Post by Lisa Gold, LMSW
It’s 7 o’clock in the morning and your alarm goes off. You experience that instant jolt of nerves coursing through your body as you quickly realize it’s Monday morning and you have a meeting scheduled with your boss today. Rapid thoughts start flooding in… “What if I’m late? What if I’m not prepared? I should ask for a raise, but I don’t want to seem ungrateful…”
This is anxiety.
Anxiety is a natural part of life. In fact, a moderate amount of anxiety helps us perform better. However, too much anxiety can impair our ability to function. This can look like complete procrastination to the point of avoiding work or school, worrying about the worst case scenario when it is unlikely to happen, or feeling an overwhelming need to control everything in order to avoid tragedy. Does that sound familiar?
Here are 3 easy ways to calm anxiety:
1. Declutter Your Space
When you are stressed over a deadline or worrying about anything, really, it may seem counterintuitive to organize your space instead of working on the project or solving the problem. However, an organized environment helps improve focus and reduce stress. Have you ever noticed feeling overwhelmed or flustered when your home or office is messy? Pretend as you might to ignore the mess, anxiety keeps track, and your brain has to work in overdrive in order to focus. Taking the time to declutter your space also declutters your mind. You might even find that once your space is organized, the problem you were worried about doesn’t seem so threatening after all.
2. Just Breathe
Did you know that you take 23,000 breaths a day? How many do you pay attention to? When anxiety takes over, we begin to take quicker, more shallow breaths. This creates a feedback loop. Shallow breathing can make you feel lightheaded and even more stressed. This cycle can be stopped in its tracks by intentionally focusing on taking deep, slow breaths.
First, sit or stand in a comfortable position, with your elbows slightly back, allowing for your chest to expand fully. Then, inhale deeply through your nose as you count to four. Notice what it feels like when your breath enters your nose, passes through your throat and into your lungs. Hold your breath at the top of the inhale as you count to four again. Release the air slowly as you exhale through your nose until all the air has fully been released, counting to four. It will sound like this in your mind: “In, 2, 3, 4, Hold, 2, 3, 4, Out, 2, 3, 4…”. Repeat this process at least 10 times and notice what happens to your body and mind as you begin to relax.
3. Treat Your Thoughts Like Leaves Passing in a Stream
Here’s the problem: we tend to grossly overestimate the accuracy of our thoughts. Let’s say you have the thought, “I’m not good enough.” This makes you feel shame and anxiety as you recount all the reasons you just don’t measure up. Pretty soon, you’ve reasoned that this must be true, and you might even begin to behave in ways that reinforce the thought even more. For example, you might start holding back from trying new things at which you fear you will fail, and you miss out on opportunities to prove to yourself that you are worthy. This is another process that can be stopped in its tracks.
Our thoughts are always going, running in the background like a radio, but we can choose which thoughts to tune into. Said another way, you don’t have to latch on to every thought you have as if it is true or important. Paying attention to a thought gives it power.
Try closing your eyes and paying attention to your breath for ten minutes. You’ll find that your mind will inevitably have thoughts because that’s what it does. Imagine that each thought is passing by like leaves in a stream. When you do latch on to a thought, notice that it happened, and gently go back to your breath. Practice this once a day.
Anxiety is an inevitability of life, for some more than others, but practicing these skills will help you gain power over your anxiety. Meeting with a therapist to explore your anxiety, as well as discuss other effective strategies for coping with it, is another important component of improvement.
If you or someone you know is suffering from anxiety, know that professional help is always available.