Anxiety is a snowflake. Everyone’s brand is different from everybody else’s, even if the side effects are, in many ways, the same. And right now, it’s snowing all over the world.
Some form of anxiety or another has been an intimate friend of mine for just over a decade. It’s not a relationship I covet, but it’s one I’ve come to terms with having, and this acceptance has helped me cope with my reality.
Unfortunately, I am not alone in the anxious camp. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that over 40 million adults in the U.S. have some form of an anxiety disorder.
As a high-functioning anxious person, I’ve done everything to avoid anxiety. I’ve tried medicines, meditation, and therapy. I drive myself to social events so I won’t feel trapped and unable to leave (my personal brand of anxiety is agoraphobia—the fear of being in situations that make you feel trapped).
Over the years I have come to rely on some coping mechanisms that genuinely help to quell my anxiety.
Here are some helpful things to consider doing when you’re feeling anxious (and, as always, please reach out to a healthcare professional if you’re looking for further help with anxiety):
Say it out loud.
This is the first thing I do when I feel anxiety coming on; when my breathing becomes shallow, my mouth becomes dry, or tunnel vision takes over my sight. I simply say it out loud to whomever I’m with. I used to keep my anxiety a secret, ashamed of the irrational fear that was coming over me. I worried that I’d be judged for being mentally unstable. Over time I realized that keeping it from those I was around actually exacerbated it.
Now when I begin to feel anxious, I tell the person or people I’m with. It can be as simple as “I’m feeling anxious,” and it’s like those few words loosen the grip around my neck. Then, if I find myself having a hard time battling the anxiety, they’ll understand if I get quiet or leave dinner early—and the fear of a lack of understanding was half of my worry in the first place.
Pretend you are describing the scene in front of you to a friend.
Given that I’ve battled anxiety for a while, I’ve spent some time going to therapy, and this is one of my favorite suggestions my therapist gave me. When I’m in a situation in which I’m anxious or worried about becoming anxious, I take in my scenery and pretend I am explaining it to a friend. This conversation takes place in my head, of course, and it takes the brain away from the what-ifs and oh nos and redirects it back to the present moment—which is an approachable way of practicing mindfulness.
When I’m in a situation in which I’m anxious or worried about becoming anxious, I take in my scenery and pretend I am explaining it to a friend. . . . No detail—not the knot in the raw-edged wooden table or the pilling on the pillowcase—is too insignificant to highlight. In fact, the more insignificant and the more detailed the better.
I describe the original wood floor, the beautiful Moroccan rug which a crimson crushed velvet armchair is sitting atop. I explain the streaks yesterday’s raindrops left on the window and the way the sun looks as it pours through the stems of the fiddle-leaf fig, leaving dancing shadows in its wake. No detail—not the knot in the raw-edged wooden table or the pilling on the pillowcase—is too insignificant to highlight. In fact, the more insignificant and the more detailed the better.
Focus on the few things you can control.
I’m not speaking in platitudes here, saying you can’t control what happens to you but you can control how you react to it (though that is certainly the truth). I’m suggesting focusing on what you can control, like the temperature of the vehicle you’re in. Like getting yourself a glass of water. Like removing a layer of clothing or telling your friend you’re anxious.
Remember when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and everyone went out and bought toilet paper? It was one thing out of the many unknowns that people could control. It may have seemed irrational, but sometimes when things feel out of our grip, the best we can do is focus on the small things we actually do have control over.
Change your scenery.
This is not always possible of course. But if you are feeling anxious and are able to step outside for a minute or move from one room to the next, the change of scenery will give your brain new things to focus on, thus interrupting its fixation on the anxiousness spreading throughout your brain and body.
Have you ever done a Bikram yoga class? It’s the kind that’s practiced in a room set to 105°F. You do the same series of twenty-six postures in a fixed sequence and you hold many of them for a minute. This practice is so difficult that it’s hard not to be in the present moment, and when you’re in the present moment, you’re not worrying about anything else. When you’ve got one foot on the ground and the other in your hand and you’re stretching, reaching, pushing, and sweating, there’s only one thing you can concentrate on, and it’s getting through the posture.
This is the most mindful I ever am, when I’m practicing a difficult yoga class. Even though it’s hard to breathe in that heat and in some of those postures, which could ignite feelings of anxiousness, I never feel anxious when I’m practicing yoga because I am too in the moment.
Health professionals credit yoga with its ability to calm the nervous system, regulate breath, and promote relaxation—among many other benefits. Here, Psychology Today lists seven additional ways yoga can help battle anxiety.
Notice your feet on the ground.
This is another therapy trick that really works for me. When you’re feeling anxious, notice your feet on the ground. Feel them on the floor. Your feet are tethered even though you may feel like you are floating away, out of reality, into the stratosphere of worry and fear. But your feet are grounding you, and a stable foundation is an antidote to anxiety.
If you’re familiar with chakras, or energy centers in the body, you’ll recognize elements of this concept relating to the root chakra. Feeling grounded is key for mental stability, and noticing your feet on the ground is a very simple way to tap into your foundation, even—or especially—if it feels askew.
Your feet are tethered even though you may feel like you are floating away, out of reality, into the stratosphere of worry and fear. . . . Feeling grounded is key for mental stability, and noticing your feet on the ground is a very simple way to tap into your foundation, even—or especially—if it feels askew.
Carry a security blanket.
I always carry Xanax with me. Always. I’m talking in the car, at Target, on long walks. I’m not ashamed of this dependent behavior because the mere act of carrying it with me reduces the need for me to medicate for spot anxiety. I haven’t taken a Xanax for more than four years. I just never have to because I always know I can have it if I need it, and that’s enough for me to tackle my anxiety.
I’m not suggesting you carry Xanax, unless your psychiatrist suggests it of course. Your security blanket could be an object, like an anti-anxiety essential oil rollerball, an amethyst point, or a bottle of water. (This last one is another security blanket I always have with me. You never know when you might need a sip of water to help calm your nerves). With repeated use, even just the weight of the object in your hand or the smell of the oil on your skin may help signal to the brain that you are safe and in control of your anxiety.
Apps for meditation practices abound—and for good reason: You and I are not the only anxious people in the world. Headspace, one of the highest-rated meditation apps, explains two things we can learn from meditation: “Thoughts do not define us, and thoughts are not real.” And what is anxiety but a tidal wave of irrational thought? Meditation trains our minds to focus, tune into our thoughts, and tackle them in a safe and supported place. Really looking inward and facing your anxiety head-on is one courageous way to tackle it before it spreads.
Anxiety is a pervasive predator, and if it’s something you experience, just know you are not alone. Not by far; not by any stretch of the imagination. For more suggestions and tips for anxiety management, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America shares some good coping strategies and resources.
I will leave you with this: You live a life you care about immensely. Your anxiety is proof of that. You worry because you care, and you care because you have a life worth living. I don’t mean to reduce anxiety to something so simple, but rather to translate it into something that may make you feel a little less at odds with yourself when feeling anxious.
Kolina Cicero is enamored with stories – reading them, writing them, getting lost within them. Other things she loves include yoga, traveling, and taking cooking, Italian, and writing classes. Her first children’s book, Rosie and the Hobby Farm, was published in July 2020.