Anxiety is something that millions of people manage as best they can on a day to day basis. They go to work or spend time with their friends and family while doing anything they can to fight their anxiety back. Some days are better than others, and most people with anxiety can still lead close to normal lives, but all the while they're plagued by fighting their anxiety every day.
Anxiety isn't something you want to have to dedicate significant time to managing. It's something for which most people want to find a cure. If you want to learn to reduce your anxiety and reduce the amount of ongoing effort it takes to manage, this is possible. With hard work and dedication you can experience significantly less impairment in your life and in some cases feel as if your anxiety has been “cured.” We'll explore how to do that in this article.
The Difference Between Coping and Managing
“Coping” with your anxiety is when you implement skills and learn techniques to control your anxiety in certain situations or on certain days. You're "coping with it" on the days that you wake up feeling less anxiety than normal or manage to get through your day without an anxiety and panic attack. You know the anxiety is there, and you know that you deal with it daily, but there are times when it's a bit more controlled than others.
When just coping with your anxiety you may even have an underlying uneasiness knowing that anxious feelings are likely to return or intensify.
“Managing” your anxiety is when your anxiety no longer interferes with your daily life. Some people even report feeling their anxiety has been eliminated permanently. When you manage your anxiety the feeling that your anxiety is going to affect you is lifted. While there may be a days where you experience normal levels of anxiety or stress, in your day to day life you no longer have to actively work to fight your anxiety.
How to Manage Anxiety
It starts with commitment. There is no magic pill or miracle cure that can stop your anxiety overnight. If you're not committed to managing your anxiety than you'll never be able to truly get experience relief from it because anxiety is something you need to work on managing continuously until it loses its strength.
The first step is to show a willingness to change things in your life that create anxiety. There are going to be some challenges and tough decisions - including reducing the time you spend with people that create anxiety and avoiding anxiety fueling activities - but those changes are going to have an effect in the long run.
Once you've shown a willingness to make life changes and are committed to following through, you can work towards successfully managing your anxiety with the tools and techniques below:
Replacement Coping Tools
It's very important that you learn replacement methods of coping with anxiety. Anxiety itself is a problem with coping, and unfortunately many of the things people use to replace it or eliminate it in the short term (including drug or alcohol use, social withdrawal) are ineffective as an overall strategy.
What do we mean by ineffective?
Being alone can also be a great way to regroup, especially if you need some time to de-stress. Drinking and recreational drug use may produce a temporary calming effect. Neither self medication nor being isolated are long term solutions.
Managing isn't the type of behavior we normally think of when we talk about controlling our own anxiety. Instead it is a thinking behavior. Managing anxiety may be thought of as a mental ability or skill - one that you need to practice in order to create.
So when we talk about these tools, we're really talking about behaviors and activities that give you the best opportunity to re-learn how you respond to situations that produce anxiety. These are activities that provide you with healthy distractions, potentially with their own benefit on your anxiety. But always remember - these tools will not “cure” or always provide immediate relief. These are simply considered some of the most useful methods of helping your brain regain its natural balance and improve its ability to deal with anxiety producing situations.
- Jogging or Running All exercise is valuable, but cardio activities such as jogging or running produce an especially effective amount of neurotransmitters that support positive mood. It also tires the muscles which can help to reduce the severity of anxiety symptoms. Cardio also reduces the presence of the stress hormone, cortisol, in the body. Finally cardio exercise can provide distraction for the mind taking your thoughts away from your worries.
- Yoga Similarly, many people find relief from anxiety by engaging in yoga. Yoga provides similar exercise benefits, and has a spiritual effect that many find valuable. Beyond that, yoga involves a great deal of self-control, and that self-control appears to be beneficial for those that need to distract their mind from their anxieties.
- Art People say that art is useful for anxiety because it allows you to express yourself. It's likely more than that though, especially since many people don't really feel that they know how to be artists. The more likely reason art is beneficial is that it takes a great deal of focus and control. In order to do art you're ignoring at least some of the thoughts that may exacerbate your anxiety. In addition, art provides the sense of accomplishment, and in some cases feeling accomplished can improve mood. This makes it doubly valuable as a coping strategy.
- Puzzles and Mental Challenges The key thing to understand is that when you have anxiety, your mind is often your enemy. It is far too easy to allow your thoughts to drift off in negative ways. That's where puzzles and other mental challenges come in. Some people even do math when they have anxiety. These types of activities are mentally distracting, and when you're engaged in a puzzle you're going to find it harder to fully focus on your anxiety and negative thinking.
- Happy Music Music is an incredibly emotional tool, and many people realize how good music is for coping. But it's not just any music - it should be music that actually puts you in a happy and upbeat mood. Many people like to listen to sad songs when they're sad, but studies have shown that this type of behavior doesn't improve mood. Ideally, you should listen to upbeat and happy songs that represent the mood you want to feel.
These are just a few tools that can be used to manage anxiety These activities help distract you to the point where your brain is less focused on negative thinking and anxiety. This allows your brain time to re-learn the skills necessary to avoid falling into negative thinking traps in the future. Feel free to come up with your own ideas of distraction activities you can engage in. If you enjoy skipping rocks, for example, then to go the park or beach and start skipping rocks.
As long as the activity chosen does not cause anxiety and the enjoyment isn't simply due to masking your anxiety (for example, many people talk about ‘retail therapy’ and while shopping may provide temporary highs these people are using objects to dull the pain, rather than engaging in an activity that allows them to overcome the pain of anxiety), then it is a good strategy that may be a powerful way to start overcoming anxiety.
Facing the Anxiety Triggers
Another important component of managing anxiety is to learn to face your anxiety triggers and not fear the anxiety itself. The mind is remarkably adaptive. Studies have shown that placing a person in direct contact with a fearful stimulus causes them to adapt and get used to that stimulus over time.
They used to do this with a psychological technique known as "flooding," which has since fallen out of favor due to safety concerns but provides some useful insight into how the mind works. Flooding involves placing a person with a phobia in a room with the items they fear until they are no longer afraid. Someone with a deathly fear of spiders would be in a room filled with spiders. Someone with a fear of rats would be in a room filled with rats.
At first, people are so terrified they have horrific fear reactions, possibly even coming close to passing out. When they not allowed to leave the room, their minds adjust and the fear subsides. The mind doesn't want to stay "afraid" of some type of fear stimulus for lengthy periods of time, especially when nothing happens to support the fear. By the time they leave the room, they likely will no longer be afraid of the stimulus.
This type of activity is best done in the presence of an expert, because the person can monitor you to ensure that your fear isn't too strong as well as talk you down from any extreme fear you experience. But there are many ways that you can "face" your anxiety so that your mind doesn't find those fears as stressful. Some examples include:
- Forcing Fearful Thoughts Those that often get fear-inducing thoughts can consider having them on purpose for an extended period of time every day until those thoughts cause less distress. Those with obsessions, for example, can figure out what their obsessions are and then openly think about them on purpose until they get less stressed. These types of behaviors can eliminate anxiety permanently over time if you learn how to do them often.
- Anxiety Triggers You can also get used to various anxiety triggers. If you have panic attacks and you often find that you get a panic attack when you feel dizzy, you can spin around in a chair and get used to dizziness. If you have panic attacks in the mall, you can go to the mall often until you stop fearing the mall. All of these can trigger attacks, but over time if you allow yourself to experience those attacks you may find that you feel better.
- Desensitizing the Emotion Another option is to simply get used to an emotion altogether. Consider a person who is afraid of embarrassing themselves socially. This person can consider going out in public dressed in an embarrassing outfit and doing something embarrassing until being embarrassed isn't as much of a problem. It's something that takes considerable commitment and work, but if you can get used to the emotion that you're afraid of (embarrassment, in this case), you can potentially decrease the fear you have overall.
These are examples of facing anxiety fears, and they can be very valuable ways to address and attack your anxiety. Alone they may not eliminate anxiety altogether, but combined with other useful tools they can be very powerful.
Changing Thoughts and Positive Thinking
Finally, to successfully manage your anxiety you're going to also need to learn how to change your thoughts and think positively. This can be extremely tough for people, which is why many people choose to enlist the help of a cognitive behavioral therapist. However, there are ways to change your thoughts without seeing a professional. Consider the following techniques:
- Challenge Negative Thoughts It starts by challenging your negative thoughts. Anxiety tends to cause people to think negatively, and when thoughts are negative they are easy to confirm. So when you have a stressful or anxiety producing thought, write the specific thought down on a piece of paper. Then write a list of all the more likely and positive scenarios that could happen. Then follow that up with a list of reasons that even if the bad thing happens, it doesn't matter. Challenging negative thoughts can be a useful exercise for learning to eliminate anxiety.
- Positive Thinking Exercises There are many different exercises that experts recommend for overall positive thinking. One that seems very effective and is simpler than the others is simply to fake being a positive thinker. Every day when you go to work or spend time with friends, act like a positive person would act. You'll find that if you do it for long enough, that positivity rubs off and starts to be natural.
- Fun and Distracting Activities You'll also need to make sure that you engage in fun and exciting activities that keep you hopeful about the things that could happen and give you memories to look back on. Anxiety makes you want to stay inactive, but you need to fight that feeling and stay busy if you want to minimize it. Keeping busy from the moment you start your day until the moment you fall asleep and spending time with people you like can have a powerful impact on anxiety.
These are all important steps for managing your anxiety long-term. They all give your mind something to focus on in your thoughts that go beyond your typical thought pattern that produces anxiety.