing on your breath and body can help to ground you. It also reminds you “that there is more to you than your thoughts,” Shinraku said.
She suggested counting 10 full inhalations and 10 full exhalations; or doing a body scan to help you focus on your physical sensations.
Curiosity soothes us, according to Ali Miller, MFT, a therapist in private practice in Berkeley and San Francisco, Calif. First she suggested getting to know your anxiety. What does it feel like? When does it usually arise?
When you experience anxiety, acknowledge it by naming anxiety in a neutral way, “Oh, anxiety,” she said. “If you don’t know it’s happening, you don’t have a choice about how to relate to it.”
Next, ask yourself: “How do I want to relate to this experience called anxiety right now?” Can you “move towards the anxiety with warmth and kindness, like you would a crying child?”
Another option is to put your anxiety in another room and practice relaxation exercises, she said.
“If the anxiety keeps coming back, and won’t stay in the other room, so to speak, then see if you can welcome it onto your lap. Ask it what it wants or needs, with as much gentleness as you can.” Maybe you need more rest. Maybe you need to slow down. Maybe you need clearer boundaries. Maybe you need to talk to a therapist.
Try not to focus on eliminating your anxiety. This is simply impossible. Instead, practice kindness when you’re struggling (and keep practicing, because practice makes progress; and because self-compassion just makes you feel good).
Self-compassion “means that you accept that sometimes you will experience anxiety, that it’s part of being human, and that you can find ways of meeting and responding to it that help you feel a sense of agency,” Shinraku said.
Cup of tea photo available from Shutterstock