If your mind were a diesel engine, anxiety would be the leaded gas that was accidentally poured in and responsible for all the burps and stutters. Even more so than depression, I think, anxiety is the big disabler in my life, with a capital D, which is why I try to nip it in its early symptoms. That doesn’t always happen, of course, but here are some techniques I try:
1. Recognize the reptilian brain.
My therapist friend Elvira Aletta gives a brilliant neuro-psychology lesson in one of her posts where she explains the two parts of our brain: the primitive part containing the amygdala–which is responsible for generating and processing our fear and other primal emotions–and our frontal lobes: the neo-cortex or the newest part of our brain, which is sophisticated, educated, and is able to apply a bit of logic to the message of raw fear that our reptilian brain generates.
Why is this helpful? When I feel that knot in my stomach that comes with a message that I am unloved by the world, I try to envision a Harvard professor, or some intellectual creature whacking a reptile on the head with the a book, saying something like “Would you just evolve, you overly dramatic creature?”
2. Exaggerate your greatest fear.
I know this doesn’t seem like a good idea, but truly it works. I learned it from a fellow Beyond Blue reader who explained on a combox: “Tell your fear to someone else and make sure to be as dramatic as possible, with very descriptive words and emotions. Then, when you’ve told every detail you can think of, start over again. Tell the entire, dramatic story, again with very elaborate descriptions. By the third or fourth time, it becomes a bit silly.”
My friend Mike and I do this all the time. He will tell me how he is afraid he has diabetes, and that his leg will have to be amputated, and then he won’t be able to drive a car with one leg, and because of that his wife with leave him, and he will be a single, lonely old man with one leg. Funny stuff, right?
3. Distract yourself.
For the last two months I have been under the very clear direction of my doctor to “distract, don’t think.” My thinking–even though I thought I was doing the right thing by using cognitive-behavioral techniques–was making things worse. So she told me to stay away from the self-help books and to work on a word puzzle or watch a movie instead, and to surround myself with people as much as possible. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for cognitive-behavioral techniques and mindfulness. But when I reach a point of disabling anxiety, it’s more beneficial for me to try to get out of my head as much as possible.
4. Write twin letters.
Former Fresh Living blogger Holly Lebowitz Rossi offers a smart strategy for anxiety in her post about cold feet: “Compose a love letter to your object of feet-chill [or fear]. Celebrate all of the reasons you fell in love with him/her/it in the first place. List everything positive you can think of, and nothing negative. Now write a missive. Vent all of your worries about the situation, and try to make a case against moving forward. I’ll bet you can’t come up with a single true deal-breaker, but giving your worries some air will feel good.
I have found only one full-proof immediate solution to anxiety. And that is exercise.
Bike. Walk. Swim. Run. I don’t care what you do, as long as you get that ticker of yours working hard. You don’t have to be training for an Ironman to feel the antidepressant effect of exercise. Even picking the weeds and watering the flowers has been shown to boost moods. Aerobic exercise can be as effective at relieving mild and moderate depression as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac and Zoloft).
In his comprehensive book, “The Depression Cure,” clinical psychologist Stephen Ilardi writes: “Exercise changes the brain. It increases the activity level of important brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin…. Exercise also increases the brain’s production of a key growth hormone called BDNF. Because levels of this hormone plummet in depression, some parts of the brain start to shrink over time, and learning and memory are impaired. But exercise reverses this trend, protecting the brain in a way nothing else can.”
6. Watch the movie.
In his blog, “Psychotherapy and Mindfulness,” psychologist Elisha Goldstein explains that we can practice mindfulness and experience some relief from anxiety by procuring some distance from our thoughts, so that we learn to watch them as we would a movie (in my case, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”). That way, we can sit back with our bag of popcorn and be entertained. Most importantly, we must try to let go of judgments. That’s a tad hard for a Catholic girl that tends to think like the Vatican: dividing every thought, emotion, and behavior into two categories, which are “good” and “deserving of eternal damnation.”
7. Eat super mood foods.
Unfortunately, anxiety is usually the first clue that I should, once again, analyze my diet: to make sure I’m not drinking too much caffeine, not ingesting too much processed flour, and not bingeing on sweets. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve usually committed a misdemeanor in one of those areas. So I go back to power foods. What are they? Elizabeth Somer, author of “Food and Mood” and “Eating Your Way to Happiness” mentions these: nuts, soy, milk and yogurt, dark green leafies, dark orange vegetables, broth soups, legumes, citrus, wheat germ, tart cherries, and berries.
8. Return to the breath.
Here’s a confession: the only way I know how to meditate is by counting my breaths. I merely say “one” as I inhale and exhale, and then say “two” with my next breath. It’s like swimming laps. I can’t tune into all the chatter inside my brain because I don’t want to mess up my counting.
When I bring attention to my breathing–and remember to breathe from my diaphragm, not my chest–I am able to calm myself down a notch, or at least control my hysteria (so that I can wait five minutes before bursting into tears, which means I avoid the public cry session, which is preferred).
9. Break the day into minutes.
One cognitive adjustment that helps relieve anxiety is reminding myself that I don’t have to think about 2:45 pm when I pick up the kids from school and how I will be able to cope with the noise and chaos when I’m feeling this way, or about the boundary issue I have with a friend–whether or not I’m strong enough to continue putting myself first in that relationship. All I have to worry about is the very second before me. If I am successful at breaking my time down that way, I usually discover that everything is fine for the moment.
10. Use visual anchors.
My therapist looks up to the clouds. They calm her down in traffic or whenever she feels anxious. For me it’s the water. I don’t now if it’s because I’m a Pisces (fish), but the water has always calmed me down in the same way as Xanax, and since I don’t take the latter (as a recovering alcoholic, I try to stay away from sedatives), I need to rely on the former. So I just downloaded some “ocean waves” that I can listen to on my iPod when I feel that familiar knot in my stomach. I also have a medal of St. Therese that I grab when I become scared, a kind of blankie to make me feel safe in an anxious world.
11. Repeat a mantra
My mantras are very simple: “I am okay” or “I am enough.” But one Beyond Blue reader recites what she calls a “metta meditation.” She claims that it slowly changes the way she responds to things in her day. She says to herself:
May I be filled with loving kindness
May I be happy, and healthy
May I accept myself in the moment right as I am
May all sentient beings, be at peace, and free from suffering.
As I described in my post, “9 Ways Humor Can Heal,” flexing your funny bone does much more than relieving any crushing anxiety. It lowers your immune system, diminishes both physical and psychological pain, fights viruses and foreign cells, heals wounds, and builds community. You have no doubt experienced a moment when you were crippled by anxiety until someone made you laugh outloud, and in doing so anxiety lost its hold over you. Why not laugh all the time, then?