So many of us judge ourselves for being anxious. We think we’re weak. We think we’re being stupid or ridiculous. We think we shouldn’t feel this way — and ironically, these thoughts only exacerbate our anxiety.
According to clinical psychologist Karin Lawson, PsyD, “When someone is judging themselves for having feelings, then it doesn’t allow space to figure out how to soothe and move through the emotion.”
She shared this analogy: A person is experiencing physical pain in her arm. She purposely tenses up and tightens her arm muscles to power through it. But this just layers the pain and creates more discomfort.
Yet it’s understandable that we get like this when our anxiety peaks. After all, anxiety can be overwhelming. “Anxiety is such a powerful emotion because there are physical sensations and symptoms along with the emotional discomfort,” said Lawson, also a yoga teacher in private practice in south Florida, who specializes in anxiety.
That is, we sweat, our heart rate increases and our breathing becomes shallow. Anxiety affects our nervous system, digestive system, and immune system, said Stephanie Diamond, PhD, a psychologist and clinical director at Oliver-Pyatt Centers in Miami, Fla. And anxiety can be paralyzing.
“In that hyper-aroused state, it is really difficult to pause and be kind to ourselves.”
But being kind to ourselves is something we can practice. Below, Lawson and Diamond shared five helpful tips.
View your anxiety as a smart messenger
Remember that your emotions “are simply communicators, attempting to get your attention,” Diamond suggested. For instance, she said, anxiety might be telling us that we’re unsafe or that we don’t have sufficient resources to cope with current demands.
“Try to welcome your emotion’s message, reflect on its possible message, and let it pass through you like a wave.”
Pick a supportive statement
Lawson works with her clients on formulating a simple, reassuring statement that reminds them to be gentle with themselves. For instance, some of her clients use: “Gentle, gentle;” “You’re OK even though it doesn’t feel OK;” or “peace.” Psychologist Tara Brach once said she uses: “It’s OK, sweetheart.”
You also might pick something you’d say to soothe a child or reassure a beloved friend, Diamond said. She shared this example: “It’s OK that you’re feeling anxious; it’s a normal feeling. You’re safe and this feeling will pass.”
The key is to find a soothing statement that works for you, Lawson said.
Give yourself permission
“So many times we live with an authority figure in our heads telling us what we should be doing or what we should have done differently,” Lawson said. Instead, she encourages us to respond to our needs in the moment.
For instance, this might mean giving yourself permission to scream into a pillow or take a break from an anxiety-filled environment, she said.
However, it’s important to make sure that you aren’t giving yourself permission to avoid anxiety-provoking situations, because this only heightens and perpetuates your anxiety. In other words, don’t flee a situation. Don’t avoid taking a test or meeting with a customer. Instead, give yourself permission for “a breath of fresh air [to get a] renewed sense of capability to go back in there and do what needs to be done.”
Sometimes, we don’t know what we need. That’s when you can get curious and explore. “Maybe it’s not clear what we need, but we have an opportunity to do some stretching, so let’s try that. Did it work? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s try something else when we have the chance,” Lawson recommended.
Because anxiety is such a visceral physical emotion, sometimes we have an idea about what our body would like, she said. So we might ask ourselves whether it’d feel good to take a walk and be outside or to lie down and focus on our breathing.
Work with your body
“Because anxiety is such an energetic emotion, physical strategies are often helpful,” explained Lawson. For instance, this might be going for a walk around your office building or taking the stairs.
If you’re in a situation where you can’t leave, such as a meeting or on a bus ride, she suggested doing isometric exercises. Examples include: “clenching the muscles in your legs and buttocks; discreetly grabbing the bottom of the chair and pulling up with your arms while your legs and abdomen work to keep you in your seat.”
“By working with your body and trying to help it feel calmer, you are engaging in a kind and self-compassionate act.”
Lighten your load
“A great way to show kindness to yourself is to lighten your load by sharing your struggles with a trusted friend or therapist,” Diamond said. Let others help you through your anxiety. “We are mammals after all, and as such, we all need people.” (If you’d like to see a therapist, you can start your search here.)
Ultimately, remember that you’re not alone in how you’re feeling. Lawson mentioned “common humanity,” the third part of Kristin Neff’s definition of self-compassion. Anxiety is a common experience, which everyone shares. That is, “we all, as human beings, feel anxious, insecure, unsure, fearful and lost at times in our lives,” Lawson said.
Remind yourself of this when you inevitably forget. Remind yourself that you can practice self-compassion. You can treat yourself with gentleness. You don’t need to punish yourself for an experience that everyone has and struggles with. Instead, you deserve support. The great thing is you can give yourself this support at any time.
For more tips on being kind to yourself when you’re anxious, check out this piece.
Chair exercise photo available from Shutterstock