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When you have anxiety, small changes in behavior can make a big difference in the way you feel. Here are 10 tricks I use to keep my cool.
“Do you suffer from anxiety or depression?”
The doctor looked at me expectantly. I was meeting with an integrative oncologist to interpret the results of my recent genetic test. We hoped to identify ways I could boost my health after finishing up a brutal year of breast cancer treatment.
“You see”, she continued, “the fact that this gene is turned on means that you don’t produce as much serotonin as most people. This other gene indicates that you absorb the little serotonin that you do have really fast. Most people with that combo can struggle a bit with their mental health.”
All of a sudden, it made sense. The years I’d woken up with my heart pounding for no reason. The constant butterflies in my stomach. The obsessive worrying about everything under the sun. Just simple biology. Not enough of a chemical in my brain.
Do you struggle with anxiety, too? Although I don’t claim to have any medical expertise, I do have lots of experience with anxiety and loads of tricks to make it better. Here are ten things I do to keep my anxiety under control.
I control my inputs
This one is a biggie. I might have to work with a higher default level of anxiety, but I don’t have to actively make it worse. Where I can, I limit the things that I know will upset me.
This means, for example, that I almost never turn on the television news. I know that the stories are designed to be as sensational and ‘entertaining’ as possible and that gloom and doom stories get better ratings than happy ones. I tune these stories out and read my news instead.
(By the way, I like The Skimm for a quick-to-read digest of the top headlines that appears in my email inbox every morning.)
Yes, there are biochemical reactions in our brains that help control our experience of an emotion, but we can make our natural reactions more or less severe with our thoughts.
Meditation has been invaluable for me. It helps me keep my brain in the present moment rather than obsessing about an uncertain future. It also has helped me learn to notice my thoughts and experiences without judging them.
I can recognize anxious thoughts and replace them with more positive ones. Focusing on my shallow breaths helps me deepen them. I can observe my pounding heart and note it as it slows.
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I name my feelings
Emotions are useful. They give us messages about our world and our place in it. The issue comes when we start to wallow in these feelings—when we start to consider a temporary emotion as a character trait or an unchangeable facet of our personality.
Although I still sometimes slip and refer to myself as “an anxious person”, I am trying to be more accurate and recognize my anxiety as a temporary feeling.
When I feel anxious, I call it out. “Oh. That’s just anxiety.” This takes away some of its power and keeps me from getting swept up in the emotion and its symptoms.
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I practice conscious breathing techniques
There is a major difference between the way we breathe when we’re calm and the way we breathe when we’re anxious, and there are are all sorts of tricks to shift this unhelpful breathing to a calmer method.
The simple act of paying attention to inhaling and exhaling relaxes me. I might take things a step further by consciously breathing into my belly. Perhaps I’ll even count every inhalation and exhalation.
Two of my favorite formal breathing techniques are 4-7-8 breaths and alternate nostril breathing. They are simple to learn and work every time to take me out of freak out mode.
I stay in the present moment whenever possible
This one is tricky, because I am a person who LOVES to plan for the future. I come up with detailed schedules and lists of exactly how things will work, because, hey, I planned it that way right? Despite my best intentions, stuff rarely works out the way I planned.
While I certainly believe in having a vision for the way you want your life to be, and I believe in setting goals that will keep your amazing life getting better and better, I try to keep this quote in my frequently anxious, future-loving mind:
If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.Lao Tzu
I want to be at peace, and that requires focusing on and enjoying where I am right now.
I focus on the outcome I want rather than imagining all the potential pitfalls
When your mind tends toward anxious thoughts, it’s easy to see danger EVERYWHERE. I’ll watch my younger son happily climbing a tree, and all of a sudden I start to visualize him falling, disturbing a wasp’s nest, or getting poked in the eye.
Focusing instead on giving him a hug when he is back on the ground takes my heart rate down a notch. Whenever possible, focus on the likely positive outcome rather than worrying about a dozen potential disasters.
I act where I can
Recently, I noticed a mole on my back had started to itch. Naturally, I consulted Doctor Google, and within ten minutes I’d convinced myself I had skin cancer.
I could have sat in my house worrying about it for months, googling pictures of cancerous moles with a pounding heart. Instead, I made an appointment with a dermatologist and said to myself, “don’t worry until you actually have evidence that this is something to worry about.”
It worked. I no longer felt the need to obsessively research since I had taken action and knew a qualified professional would give me an answer soon.
Oh, and that definitely cancerous mole? Not a problem according to my new doctor. Thank goodness I didn’t waste more than a few minutes worrying for nothing.
I limit caffeine
This is tricky because I love the ritual of drinking coffee in the morning. I drink lots of green tea for its inflammation-fighting properties. I love a good piece of really dark chocolate.
I ration these items for myself, though, because I know that one cup of coffee or tea and one small piece of high-octane chocolate will make me feel great. After two, my heart races, I can’t sit still, and I snap at my kids.