Recently, anxiety overtook depression, ADHD, and all other conditions to be the Number One mental health challenge.
We’re currently under siege by an invisible enemy, and most of our anxiety levels are higher than before. For some time, however, anxiety has been on the rise as we face all the everyday choices we have to make, both small and potentially life changing. We live in a highly complex world that complicates our existence and creates newer tensions.
The Process of Anxiety
Most people think of anxiety as an emotional state, and it is. But anxiety is also a process that starts with several uncomfortable emotions that are difficult to tolerate and, under certain circumstances, arise simultaneously.
As an illustration, let’s say you’ve been seeing someone and she ordinarily responds within a couple of hours. You texted this morning. It’s dinnertime and you still haven’t heard back. You become confused (why hasn’t she texted back?), frightened (what if she doesn’t want to be with me anymore?), and helpless (I can’t keep bugging her. She’s asked me before to wait until she responds). These feelings can converge as you feel overwhelmed, at which time it turns into anxiety.
Plus we all have certain emotions that we can handle better than others. For example, some people do well with anger, but others act out or simply push their anger down. Some people are OK with worrying, others want it to stop because they can’t handle the feeling. The possibility for anxiety increases with the number of emotions and the “dose” of each uncomfortable feeling we experience.
10 Novel Ways to Reduce Anxiety
We have all heard about deep breathing, mindfulness, and exercising to reduce anxiety. They’re all helpful, but there are steps you can take right now. Here are 10 steps you can take (and 4 you shouldn’t) that will help make the “DIF” — i.e., reduce the Duration, Intensity, and Frequency of waves of anxiety and panic attacks. The ultimate goal is to interrupt the process so that, as much as possible, it doesn’t turn into anxiety in the first place.
What Not to Do
Let’s first start out with what will only make matters worse:
- Use alcohol, weed, or other ways to numb out. You don’t escape people, experiences, or places. Rather, you avoid the feelings that they bring. Numbing out simply puts you into a vicious cycle.
- Confuse avoidance and distraction with cure. You may think that it’s helpful to distract yourself with activities that cause you to feel anxious. While we all need activities that we enjoy and need to occasionally “get away from it all”, this type of avoidance only makes things worse.
- Condemn yourself. If you tell yourself, “What’s wrong with me?”, “Why can’t I chill?”, etc., you’re putting a “layer of judgment” over the experience. Self-condemnation, unfortunately, helps to keep the cycle in place.
- Seek reassurance from others. When we’re feeling anxiety that arises out of insecurity, it’s natural to seek reassurance from others. The risk is that you’ll continue to seek it out without ever resolving whatever’s driving you to pursue it in the first place.
What to Do
- Recognize that anxiety is a normal response. When we lived in caves, a lion would be a direct threat to your well-being. While the coronavirus is indeed a direct threat, many of today’s other threats may not be life-or-death, but the physiological response is the same as it has always been — rapid heart rate, sweating, and shallow breath, etc. These responses are designed to protect you by keeping you agile, quick, and alert. Your body is reacting as it should.
- Stay calm about being anxious. Many people become anxious about being anxious. To prevent your anxiety from escalating, note that there’s nothing wrong with you, that you don’t need to respond differently, and that you can live with (tolerate) these highly uncomfortable feelings.
- Achieve the “no wonder” goal. Rather than condemning yourself, once you have identified your emotional triggers (perhaps you you’ve experienced trauma and want to avoid a shock), you can tell yourself “of course I’m anxious under these circumstances”.
- Break down anxiety into its component emotional parts. Are you worried, helpless, angry, or frustrated about a particular situation? Tease out each one, and manage each one separately.
- Worry: Be glad you’re worrying. Anticipation will buffer a future shock. For example, “What will I do if COVID-19 comes back next year?” Worry is here to help you navigate this extraordinary circumstance. You can answer, “OK. I get why I’m worried. I’ve been with struggling during shelter-in-place. What can I do?” — and think of ways so that next time is different.
- Helplessness and uncertainty: Find the liberation in helplessness. If helplessness or uncertainty is contributing to your anxiety, consider what aspects of the situation are out of your control. Then, seek out ways to free yourself. For example, “I cannot control when the pandemic will end, but in the meantime, what will I do to protect myself and my loved ones?”
- Confusion: Hold the dichotomy. Instead of saying that you’re confused or have mixed feelings about something, say to yourself, “On the one hand, I want to go and do things like go to the movies or a concert. On the other hand, I’m worried about what will happen when normal life resumes.” Let the two sides “rest” where they are. Our brains are so complex that we can have two diametrically opposing thoughts and feelings at the same time.
- Fear: It’s OK to look at the worst-case scenario. What is the worst thing that can happen? Remember that catastrophizing is an important way of attempting to protect yourself from a shock or a disaster. Look at the realm of possibilities. Maybe it is going to be awful, but what else could happen? Maybe we’ll still be social distancing and sheltering in place this winter, but these new medications show promise. The idea is to not get caught up in your catastrophic assumption. Rather, accept it as a possibility, and then think out other, more plausible, assumptions without trying to brush off the worst case. As you do, you may find yourself calming down.
- Don’t just do something, sit there! This means riding out your anxious feelings by allowing them to build and then to flow out. It includes recognizing that “this too shall pass.” Literally sit in a chair or take a leisurely stroll. If the stroll can be in a park, even better.
- Reel yourself in. Have you ever gone fishing and cast the line out too far, and you have to reel the line back in? This is the same idea, but in terms of time. It’s particularly helpful to manage fear. Think about what the next few weeks or couple of months will look like, but worry about next year in a few months. To gain more immediacy, take a look at your current surroundings, take it in, and recognize that the only certainty we have is Now.
- Use your feelings. Worry, fear, and even regret and resentment can be used to have a better life. If you have resentment toward someone who you feel is using you, you can use it to say “no” more often and to try to balance things out by asking your own favors. Regret can be used to make sure that you don’t take that action again. Anger can be to a seed for determination. For example, the members of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) used their anger and despair to create a very powerful, positive lobbying group.
- Catch yourself. Reducing anxiety takes awareness, effort, and trial-and-error. You may at first catch yourself after the fact, but over time, you may catch yourself in the middle of it, and you can eventually work your way toward catching yourself as (or before) it begins.
- Memorize hip pocket phrases. Memorize a phrase or two. Let’s say that doors used to open readily open for you, but later in life things have become not so easy. As a result, you’ve developed panic attacks around rejection. When you’re about to panic, you can say, “I’m having a perfectly natural response to an unfamiliar situation.” “No wonder I’m feeling anxious! This is all new to me.” “I hate this but I’ll get through it.” “No one has ever died from a panic attack, so I’ll be OK.”
- Find areas of your life you can control. When your anxiety level is low, it will take a bigger wallop to knock you down. One potent way to keep it low is to find as many areas of self-control as possible (being controlling – trying to control others — is not the same thing). Separate what you can control from what you can’t, and try not to add unnecessary stress. Too much stress is fuel for anxiety.
By taking these steps, I hope you will find that you reduce the DIF — Duration, Intensity, and Frequency — so that it isn’t too much of a good thing. Overall, remember that anxiety is designed to protect you from trauma, keep you and your loved ones safe, and allow you to live your life to the fullest.