We all know the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety. Your heart races, your fingers sweat, and your breathing gets shallow and labored. You may find your thoughts racing and feel fear in your belly. That’s because your “fight or flight” response has kicked in, resulting in your sympathetic nervous system pumping adrenalin throughout your body, readying it to fight or flee. Your attention and focus narrows and becomes preoccupied with the stressful situation. You seem to be locked in that vigilant state, unable to focus on your daily chores or longer-term goals. But what can you do about it?
I have found a variety of practical tools based on Cognitive-Behavior Therapy that I can teach my therapy patients who have anxiety disorders such as phobias, panic attacks, or chronic worry. Some tools are based on changing thoughts, others on changing behavior, and still others involve changing physiological responses. The more aspects of anxiety we can decrease, the lower the chance of relapse post-therapy.
(1) Reevaluating how likely it is to happen
Anxiety makes you feel like a threat is imminent, yet most of the time what you worry about never happens. By recording your worries and how many came true, you can begin to notice how much you overestimate the likelihood of negative events actually happening.
Even if a bad event happens, you may still be able to handle it by using your coping skills and problem-solving abilities, or by enlisting others to help. Although not pleasant, you could survive encountering a spider, having a panic attack, or losing money. It’s important to realize that very few things are the end of the world.
(3) Using deep breathing and relaxation to calm down
By deliberately relaxing your muscles, you begin to calm down so you can think clearly. If you practice this without a threat present at first, it can start to become automic and will be easier to use in the moment when you do face an actual threat. Deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system to put the breaks on “fight or flight.”.
(4) Being mindful of your physical and mental reactions
The skill of mindfulness involves calmly observing your own reactions, including fear, without panicking or feeling compelled to act. It is a coping skill and attitude to living that can be taught in therapy and improves with practice.
(5) Accepting the fear and focusing on core values
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an approach that helps you to accept the inevitability of negative thoughts and feelings and not try to repress or control them. By directing attention away from the fear and back onto important life tasks and valued goals, you can live a full life despite the fear. Instead of letting the anxiety rule, be proactive in living a meaningful and connected life.
(6) Confronting what you fear (Exposure)
Exposure is the most powerful technique for anxiety and it involves facing what you fear and staying in the situation long enough for the fear to go down, as it naturally does. Fear makes you want to avoid or run away, so your mind and body never learn that much of what we fear is not truly dangerous.