Blog Short #77: 4 Ideas to Help Deal with Anxiety
Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday, I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you. My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!
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Anxiety disorders are on the rise. Currently, 18.1% of the adult population in the U.S. are diagnosed with anxiety disorders annually. Based on my own experience, it’s the most prevalent reason people seek therapy next to depression.
If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you know that it’s an awful experience. You feel like you’re going to die. Your heart rate goes up significantly, you can’t catch your breath, you may feel nauseous, or experience cramping and tightening of your muscles. It’s debilitating and frightening.
Today I want to focus on four ideas that might help you if anxiety is something you experience frequently. These ideas are different from the usual strategies (deep breathing, relaxation exercises, CBT, etc.). You can use these in addition to those strategies.
Let’s get to the four ideas.
1. The Hook
Anxiety originates from a combination of your thoughts and emotions. An incident or situation might spark it, but what you think and feel in reaction to the event is what brings on the anxiety. Sometimes you can get anxious just from your thoughts with no outside stimulus.
Regardless of the source, the thoughts leading to the anxiety hook you in. You might think of these as triggers, which they often are. It works like this:
There’s a thought that triggers a feeling that triggers anxiety, and before you realize it, you’re hooked. You fuse with the feeling, and it takes hold of you.
But that’s not the end of it. Being hooked in brings on fear – because anxiety is scary. Not only are you anxious from being triggered, but you’re afraid of the anxiety itself. You can get panicky and might start looking for quick ways to get rid of it.
The problem is that when you attempt to manage the anxiety, you often become more anxious.
If you’ve ever had the experience of feeling short of breath while being anxious and then trying to take deep breaths to manage it, sometimes it works. But sometimes, your breathing gets worse. The anxiety and the fear of becoming anxious (or more anxious) add new prongs to the hook.
“Great. I’m hooked in. So now what?”
2. A Mind Trick: Self versus self
The way to get unhooked is to get out of your head. You have to defuse yourself from the thoughts and feelings that hooked you.
Ask yourself these questions:
“Who’s anxious? Who’s having this experience?”
You might be saying “Duh?? Me, of course!” Head games! Yes, it is you who’s having the experience, but that’s the point. You’re not the same as your experience. You’re the one having the experience, yet you’re separate from it.
When you become fused with the experience, it feels like you are the experience. By reminding yourself that you still have that separation by asking, “Who’s having the anxiety?” you gain a little distance, and maybe a lot, depending on the situation.
That doesn’t mean you stop feeling it, but it does give you an edge. You can feel it with a little less fear.
Let’s keep going.
We do two things to try and deal with anxiety:
- Avoid it
- Get rid of it
Both of these backfire. When you try to get rid of it by managing it, you might have some temporary success, but it comes back. When you try to avoid it, you have to continually distract yourself so you won’t think and feel what you don’t want to think and feel, and in doing so, you push it under where it gains power.
You either become emotionally distanced from yourself or sit on a pile of emotional dynamite that can erupt with the slightest provocation.
The best course is to accept the feeling – the anxiety itself. It won’t kill you. It doesn’t feel good, and it’s intimidating, but it won’t destroy you. You can handle it. And by sitting with it and letting it run its course, you might learn something.
All pain has lessons if we’re open to them. Instead of trying so hard to figure out why you’re anxious or getting rid of the feeling, see what other thoughts arise. Memories may surface you’d forgotten. If you can, just let it be for a while. It’ll wear off eventually, but take advantage and listen to yourself while you’re there.
Chronic anxiety, especially the kind that seems to come out of nowhere, has deeper roots. However, you – the you that’s watching this whole scenario – can be open to the memories and thoughts that bubble up and help make sense of the anxiety.
That same “you” can also defuse from it.
4. How to Defuse
Defusing yourself from anxiety means unhooking from the thoughts and emotions that hooked you in initially. Here are some exercises you can try.
Give it a voice.
Give the anxiety a voice. If you like being creative or imaginative, name it. I was reading A Liberated Mind by Steven Hayes, and he calls his voice “George,” which made me laugh.
Dr. Hayes was plagued by incapacitating panic attacks early in his career and found that the usual management strategies didn’t work, so he devoted time to research and creating new approaches to deal with the problem, which I’m drawing on today.
But I digress. Naming the voice that’s ruminating and creating anxiety in your head helps you feel that separation between you and your experience. You can look at the thoughts that are hooking you in with some distance and allow yourself to explore them or let them go if you find them to be exaggerated, inaccurate, or counterproductive. You can quiet down that voie.
Write your thoughts on a small piece of paper.
When I read this, I wasn’t all that enamored of the idea, but I tried it. You write out the anxious thoughts, feelings, or situations circling in your mind, and then keep the paper with you. Pull it out and read it every once in a while, and then put it back in its place so you can reread it later. This exercise might seem too simple, but it has an effect!
If your anxiety is focused around self-doubt or self-recriminations, try this exercise. Imagine yourself as a child having anxious thoughts. Make this as realistic as you can. Go back to the youngest time you can remember and visualize yourself. Imagine your voice and hear yourself verbalize your anxiety in that voice. How would you soothe that child?
To Sum It Up
Here’s a quick summary of the four ideas:
- Anxiety is a hook. It grabs you and holds on through fear, thoughts, and emotions.
- You are not your thoughts and feelings. You are the one experiencing them. By keeping this in mind, you gain some emotional distance so you can pull out those thoughts and evaluate them for accuracy.
- Accept anxiety when it comes. Trying to get rid of it or avoid it makes it worse. It’s not as scary as it seems. When you look at it and let it ride out, it weakens. And you likely find some of the hidden sources of it.
- Defuse yourself from it. Use simple exercises to help you defuse from the thoughts and feelings that have hooked you in. Unhook.
There’s much more you can do to work with anxiety. Today’s blog is just a quick guide. I gave you only three defusing exercises. There are more. You can find them by reading A Liberated Mind or click here. It’s an interesting approach and one backed by research.
That’s all for today. Have a great week!
All my best,