Anxiety is our body’s natural alarm system. It is a normal and useful emotion when we feel threatened. It can save your life when you run to make it across the road because a car is speeding too fast towards you. However, when the threat is in our minds rather than a real physical danger, problems arise.
Most times, the stressful situation is not the problem. Rather, the problem is the way we deal or cope with the stress. Our thoughts and behaviours can reinforce our anxiety instead of helping it melt away.
Whether you are worried about work, home, or personal issues, anxiety can take a heavy toll on your mental and physical health. It can leave you feeling worn down, irritable, and out of control.
The good news? We can learn and practice ways to “be in the same room and get along” with our anxiety.
When you are feeling overwhelmed by anything in your life, here are a few things to try that will help you relax and put things in perspective:
1. Breathe deeply.
Anxiety takes our breath away . . . literally. Practice breathing from your belly, taking air right down into the bottom of your lungs so that your stomach pushes out. Try putting a pillow (or a stuffed animal for a child) on your stomach so you can see it rise and fall with each slow breath. Breathe out for at least as long as you breathe in and try breathing through your nose rather than your mouth. Practice this 2-3 times a day. The more you do it, the more likely you will breathe more deeply at other times of the day, keeping your anxiety level down.
2. Focus on something else.
Purposely shift your attention to something unrelated to what you are upset or worried about. Often doing something simple like washing the dishes can distract you enough to feel better about the situation and more relaxed.
3. Slow down.
Give yourself a break and just s-l-o-w down. We add to our anxiety by rushing around. Notice if you are getting worked up (stomach in a knot, tight chest, mind racing, heart pounding), and consciously take a break to look at things more clearly.
Get your body moving! It can create a relaxation response. Build in 20-30 minutes of moderate exercise per day. It could be a simple brisk walk. You probably know this already. Like the Nike slogan says, “Just Do It” – it really does help.
5. Eat healthy foods.
Eat regularly, including breakfast, to keep blood sugar levels steady. This helps to avoid the food-related “anxiety roller coaster ride” that comes with skipping meals or with too much caffeine, alcohol, and sugary or fatty snacks.
6. Face it head-on.
If your anxiety is tied to a particular situation, the only way you can learn to deal with it is to not avoid it. Often, things will be easier, better, or simpler than you anticipated, and your worries will have been unfounded. Like many athletes are taught to do, you can build up to the situation by imagining how you will face it. Use positive, confident thoughts such as, “I know I can cope with my fear” or “I can see this as a challenge and do well.”
7. Look at the big picture.
Sometimes we get all worked up about things in the present that really don’t matter in the long run. Ask yourself how much this will really matter down the road – it may give you some perspective.
8. Let the past go.
This is easier said than done! But if you are feeling bad about things that have already happened, take time to realize that there is nothing you can do to change these things now. You can take steps to begin letting the past go and making positive choices for your future.
Try taking a few minutes out of your day to focus on your breathing, an object (like a candle), or a pleasant sound. As best as you are able, bring your mind back to the present focus. This can give your mind a little gap or vacation from anxiety and also provide some insight into where your mind takes you. If you have trouble doing this alone, try using a guided meditation, available for free online. Try www.mindful.org
10. Talk to others.
Connect to a family member or friend and share your anxieties. It can be a great way to gain insight, get advice, and alleviate some of your stress by getting support and understanding.
While these tips should help, don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you have lived with anxiety for a long time and are having trouble managing on your own. Call your local mental health centre or check out the resources below.
- CTRI’s workshop and webinar, “Anxiety: Practical Intervention Strategies”
There are also some excellent resources available online:
- Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada anxietycanada.ca
- Canadian Mental Health Association cmha.ca
- National Institute of Mental Health nimh.nih.gov
- Centre for Addiction and Mental Health camh.ca
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