Anxiety can be both a blessing and a curse. A little bit of anxiety can give us a nudge, elbowing us forward to accomplish our goals. Too much anxiety can be debilitating, paralyzing progress, inciting panic and forcing individuals to focus on a flurry of negative, doom-filled thoughts. And it becomes a cycle of thoughts, panic and anxiety.
Such severe anxiety affects about 19 percent of Americans. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common of psychological disorders. But, whether you suffer from a diagnosable disorder or experience anxiety occasionally, anxiety can still wreak havoc on your self-image and daily life. Here are 10 not-so obvious strategies that can help.
- Consider how anxiety affects your life. “Three of the most common characteristics of someone with an anxiety disorder are perfectionism, relying on others for approval and need for control,” according to John Tsilimparis, MFT, director of the Anxiety and Panic Disorder Center of Los Angeles and one of the therapists on A&E’s Obsessed, a show about severe anxiety disorders. Tsilimparis helps his clients explore how these three things affect their lives and what areas of their lives they apply to.
- Set up some structure. Idle time often leads to overthinking and overmagnifying, Tsilimparis said. In other words, if you aren’t stimulated or busy, you’re apt to zero in on trivial things and obsess over them. So he helps his clients develop daily logs to plan out their days and include healthy activities.
- Tackle distorted thoughts. You might not realize just how much thoughts can feed anxiety. Black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking is one example: You see yourself as being successful at 100 percent – and a total failure at 98. Your level of perfectionism defines your self-worth, Tsilimparis said.Also, people who struggle with anxiety tend to talk in absolutes, using words such as always, never, should, must, no one and everyone, Tsilimparis said. “’Should’ implies that there’s a right way to do things, a manual on how to do life. It doesn’t exist,” he said. With the exception of obeying the law and not willfully harming another person, everything in life is negotiable, Tsilimparis said.So those rigid thoughts are unrealistic. So are insecure thoughts that constantly raise questions such as “what if?” Fortunately, you can change these thoughts.“You cannot be anxious if you don’t allow insecurity-driven thinking to steer your life,” said Joseph Luciani, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and author of Self-Coaching: The Powerful Program to Beat Anxiety and Depression.
Think of your thoughts as a wheel, Luciani said. “If you turn this wheel, you generate sparks – sparks of anxiety, ‘What if I fail?’ ‘What if I get sick?’ If you stop turning the wheel…the insecurity-driven thoughts stop.”
Identify these distorted thoughts and consider how much stress they cause you, Tsilimparis said. Then, try to replace the thoughts with something more balanced. Keep practicing; over time, the balanced thoughts become automatic.
- Relinquish control. Many of us try to control life in an attempt to feel less vulnerable and insecure, according to Luciani. We’re insecure about our own abilities to “handle life now, as it unfolds, moment to moment,” he said. But trying to control life isn’t natural, and bracing yourself for potential danger creates both psychological and physiological stress, which only depletes us and leads to anxiety, Luciani said. So the key is to realize and accept that you can’t control life.
- Revise your reactions. While we can’t control the world, we can control our reaction to it, Tsilimparis said. “It’s empowering to realize that you don’t have to be a victim of life, the world and the 405 highway (in California).” Realize that you’re responsible for your happiness and your life. You can change yourself.
- Trust yourself. “Self-trust is the ability to believe that you can handle what life throws at you,” Luciani said. Trusting yourself means dismantling insecurity – which Luciani views as a habit we can change – and taking the risk of trusting ourselves. According to Luciani, self-trust is a muscle: “If you’re anxious, your trust muscle has atrophied, and your insecurity has become muscle bound.” Strengthen your muscle by taking small risks.For worriers, a minor risk might be to say, “I’m going to risk believing that I can do a good job,” Luciani said. He gave another example of perfectionists accepting that they are good enough. As you practice this acceptance, your trust muscle will grow, and “you’ll begin to recognize that life can be handled more spontaneously, as it unfolds, rather than abstractly, in your mind, before anything ever takes place,” he said.
- Practice yoga. Anxiety usually involves racing thoughts, recurrent worries and a revved-up body. Yoga can help manage all these symptoms by calming both your mind and body, according to Mary NurrieStearns, a licensed clinical social worker, yoga instructor and co-author of Yoga for Anxiety: Meditations and Practices for Calming the Body and Mind. Just the acts of focusing on your breath, mediating and saying a mantra have a soothing effect.One yoga practice isn’t superior over another. Studies show that it depends on the anxiety, NurrieStearns said. If there’s significant trauma, research shows that gentle, restorative, feel-good poses are best. If there’s tension in the body, practicing strong poses or poses that take longer can dig into the deep pockets of tension in the body. If there’s trembling and an increase in heart rate, a flow yoga practice helps to release the revved-up anxiety.Start off your practice by taking a class from a professional yoga teacher. You can also practice yoga at home. NurrieStearns suggested the following routine: Every day, sit down on your yoga mat with your favorite beverage; take a few minutes to focus on breathing; read a line from something inspirational, whether that’s a phrase from a poem, sacred text or a mantra; and commit to doing at least one yoga pose. In Yoga for Anxiety, you’ll find a list of five easy yoga poses that most people can do. NurrieStearns also recommended Googling poses or getting a DVD.
- “Wink at” your thoughts. NurrieStearns talked about this in relation to yoga – while you’re sitting quietly and breathing – but you can use this technique at any time. Witnessing our thoughts helps us not get ensnared by them. “By winking at a thought, you notice the mental chatter, say ‘I see you,’ and put your attention back to the breath.” Put another way, “We acknowledge the thought, we allow it and we let it go.” As NurrieStearns pointed out, our mind is constantly generating thoughts, so why not repeat ones that “nourish and soothe us”?
- Distinguish fact from fiction. Worrying is fiction. It’s “an anticipation of things going wrong in the future. Since the future doesn’t exist, except as a mental construct, then worry about a future event is a fiction,” Luciani said. He gave an example of a fiction: “I have high blood pressure, I’m going to get a heart attack.” And a fact that brings concern: “I have high blood pressure and if I want to avoid getting a heart attack, I’ll need to change my eating habits and get some exercise.” While worrying involves fictions, concern is fact-based and addresses today.
- Stop people-pleasing. As Tsilimparis said, relying on others for approval can also lead to anxiety. To stop this over time, pay attention to how you interact with others and the times you people-please. For instance, when do you say yes to someone when you really want to say no? Heighten your awareness and then slowly start to change your behavior. Before attending a function where you’ll likely people-please, think about how you’re going to react, and do what you’re comfortable with. As another therapist once told Tsilimparis, “Here’s the problem with people-pleasing: There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that people don’t really give a damn; and the bad news is that people don’t really give a damn.”