A 3-Step Plan For When Anxiety Strikes
Are you working to cure your anxiety, or are you just coping with it?
When most people are hit by anxiety, they don’t want to deal with it. They just want to make it “go away” as quickly as possible.
Sometimes, that means popping a pill.
Other times they try to pretend it’s not happening and bury their anxiety deep down inside – only to have it rear it’s ugly head in the middle of the night, robbing them of some desperately needed sleep.
Some people avoid the situations that trigger their anxiety all together.
Usually it’s a combination of all three.
If these response patterns sound familiar, I have a question for you.
How are they working for you?
If you’re like most people who struggle with anxiety, you know that none of these are truly effective methods for dealing with anxiety.
They’re only temporary coping mechanisms that intensify the problem. Because ultimately they’re communicating to your mind, “You can’t handle this. You’ve got to escape.”
And with this belief, every time the trigger comes up again, the anxiety comes roaring back. You never face it head on and end up convincing yourself you’re just an anxious person.
Your anxiety goes from state to trait. The feelings you experience in a state of anxiety become a characteristic of your personality that you accept as permanent.
Attend & Befriend Anxiety
The most effective response to anxiety is to “attend and befriend” it.
In the moment that anxiety arises, take a minute to actively listen and attend to what’s happening in your mind and body. Then, create a safe, comfortable environment in which you can address it.
Here’s how to do it:
The first step in the process is physical relaxation.
When you get anxious, a variety of physical symptoms can appear. You might feel your heart racing, and experience chest pain and shortness of breath. It’s very hard to calm the mind when the body is giving you these signals that you’re still in an emergency state.
So we start by calming the body, and then we focus on the mind.
You can bring on physical relaxation in many ways. Depending on where you are and how much time you have to react, some of these techniques will work better than others.
One of my favorite ways to bring relaxation into the body is through specific breathing exercises meant to balance the nervous system, like Nadi Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing.
Just a few minutes of Nadi Shodhana can calm anxiety, clear your mind and allow you to focus more clearly.
To practice Nadi Shodhana:
- Sit comfortably with a straight spine (or stand if sitting isn’t possible)
- Take a deep breath in and out
- Using your thumb of your right hand, close your right nostril and breath in deeply
- Keeping your right nostril closed, exhale fully
- Pause briefly after the exhale
- Release your right nostril
- Use your ring finger of the same hand to cover your left nostril and inhale
- Keeping your left nostril closed, exhale fully
- Repeat 5-10 cycles
You can also try something as simple as placing your hands over your heart, while taking deep breaths in and out from your belly. This is proven to activate your parasympathetic nervous system by releasing oxytocin, a chemical that puts you in a more relaxed state.
As opposed to the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for your body’s reaction to being in a threatening situation, the parasympathetic nervous system relaxes the body and inhibits or slows many high energy functions to allow for essential functions like rest and digestion.
Switching to the parasympathetic mode allows us to turn off the threat response of an anxiety attack and relax.
Other relaxation techniques include grounding exercises, mudras, acupressure, tapping, and using specific essential oils.
Next time you’re feeling anxious, try these relaxation techniques out and see how they make you feel. Whether you prefer one of these practices, or a combination of a few, you’re priming your body and mind to take on the next step of dealing with your anxiety in the moment: being mindful.
- Be Mindful
Mindfulness is often a misunderstood concept. Frequently thought of as synonymous with meditation, mindfulness simply means non-judgemental observation.
Approaching our anxiety without judgment allows us to take a step back and look at it rationally. It lets us accept it as part of the human experience—without labeling it as “bad” or “weak,” and creating additional anxiety about how we deal with stress as a result.
Meditation is one path to mindfulness, but in a stressful situation, we can practice mindfulness by simply observing what’s going on in the body and the mind, without judging it.
It’s pretty hard to be mindful when your mind is racing and your body is tense though. That’s why step one is so important. Once you’ve relaxed your body some, you’re able to switch out of your reptilian brain, useful for stressful situations only, into your more rational mammalian brain.
To start, scan your body and name the sensations you feel. Do you feel nausea? Are you sweating? Is your heart racing? Don’t judge, just take note.
Then, offer acceptance.
Say something like, “I acknowledge and accept that my chest is tight right now.” Then scan to the next area “I acknowledge and accept that my leg is shaking right now.”
Then scan your mind. Even if it feels like it’s just racing, name the thoughts that you can identify. Once again, no judgment. It could sounds something like, “I am thinking everyone here hates me. It’s ok that I am having this thought. Not good, not bad, just what it is right now.”
Once you’ve relaxed your body and practiced mindfulness, then comes the last and most important part of attend and befriend.
- Stay. Don’t run away.
Ok, you’re relaxed. You’re mindful. Now, just stay. You’re not pushing anything away or freezing in place. Just stay courageous and in the moment.
Although it may be a quick fix, bailing is just a temporary distraction from your anxiety, forcing you to deal with it all over again the next time you’re in the situation. Or at some other inopportune time, like the middle of the night.
By leaving, you never get the opportunity to challenge the anxious thoughts. To realize that, perhaps this situation is safer than you thought it was.
And remember, bailing doesn’t just mean physically leaving the scene. Popping a klonopin is a mental escape and is just as damaging, if not more. So is pretending it’s not happening at all.
You’re also training yourself to associate that place or situation with fear, which will inevitably trigger future attacks.
You’ve got to ride out the anxiety where you are.
If a friend was nervous about going to a party, you wouldn’t ditch her the moment you walked in together. No. You’d stay with her. You’d give her a chance to relax and be herself. You’d offer compassion. So, learn to simply show up as you are, and offer yourself the same compassion [link to compassion article].
Befriending your anxiety means getting comfortable with it. You stay where you are in your most anxious moments, get into a relaxed and mindful state and observe.
Curing not just coping
You might be thinking, why am I befriending my anxiety again? I hate my anxiety. She’s a real pain in the rear.
I understand why you feel that way. But here are two things to consider:
First, she’s not all that bad. She’s given you some pretty useful gifts, too. A true understanding and empathy for the pain of others. Greater attunement to yourself and your own needs.
Second, even if you don’t like her, since when does screaming down or shutting out your enemies work?
Never. It just makes them scream louder to get your attention. But when you listen and accept them for who they are, you create healthy ways of engaging with them.
Then, slowly your enemy doesn’t have so much power over you.
When you make the three step process above a habit, you’re not only dealing with your anxiety in a healthy way, you’re slowly retraining your brain to believe “Yes, I can handle this situation.”
And when your brain is confident you can stay and survive an anxious episode, guess what, you’re not going to feel anxious in it any more. You’re curing your anxiety—not just coping with it.
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- A drug-free way to alleviate anxiety at the moment it strikes