When you’re anxious, all you can see is your anxiety. It feels urgent, serious and overwhelming. You wonder if you’ll always feel this way. You wonder, Why me? Why now? Why won’t it stop?
You feel frustrated and hopeless—like there’s nothing you can do.
Thankfully, there is. There are many strategies to help manage and minimize anxiety. Below are five excellent ideas from the new book Stop Anxiety from Stopping You: The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Panic and Social Anxiety. It’s written by Helen Odessky, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety and also struggled with it herself.
Think of your anxiety as a fellow traveler
“There are some experts out there who suggest learning to love your anxiety,” writes Odessky. “I think that is a tall order.” She notes that she’s yet to meet anyone who wants to love their anxiety.
However, what is important and possible is to accept your anxiety. Accept your anxiety as a fellow traveler: “one that at times is needed to guide you to the right path and at other times is merely alongside you.”
For instance, you take your anxiety with you while you’re pursuing certain activities—but you aren’t using these activities to distract yourself from your anxiety. Distracting yourself from anxiety looks like going for a run and frequently wondering, Am I still anxious? Is it over yet?
Odessky suggests saying this to your anxiety: “You are here, and I will follow what I intend to do regardless of your presence here, so come along if you wish—it will not deter me.”
(This is similar to what Elizabeth Gilbert says about fear and creativity: “…But I need you to understand that I will always choose Creativity over you. You may join us on this journey — and I know that you will — but you will not stop me and Creativity from choosing the direction in which we will all walk together.”)
Build your impatience tolerance
When you’re anxious, it’s easy to get impatient. You want your anxiety gone. RIGHT NOW! And YESTERDAY! You yearn for immediate relief—which is understandable (after all, who desires to dwell in discomfort?).
But as Odessky writes, immediate relief “is what you get with avoidance,” which only feeds and fuels anxiety.
This is when building up your ‘impatience tolerance” can help. So the next time you’re standing in a long line, taking the train, sitting in heavy traffic or waiting for a delayed flight, try to see it as an opportunity to practice.
When you feel yourself starting to get impatient, tell yourself: “This is a welcome pause in my busy life.” Also, take several slow abdominal breaths and savor your pause. Then pick a nourishing activity, such as listening to music, reading, doodling or simply resting.
Paint yourself relaxed
This is a visualization exercise, which you can do any time you’re anxious, need a break or you are going to bed. Sit with your arms and legs uncrossed. After closing your eyes, picture a warm paint color, like yellow or orange. Starting at the tips of your toes, picture this color slowing spreading over you, and “spreading a warm relaxing sensation over your body.” This warm sensation is just the right temperature.
Then picture the color moving up your ankles, calves, knees, thighs, hips, stomach, chest and shoulders. Picture it spreading relaxing warmth down your arms, and down the tips of your fingertips. Next, picture it going up your neck, your face, and your scalp.
Keep your eyes closed, and practice deep breathing for several minutes. After you’re done, open your eyes. Tune into how you’re feeling.
Use active, realistic affirmations
“Affirmations are positive statements that you repeat to yourself with the purpose of motivating you and encouraging your progress,” Odessky writes. This isn’t about faking positivity, and pretending you’re totally fine and anxiety-free when clearly you’re not (i.e., saying “I am free of anxiety” when you’re really freaking out).
According to Odessky, affirmations “are in the present tense, future-oriented, and use active language.” She suggests practicing your affirmation every day, either in the morning or at night. Here’s an example: “Each day I am taking steps and learning to better manage my anxiety.”
What affirmation feels supportive to you?
Imagine your anxiety as a cartoon character
“Anxiety often feels heavy and sounds dire and serious in its warnings,” Odessky writes. “This exercise is designed to bring some levity to it.” When Odessky does this exercise with clients, they start laughing—which is liberating, because, again, anxiety feels so grave.
Picture what your cartoon character looks and sounds like. Actually draw and describe it. Using your cartoon voice, say aloud what your anxiety tells you. Then check in with how you feel.
Anxiety can feel frustrating, at best, and frightening, at worst. The great news is that there are many tools and techniques that can help. Try the above strategies and see how they work for you. If they don’t, consider adding other practices to your collection. And consider working with a therapist, as well.
We can’t eliminate anxiety, but we can minimize it. We can learn from it. And we can stop anxiety from stopping us—from standing in our way of doing the things we want to do and living the life we want to live.