Skimming through Real Simple magazine at the check out line of the supermarket, I came across Dr. Robert Leahy’s article “10 Ways to Cope with Anxiety.” Dr. Leahy is the director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy and the author of many books on the subject. His suggestions will help you calm your nerves:
1. Repeat your worry until you’re bored silly.
“…take the troublesome thought that’s nagging at you and say it over and over, silently, slowly, for 20 minutes. It’s hard to keep your mind on a worry if you repeat it that many times.”
Dr. Leahy calls this technique “the boredom cure.” Behavioral scientists call it ‘flooding’. I’m not so keen about this technique for my extremely anxious patients who are having trouble regulating their thoughts and emotions. If your anxiety is on the milder side, however, and you have the courage to do this, I recommend you think about your worries while practicing relaxation techniques to keep your body as calm as possible.
2. Make it worse.
“When you try too hard to control your anxieties, you only heighten them. Instead exaggerate them and see what happens.”
This is a good one. When I suggest it to my patients I call it the ‘Bring it on’ technique or ‘Fake it ’til you make it’. By inviting what scares you, you learn on your time that you can survive your fears instead of waiting to be bushwhacked by them.
Sports psychologists use this all the time. When I was terrified my horse would shy and dump me on the ground, my coach told me to stop trying to keep my mare from bolting. Instead she told me expect her to shy, to look forward to it. That attitude helped me relax and so did the horse.
3. Don’t fight the craziness.
“You may…have thoughts that lead you to think you’ll do something terrible…or that you’re going insane… Remember – our minds are creative…every now and then ‘crazy’ thoughts jump out. Everyone has them.”
In the weeks after my first child was born, when I was exhausted, sleep deprived and in the grips of baby blues, I had thoughts of throwing my screaming baby out the window. Those thoughts terrified me. Tearfully, I confessed my horrible thoughts to my mother who shrugged and said, “We all think something like that at some time. You didn’t act on it, did you?” She assured me I wasn’t crazy. I could relax.
My patients are sometimes surprised when I suggest they allow themselves to imagine doing something outrageous like throwing a banana cream pie at their nasty boss’s puss. Unleashing our creative minds may be just what we need to de-stress.
4. Recognize false alarms.
“Many thoughts and sensations that we interpret as cues for concern–even panic–are just background noise. Think of each of them [rapid heart beat, tensing of muscles] as a fire engine going to another place.”
5. Turn your anxiety into a movie.
“..imagine that your anxious thoughts are a show… while you sit in the audience, eating popcorn, a calm observer.”
This is a good way to exercise ‘detachment,’ stepping outside of the anxiety just enough to keep your thinking brain working. Another technique I suggest is to imagine the worry happening to a friend, not you. Then imagine talking to your friend. What would you say to them? How can you be supportive?
6. Set aside worry time.
“Try setting aside 20 minutes everyday–let’s say 4:30 PM–just for your worries. If you are fretting at 10 AM, jot down the reason and resolve to think about it later. By the time 4:30 comes around, many of your troubles won’t even matter anymore.”
7. Take your hand off the horn.
“When you desperately try to take command of things that can’t be controlled, you’re more like the swimmer who panics and slaps the water screaming… Instead, imagine that you are floating along on the water with your arms spread out…It’s a paradox, but when you surrender to the moment, you actually feel far more in control.”
8. Breathe it out.
“Focusing on breathing is a common but effective technique for calming the nerves.”
This a classic, oldy, but goody. If you do it right, deep, mindful breathing is better than Valium.
9. Make peace with time.
“Every feeling of panic comes to an end, every concern eventually wears itself out, every so-called emergency seems to evaporate.”
When we are in the midst of a panic attack we feel it will last forever or else we will die. Remembering the fact that panic attacks and anxiety in milder form is finite, usually not lasting more than ten minutes. Dr. Leahy also counsels:
“Ask yourself, ‘How will I feel about this in a week or a month?’ This one, too, really will pass.”
10. Don’t let your worries stop you from living your life.
“What can you still do even if you feel anxious? Almost anything.”
Not all anxiety is bad. Keep in mind that some highly productive people transform their anxiety into motivation to do better and achieve much, both great and small.
This article was originally published on Explore What’s Next.
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