By: Sarah Zucker, PsyD

Anxiety. We all get it, some of us much more than others. Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, and unease, typically regarding an upcoming event that has an uncertain outcome. Anxiety is accompanied by many unwanted physiological symptoms which include sweating, increased heart rate, a spike in blood pressure, shaking, feeling tense, shortness of breath, insomnia, and upset stomach. If you’re reading this and you’re a human being, which I’m going to assume you are, I probably don’t have to tell you how it feels to be anxious. We all know the feeling, and it presents differently for all of us.

Anxiety prior to an important exam, presentation, anticipated social interaction, or anything we feel we need to “perform” for is normal. A little anxiety is actually beneficial to performance. After all, we’d have to be mindless zombies to never feel nervous or anxious about anything. But as most people already know, too much anxiety can feel very overwhelming, and we don’t have access to our therapist 100% of the time in order to calm us down. Here are some very simple tips to lower anxiety in the moment.

Treatment and Strategies when dealing with Anxiety
1.    Take deep breaths from your diaphragm, and pay attention to your breathing. Short, shallow breaths exacerbate anxiety by signaling to the body that something is wrong, which activates the sympathetic nervous system into fight or flight mode. Breathing from deep within your belly activates the parasympathetic nervous system, like activating the brakes in your car. It lets your body know to slow down, and you can’t help but become less anxious. Paying attention to your breathing is also very helpful because it effectively distracts you and helps you center yourself. You can count your breathes if this helps you.

2.    Accept that you’re anxious. Anxiety is only a feeling, and it will not harm you. And it is OK to be anxious. Accepting your anxiety and making better friends with it actually helps to reduce anxiety. Trying to control or push out your anxiety only makes most people more anxious because anxiety plays on your greatest fears and “what-if” scenarios. “What if I’m so anxious I cannot function? What if everyone sees that I’m sweating and shaky and knows that I’m anxious? I must not be anxious no matter what.” reminds us that anxiety, while unwelcomed and uncomfortable, is not intolerable. So allow your anxiety to move through you instead of trying to will it away.

3.    Meditate and practice mindfulness. The benefits of meditation, yoga, and mindfulness are well-established. Meditation and yoga are anxiety-busting machines. Being in your body and getting to know and accept your mind are two of the greatest tools against anxiety. Mindfulness, (acceptance and curiosity regarding the present moment and allowing the present moment to be exactly as it is without judgment), all but eliminates anxiety, because anxiety is future-oriented, and mindfulness is only about intentionally focusing on the present moment. A psychologist or other mental health professional can teach you more about how to practice mindfulness and help you to develop a meditation or relaxation routine that best suits you. Until you get to your therapist’s office, there are many free guided meditations on the Internet which you can access at any time. (Although yoga isn’t something you can do in the moment (I guess you could, but you might look a little strange, but who really cares if it helps?), I had to include it because it has the potential to be so helpful.)

4.    Use positive self-talk. Calmly and with purpose repeat a phrase that works for you. What calms you and what calms your friend might be two totally different phrases, so create a mantra that suits you and that you can buy into. Focus on that instead of the negative chatter going on in your head. Some people like to say things like, “This too shall pass” or “I am safe.” Some people like to say a soothing prayer. Helping to facilitate effective self-talk is another situation where counseling can be helpful.

5.    Practice muscle relaxation. Practice flexing and then releasing your muscles, moving from your toes up to your head. Take your time and pay special attention to your biggest muscle groups. Many psychologists are trained in this technique and can help you to practice it.

There are many other immediate and longer-term strategies that you can learn about in therapy. Although we all have anxiety, it is important to seek treatment if your anxiety lowers your quality of life or gets in the way of the things you like or need to do. Thankfully, therapy with a knowledgeable psychologist can teach you how to better manage your anxiety and significantly decrease it. A therapist can also refer you to other resources in San Diego that will help you along in your journey to overall wellness. Even if it has been for a long time, anxiety does not have to rule your life.

What strategies do you use to lower your anxiety? Which ones work best for you?