At one time or another everyone experiences a form of anxiety. And oftentimes you just can’t put a finger on what it is that worries you. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s everything. That’s part of what can make it really hard to deal with.
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Anxiety can be debilitating and severely impact your ability to function. Most people, though, just live with it as best they can. You may adopt avoidance strategies, and there’s no shortage of things to distract you — smartphones, substance abuse, binge-watching TV or throwing yourself into a project.
But these are short-term fixes. Over time unprocessed anxiety can cause severe damage to your mental health — or at least make your mind a pretty lousy place to live.
However, it’s completely possible to put a harness on your anxiety and ride it in a way that leads you to transformation and self-empowerment. These mind hacks aren’t a substitute for therapy, but they may help point you in the right direction for finding a better way to cope.
And you might not be surprised that the best antidotes to feeling anxious involve facing your fears head-on!
1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is based on the premise that psychological distress arises from unhelpful and faulty ways of thinking about things, according to the American Psychological Association.
CBT is designed to help people master their fears and anxieties by correcting these distorted thought patterns with techniques that include thought-clarification exercises and body-awareness techniques. The goal is to gain a more realistic view of the things that make you feel threatened.
While CBT is best experienced with the guidance of a therapist, you can certainly practice some of its tenets on your own. Keeping a “thought record,” for example, is a great way to separate mental clutter from legitimate concerns, says Mara Eaton, a Los Angeles-based therapist who uses CBT techniques to help her clients overcome anxiety and other issues.
A thought record entails first writing down the distressing thought. “Perhaps it’s an image of yourself alone in a corner being shunned by everyone at the party, and that gives rise to the thought, ‘People just don’t want to talk to me!’” says Eaton.
“But most of the time, when you drill into the thought that triggers anxiety, you find that it’s not really a valid thought. Surely you’ve been to a party where you’ve met at least one really nice person. So you write that in the opposing column. Do this every time you’re going to a party until you’ve retrained your thinking away from the negative thought.”
In therapy, CBT might take this a step further by nudging you into an imaginative confrontation with your worst-case scenario. The point is to defuse your anxiety trigger. “If it’s flying, for example, a therapist might guide you through imagining the whole process of getting on a plane. And that’s something you can do on your own or with a friend, though if it’s an issue that sends you into panic, I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Breath work, relaxation techniques and body awareness can give you a foundation for keeping your cool that can enhance all of these techniques (see below for more).
2. Existential Psychology
Everyone has their own triggers, but according to existential psychology, which is as much of a philosophy as a school of therapy, anxiety stems from the awareness that life is short and the fear that you’re wasting what’s left of it.
“The problem is that you’re dealing with a problematic belief system,” says Payam Ghassemlou, Ph.D., a practitioner of existential psychology in West Hollywood, California. “You don’t feel safe because you fear that your life isn’t meaningful.”
A good way to think of anxiety, Ghassemlou says, is that it’s information that’s telling you that something needs to change. “You want to have a cause, a relationship or something that is meaningful, yet everything seems meaningless. And it’s hard when your anxiety is telling you that nothing can change and nothing will.”
So what’s the way out of this?
“Ask yourself what’s in your history that hasn’t been dealt with,” he says. “You’re likely to find that your catastrophic thinking doesn’t match your reality. It’s a matter of changing your focus. Try to think about what you like about your life,” he says.
“Focus on the good resources and how you feel when you focus on those resources. It’s easy to lose sight of what’s going right in your life. But when you put the focus back on your resources and support, there’s going to be a shift because that puts you back into a place of safety. That’s the launching pad to embrace curiosity and determine what in the universe would add more meaning and purpose to your life.”
3. Buddhism and Mindfulness
There are many schools of Buddhism, but one thing they all agree on is that anxiety is a fact of human life. Buddha called it “dukkha” — that gnawing feeling of discontent that arises from our constant craving for things to be different than they are. In a consumer society where you’re told that you can have everything you want, it’s easy to think something’s wrong with you if you don’t.
Psychotherapy has incorporated many Buddhist approaches to anxiety and other issues, including breath work, relaxation techniques and body awareness. In the secular world, this approach is known as mindfulness, and both Eaton and Ghassemlou agree that it lays an essential foundation for resolving anxiety
“No one should underestimate the power of breath work,” says Eaton. “Rather than your thoughts controlling your breath, you can use your breath to get a grip on your thoughts. It’s the quickest way to take yourself out of imaginary catastrophes and put yourself back in the moment, where most of the time there really isn’t any problem.”
Eaton favors diaphragmatic breathing, which actually reduces stress hormones, according to a 2017 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. To do this, lie on your back with one hand on your chest and the other just under your ribs on your stomach (so you can feel your diaphragm). Breathe in through your nose as you feel the air push the lower hand (but not the hand on your chest). Contract your abdominals as you exhale through pursed lips.
There are numerous other breath techniques, but one favored by CBT practitioners is Square Breathing, also known as relaxation breathing, in which breath on both the inhale and exhale is gradually lengthened by slowing the breathing process. The breath is held for short intervals at each end.
Mindfulness is also achieved through simple breathing meditation. With this technique, you breath normally, keeping your attention on the sensation of air going in and out of your nostrils. When thoughts arise, keep your focus on the breath, allowing the thoughts to dissolve without letting your attention get hooked into them.
“With mindfulness meditation, you learn to become more accepting of your thoughts and more compassionate toward yourself,” says Eaton. “And this can go a long way toward curing anxiety.”
- Harvard Health: Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience: Cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders: an update on the empirical evidence
- Access to Insight: Readings in Theraveda Buddhism
- American Psychological Association: What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
- Frontiers in Psychology: The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults