Anxiety is a common human experience. Everyone experiences it at some point, and it is often mild enough to cope with on your own. Incorporating some basic healthy coping skills into your daily life can help manage, reduce, and even effectively alleviate anxiety symptoms.
The word “anxiety” gets thrown around frequently and is often confused with stress. However, while anxiety usually involves a stressful situation, it is different from stress alone. Anxiety is most often described as nervousness, apprehension, and worry and is a response to a threat. As outlined in our blog entitled Is This Anxiety?, anxiety is a complex state rooted in fear. It presents as a wide range of mental, emotional, and physical symptoms with varying degrees of severity.
If you often have intense feelings of anxiety or feel fearful much of the time, you may be experiencing something more clinically significant. While anxiety is a common experience, some people have more intense symptoms and may meet criteria for one or more Anxiety Disorders. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V-TR (American Psychiatric Association, 2022.), General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by excessive anxiety and worry occuring more days than not for at least six months about a number of events or activities. People with GAD also experience three or more of the following symptoms: restlessness or feeling keyed up or edge, being easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating or mind going blank, irritability, muscle tension, sleep disturbance. These symptoms disrupt or impair normal functioning.
Additional Anxiety Disorders include Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Specific Phobias, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. While they all have different symptoms and diagnostic criteria, the mental, emotional, and physical symptoms of each one must cause distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. Additionally, the symptoms cannot be attributable to the physiological effects of a substance or other medical condition in order to meet criteria for diagnosis.
When Should You Seek Help?
Anxiety is a very treatable condition. That is great news for nearly 20% of the adult population in the United States who experience an anxiety disorder (Anxiety & Depression Association of America, October 2022.) If you believe your anxiety is causing significant impairment in your life, consider working with a mental health professional to identify an appropriate treatment plan and build skills for healthy functioning. You may also benefit from services like the Teen Calm and Kid Calm groups at Sentier Psychotherapy. Our groups focus on educating clients and helping them to build a calm toolkit to increase skills and reduce anxiety.
Image credit: Anxiety & Depression Association of America
Coping Skills for Anxiety
Everything that we perceive as a threat has the potential to cause a fear response. The initial neurological process may take place regardless of the size or intensity of the threat. That means that, whether you are nervous to take a simple test or are in a truly dangerous situation, your brain initially reacts in the same way. It sends signals to your nervous system and results in those first physical signs of anxiety at even the slightest perception of threat.
Early signs of anxiety may be physical, emotional, and/or cognitive (thought-based). Your body may exhibit symptoms such as flushed skin and increased heart rate while your mind races or – in some cases – goes blank as you start to feel nervous. That is why it is so important to know how even mild anxiety feels to you and learn to cope with it. Most of the time, it is possible to interrupt it and begin returning to a calm state on your own relatively quickly.
Try incorporating one or all of these coping strategies into your daily routine to find relief in those moments and prevent anxiety from growing too strong.
- Get grounded in your body. Our bodies tell us when something is wrong – even if our brains have perceived danger where there isn’t really a threat. When you feel anxious, you may be mentally preoccupied with the difficult situation. Getting grounded means being aware of your body and connected to reality, time, and place so that you can mentally calm down. To ground your body, first get “planted” like a tree with deep roots. To do this, you can stand strong with your feet in a wide stance, sit down in a firm chair or on the floor against a wall, or even lay down. Next, notice the soles of your feet making contact with the surface under them – whether that is the ground, floor, or your socks/shoes. Slowly move up from there and notice how different parts of your body feel as you move foot to head and back again, keeping your feet planted throughout.
- Use your senses. Your physical senses are always with you. Try using the Five Senses Meditation to be in your body, focusing on only one thing at a time. Ask yourself these questions and use your senses to answer them one at a time:
- What are five things I can touch? (example given: this chair, pants, water bottle, necklace, hair)
- What are four things I can see? (e.g., my teacher, tree outside, backpack, lamp)
- What are three things I can hear? (e.g., the clock ticking, walking in hallway, car outside)
- What are two things I can smell? (e.g., the shampoo I used, coffee brewing)
- What is one thing I can taste? (e.g., the gum in my mouth)
- Follow your breath. Nearly every article about anxiety recommends breathing exercises. This is because shallow, rapid breathing is also a common early sign of anxiety. By consciously focusing on your breath and gradually engaging in deeper, slower breaths, you can activate the body’s relaxation response, promoting a sense of calmness in the nervous system. Simply notice your inhales and be sure to exhale completely. Your breath is another grounding tool you can never forget at home and can utilize without anyone else noticing!
- Restructure your thoughts. When a person feels threatened, it is common to engage in distorted thinking patterns that amplify worries and fear. Cognitive restructuring is a simple process in which you identify a negative thought, question the validity of the thought, and replace the thought with more rational and positive alternatives, which may include planning for next steps. Taking time to zero in on unhelpful thoughts that are leading to anxiety helps you gain a more realistic perspective in the moment and healthier thinking patterns over time.
|Identify Negative Thought
|“I did horribly on that presentation. I am going to be fired.”
|Check on Validity of the Thought
|“It is true I was not well enough prepared today, but I did receive positive performance review feedback last month and have been on top of everything else lately. It is unlikely I will be fired.”
|Replace with Rational, Constructive Thought(s) and Make a Plan
|“I feel really embarrassed about today’s presentation.”
“I want to be more prepared next time.”
“I need to have better time management at work.”
“I’m going to talk to my boss and take responsibility for not being ready today.”
“I will ask if there is anything I can do to help clarify my message to the team.”
- Break it down. When experiencing anxiety, our minds can start racing and even simple tasks can feel overwhelming. Looking at any task as small steps is a way to feel more in control. Using sticky notes like Post-Its, write one step of a task on a note and stick it on your wall or desk. Keep going until every step is listed. Then begin by focusing on only one note at a time. When you complete each step, crumple up the note and move to the next. This keeps each step manageable, gives you a visual indicator of your progress, and increases the likelihood of task completion.
While occasional anxiety is a common human experience and can be challenging to deal with, it should not control your activities, affect your quality of life, or impair you at work, school, or in relationships. There are very effective self-help skills that can help you better manage and reduce the impact of anxiety on your daily life. Experiment with different techniques to find what works best for you, and remember that seeking professional help is an option if anxiety becomes overwhelming. With consistency, these skills can help you manage anxiety and function in a healthier way.
Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed., text rev.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425787
Blog written by Sentier therapist, Sarah Souder Johnson, MEd