I’ll admit it. I find a post about tactics to outwit Anxiety a bit awkward. To the ignorant ear, such techniques may make it sound like you can simply “snap out of” your mental illness. That would be a terrible impression for me to make. Just as you can’t will away cancer and you can’t laugh a broken leg into mending itself faster, you can’t “simply” think calm and happy thoughts to rid yourself of Anxiety.
However, just as people must find a way to live with and address the symptoms of other chronic diseases / illness (e.g. arthritis, asthma, diabetes), someone who suffers from chronic Anxiety can do things to face their symptoms successfully.
Sometimes you win the encounters; sometimes you lose.
Some days I outwit my bully; other days I have to call in sick to work. Such is life, no?
Here are some potential defenses for the Anxiety-prone person:
- go on the offense; fill your brain and body with natural and positive chemical reactions
- recognize irrational worries about the future as such and bring your mind back to the present
- notice anxious-thinking about life and ask yourself “why?”
- focus your brain on something else despite every urge to feel Anxiety
- recognize situations that might induce Anxiety and get ahead of those situations
- use some creative jujitsu to turn present Anxiety into future Accomplishment
- acknowledge Anxiety once It’s already pounced on you
- call in sick to work when you’ve lost the battle
Let’s be practical about each of these defenses:
Go on the offense. Fill your brain and body with natural and positive chemical reactions: There are many ways to do this. For me it is all about starting the day off right. And the best start to a day for me is an intense, heart-pumping, muscle-fatiguing yoga practice. All the muscle groups get worked and nearly every muscle feels twisted, rinsed out. The benefits are three-fold:
- Endorphins fill my body. Endorphins are chemicals that both help fight pain — a common feeling attached to Anxiety and panic attacks — and trigger feelings of awesomeness — the opposite of negative Anxiety.
- My muscles get fatigued. This impedes the muscle tension that often accompanies Anxiety.
- Yoga is meditation. Meditation is positive repetitive thought and activity.
Yoga not your thing? There are other meditative actions that focus the brain while working the body: weeding a garden while observing the plants and flowers, going for a brisk walk while recounting a favorite memory, moving to music while really feeling the rhythm.
Recognize irrational worries about the future as such and bring your mind back to the present: Have you caught your Anxiety-prone brain thinking irrationally about the future? Do something physical or “sense”-ational to focus your mind on the real now instead of the false future. Yogic breathing exercises, tapping your wrist, counting shades of green in your surroundings, holding an ice-cube, sniffing lavender, even pinching yourself are all methods some anxiety-ridden people use to force their mind to leave the scary (irrationally thought about) future and get into the present moment. The action — e.g. pinching yourself — is simply physical thing to get your mind to feel the right now as it is and stop imagining the future as it likely will not be.
Notice anxious thinking about life and ask yourself “why?” I often wake up in wee-hours of the morning worrying about the next day. My mind blows everything out of proportion. Believe it or not, the perfect thing to do when you are worrying is to pointedly ask “why?” Asking “why?” gets your mind focused on solutions and rewards and not being stuck in the worry.
Focus your brain on something else despite every urge to feel Anxiety: Do you feel Anxiety coming on and have no idea why? Try to focus on something else. One great area of focus is on things you are grateful for. Right now, to make this tangible, I am compiling photos of things I appreciate. I’m writing on the back of the photos why I am grateful for those things. Not just a sentence or two … a good narrative geared at why that person, thing, or action (e.g. my wife, my puppy, my garden, my yoga practice) is so important to me. This does two things. First, I just naturally find myself thinking about those things more. Second, when I need to jigger my brain, I have pictures and stories to interact positively with. (By the way, this is another great way to start the day. Start the day grateful; fill your brain with positive chemicals before bad ones can invade.)
Recognize situations that might induce Anxiety and get ahead of those situations: Sunday afternoons and evenings. Honestly, my therapist tells me I should have low- to no-expectations on Sunday afternoons and evenings. Obligations will become worries; and worries will become Anxiety. So my wife and I have agreed that if we can get all weekend obligations done by Sunday midday, I can then fill the rest of the day with mindless mental bubble gum: horror flicks, personally-assembled YouTube concerts, etc. And, if possible, a very early bedtime (doctor-prescribed chill pills are allowed).
Use some creative jujitsu to turn present Anxiety into future Accomplishment: Here’s a trick I invented all by myself. I came upon it while staring into the mirror at a yoga studio. My bully, Anxiety, was beginning to dance on my sternum. It was reminding me of all the things I had to do that day and how I was going to suck at all of those things. In fact, It chided me, “You will fail publicly, and everyone will notice and abandon you.” I closed my eyes and a healthier voice in my brain whispered, “Just imagine what tonight will feel like once you’ve accomplished everything you’ve got to do today. Michael, you’re going to leave this yoga studio relaxed and happy and ready to take on your day. And the world will be a better place because of it.”
If Anxiety has already pounced on you, one strategy is to simply acknowledge It: Anxiety is my bully. Bullies love fights. Don’t fight It. Experience / acknowledge It. Of late, that has meant letting Anxiety sit beside me for 15 – 45 minutes each day as I play brain tricks to show Anxiety that what It is saying isn’t true: “My world is not falling apart.” “People don’t think I’m a freak.” “And I shouldn’t feel like trash (permanently).” I’m just — to borrow lyrics from U2 — “stuck in a moment.” For example, on a recent morning I felt Anxiety jostling terrible thoughts around in my brain. I went to my bed, turned out the lights, and breathed while just letting Anxiety say It’s terrible things. I then acknowledged those statements as being felt but then made my brain realize the thoughts weren’t true. Or at least not as bad as Anxiety wanted them to feel. Assuming this position and process for 15 minutes this morning calmed me down; it let me grapple with better ways of thinking.
Call in sick to work when you’ve lost the battle: Sometimes I lose. Anxiety wins. And I feel myself being plunged into a panic attack. If my brain has already become a brick, if my body is already pained by frayed nerve-endings, if my chest feels like it is going to explode, or if my throat feels like it is going to collapse … the day is shot. I will be of no use to myself or anyone else. Take an Anxiety-designated chill pill, go to bed, and wait for a new day.
I feel I need to restate, none of the techniques above are simply tactics to “snap out of if.” As I state in the comments section below: In the case of an episode of Anxiety you are actually working to think your brain into releasing new chemicals into itself. The Anxiety-prone brain naturally finds times to swirl around adrenaline and cortisol — fight or flight chemicals. The sufferer must actively work to change that. It is a very difficult thing to do; something that requires practice and discipline … and sometimes acceptance that for that particular day you just need to make it to tomorrow.