Anxiety is a feeling we all know, and one we would rather not experience. Anxiety, however, is an important human function; it helps us protect ourselves, take action, and even connect with others. It alerts us to potential problems in the future so we can take measures to prevent them if at all possible. Anxiety is a signal that something is wrong – and that’s worth paying attention to!
Of course, anxiety can take over and disrupt our quality of life. The following tips are to help you work with your anxiety in a healthy way, which includes acknowledging it, rather than pretending all is well, repressing or dismissing it, as well as taking steps to calm your nervous system.
#1 Remember: Anxiety is a Normal and Important Human Function
We often feel like anxiety is some sort of personal failing – that there is something wrong with us. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anxiety is, in fact, an important human coping mechanism that is both protective and productive, as well as a sign that you care about something.
#2 Name It to Tame It
This is a useful strategy with many emotions, and maybe especially with anxiety. When you notice you’re feeling anxious, acknowledge it. If you can, it also helps to speak this out loud. You might say to yourself, “I’m feeling anxious right now.”
For most of us this is counterintuitive. However, part of the problem that happens when you’re feeling anxious is not actually the anxiety itself – it’s the added burden that’s placed on you when you try to pretend everything is ok and dismiss your true feelings.
There’s a surprising relief that happens when you acknowledge the truth to yourself.
Note, I recommend you do not say “I’m anxious” – you are not your feelings, your anxiety. Rather you are feeling anxious. This helps remind us of the temporary nature of our feelings, as does the addition of “right now.”
#3 Notice and Be an Observer of Yourself
Building on the “name it to tame it” idea, you can take this a step further and add the idea of noticing or observing yourself – which helps you create a bit of space between you and the emotion you’re experiencing. You’re being present to what is going on (the feelings of anxiety) and are also not being consumed by it.
To do this you might say to yourself, “I notice that I am feeling anxious right now.”
You can add what you are anxious about, e.g. “I notice that I am feeling anxious about my upcoming appointment.”
This is also an opportunity to tune in to the physiological signals that tell you that you are feeling anxious. Notice and name your physical sensations – do you notice, for instance, a tight neck or throat, your heart pounding, a clenched stomach, butterflies in your stomach, shallow breathing, holding your breath, gritting your teeth, clenching your jaw. This will help you get to know your own signals.
You can also use the noticing strategy that puts you clearly in the observer role with these, e.g. “I am noticing my jaw is clenched right now.” You may be amazed at how simply noticing things like this, without any intent to change them, does actually shift something about them. Of course, once you notice, you sometimes have the option to stop doing the thing, like stop clenching your jaw, even if only for a moment.
#4 Do a Reality Check!
Ask yourself, is this really anxiety? Many of the physiological signals of anxiety are similar to those of other emotions, especially excitement. Are the butterflies in your stomach excitement or anxiety? Of course, you might be feeling a bit of both.
If, for instance, you’re feeling anxious about a presentation you’ll be doing, you could very well be feeling excited too. This is perhaps your chance to speak about something important to you.
It can be helpful to remind yourself that you are excited, and that energy will help fuel your performance.
#5 Remember Anxiety Means You Care
When you feel anxious about something it’s useful to remember that this is a sign that you care about that thing. That thing might be a person – it might be you! The signals you are getting from yourself show that this thing, or person, or animal, is important for you – that you care about its safety, its experience, its life.
Remind yourself that you are feeling anxious because you care.
#6 Don’t Add Insult to Injury
Unfortunately, many of us go in the opposite direction. We get very judgmental about ourselves, using harsh words and “should” to berate ourselves for being so stupid to be anxious about this. We then become more distressed for being anxious and it becomes a vicious cycle.
One way out of this loop, is to practice noticing what you are feeling – your emotions and physical sensations, without adding story or judgment about them.
In fact, we practice this skill in a fun way in my weekly study group by playing the “Noticing Game.” It’s very simple, and you can do it on your own, too.
Start off by simply noticing things in your environment. Use the statement, “I am noticing _________.” Notice when you start to add some sort of judgment or story, e.g. “I am noticing papers on the floor” (no story) and “I am noticing papers which I should have tidied up.” (story). You can then move on to naming thoughts, physical sensations, or emotions, e.g., “I am noticing that I am thinking about my presentation,” or “I am noticing that my hip is painful,” or “I am noticing that I am feeling happy.” These don’t add a story or judgment about what you noticed. An example of the opposite might be, “I am noticing that I shouldn’t be thinking about my presentation” or “I am noticing that my hip is hurting because I overdid my exercises. (How stupid!)” You get the idea. Stick with “just the facts, ma’am!”
#7 Give Yourself Self-Compassion and Remind Yourself You Are Not Alone
One of the best things you can do for yourself when you are going through anything challenging, including anxiety, is to offer yourself self-compassion. This also is a great antidote to the harsh words and judgement that are often present.
I value Kristin Neff’s model for self-compassion, which includes mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness. Mindfulness means you are aware that you are experiencing anxiety, and #2-6, 8 can help you work with this, and kindness is pretty obvious.
Common humanity, however, might not be so clear. It means you recognize you are not alone. Often, when you feel anxious, you get the feeling that you’re the only one to feel this way. “No one else feels anxious about [fill in the blank].” Nothing is further from the truth. Everyone experiences anxiety sometimes (remember, it’s a healthy, normal, important human function!), and you are most definitely not alone.
While each of us is an individual with our own particular set of worries, you are not the only person to feel this way, even though it can feel like it. Remember, you are not alone.
#8 Get Present – Right Here, Right Now
Anxiety is about the future – about our uncertainty about what might happen if/when….
Getting present, so you feel fully situated in the here and now, can help lower your stress response.
Some simple ways to “get present” are:
- Notice your current environment. You can use the “Noticing Game” idea to simply name some of the things around you.
- Notice your contact and support. Notice your contact with the floor, your seat, whatever you are physically resting on. Know that you are supported, literally, physically, by those things. The ground is there to support you.
- Notice there is space around you. As well as noticing the things in the space around you (your environment), notice the space that is around and between you and the things in your space. There’s space above you, below you, behind you, in front of you, to either side of you, and in every other direction too.
- Notice your breath. Breath is our constant companion throughout our life. Without trying to change anything about your breath, simply notice it – you can notice the inbreath and the outbreath, or the air passing in and out through your nose, or the movement of your breath in your body. If you notice that you’ve been holding your breath, you might allow a gentle exhale through the lips (as if you’re blowing out a candle) and then allow your breath to settle into its own rhythm again.
- Engage your senses! Notice what you can smell, see, touch, hear, or taste right now!
The pause that comes with a moment or two of presence interrupts your stress response (even briefly) so you can think a little more clearly.
#9 Take Action and Move!
Anxiety is an emotion that’s function is protective and productive. That means you may get insights on something that you can do to prevent the thing your anxious about from happening. If not outright prevent, there may be something you can do that may decrease the likelihood or help you be more prepared when it does happen. Sometimes the thing is obvious – if you’re anxious about giving a presentation, you can make sure you’re familiar with the contents and practice; or if you’re anxious about driving somewhere unfamiliar, you can look at the route ahead of time and check your parking options.
If there is some action you can take, however small, do it! It will help you feel a little more settled. It helps your nervous system to complete the stress cycle.
However, sometimes the cause of your anxiety really is completely out of your hands. If this is the case, another way you can complete the stress cycle, is to move your body. Doing something physically active, as sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski say in their book Burnout, “When you’re being chased by a lion, what do you do? You run. When you’re stressed out by the bureaucracy and hassle of living in the twenty-first century, what do you do? You run. Or swim. Or dance around your living room…, or do literally anything that moves your body enough to get you breathing deeply.”
If it’s an ongoing anxiety – a constant stress – move every day if you can. They suggest between 20 and 60 minutes for most people.
#10 Calm Your Nervous System
Whether or not you are able to take action or move your body, there are additional ways to help complete the stress cycle, by calming and regulating your nervous system. Coincidentally, pretty much anything that calms your nervous system, stimulates deeper and more settled breathing patterns.
The BodyIntelligence practices my students learn in my programs and classes are fantastic for this. This is a video of me and trauma awareness educator Shay Seaborne, who co-teaches the Foundations of Regulation online course with me, discussing and guiding our foundational practice, TheCyCle: https://youtu.be/FPANejLi24o. Try it out for yourself!
You can also take a “Power Pause” – that’s what I call a short break of just two or three minutes where you shift your thinking and awareness in ways that help you to release a little stress and tension, to calm your nervous system, so you feel more refreshed and at ease for whatever is next. Here’s one I recorded recently: https://youtu.be/Rh-JraSUoNY
And, of course, there’s my favorite self-care practice, Constructive Rest. If you’ve got a bit longer, and somewhere you can lie down undisturbed for a few minutes, it’s a great way to calm the nervous system. I’ve got tons of information and resources for Constructive Rest on my website: imogenragone.com/constructive-rest/
It might sound strange, but you can feel anxious and calm. If you can even take your anxiety down just a notch or two, that is hugely helpful to how you feel and how you function.
Some other very easy things you can do to calm your nervous system include:
- Notice your breath.
- Laugh! (silly cat videos can be very useful!)
- Get outside in nature if you can. Even looking at images of the natural world can be helpful.
Don’t discount a little, momentary nudge away from the anxiety – or even just an interruption to the anxiety. Even a slight decrease in dysregulation can help you access to more of your reasoning function!
An incredibly potent and helpful thing to do when you’re feeling anxious, is to be with other people who are safe and supportive to you. As human beings – in fact, as mammals – we automatically co-regulate with those around us. If those other beings are safe, supportive, and calm, then it helps us calm. A hug goes a long way. In fact, doing a calming practice together makes it extra calming, as we experience the added benefit of other nervous systems calming along with ours. Laughing together, breathing together, moving, singing, dancing, talking and even crying with others – are all fantastic examples co-regulation helping us feel less anxious.
#12 Cultivate Awareness – Know Your Signals – Learn Skills and Practices
While I’m sure there are many more ideas to help with anxiety (this was meant to be a short blog, but it kept growing!), the main thing is to start to get to know your own signals. The sooner we recognize we’re anxious, the sooner we can figure it out and take action.
If you find yourself awake in the night anxiously worrying about something, you may not be able to take action immediately. You can, however, write down your ideas, your plan for what to do when you get up, and do a calming practice. Depending on what’s going on, you may not be able to get back to sleep. However, you’ll be more restful and better prepared for what to do once it’s morning even so.
And, before I finish, I want to mention one more thing….
While, of course, you can’t prevent situations and circumstances that make you anxious from occurring (I wish!!), you can take steps to lead a lifestyle which is more generally regulating for your nervous system, so you’re in a better place when challenges arise. Many of the suggestions above work best when practiced regularly, not just when anxiety rears its ugly head. In fact, when you are familiar with calming tools and concepts, when you’ve practiced them regularly, they are so much more accessible when needs arise.
And so, this blog post ended up being longer and more comprehensive than I originally intended. I hope you can pick up even one or two ideas to help you. Try them out, play with them, practice them, and remember, you’re not wrong or weak for being anxious. You’re human and your anxiety is alerting you to a problem and is a signal that you care. We live in a world that is more or less designed to keep us in a constant state of alert. Do what you can to calm your nervous on a regular basis. Your quality of life will improve, and when anxiety arises, as it surely will, you’ll be in better able to deal with it.
What do you do when you’re anxious? Do you have strategies that work well for you? What are your biggest challenges when you’re feeling anxious? Please leave a comment below.