Everyone feels a bit of stress and anxiety now and again. You might be dealing with nerves over financial issues, a big exam at school, or a major project at work. You may be faced with an important decision, and it’s making you worried, concerned, or troubled. That’s normal – it’s a fact of life that everyone feels a bit of stress sometimes.
But if you are constantly worried and overwhelmed, and your feelings and thoughts are making your everyday duties seem impossible, you may have an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are a group of mental illnesses categorized by disabling distress. There are several types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, seasonal affective disorder, social anxiety disorder (or social phobia), panic disorder, and other types of phobias. Each one of these have similar symptoms, which include panic, unease, nausea, dizziness, heart palpitations, tense muscles, sweatiness, shortness of breath and sleep problems.
Even though there’s no known one-size-fits-all cause for anxiety (it’s not something you can catch!), experts know that anxiety disorders can arise from chemical changes in your brain, traumatic events, environmental stress, or even genetics (anxiety and other mental illness can and do run in families).
The good news is that anxiety disorders are highly treatable, and more common than you might think. Treatment for anxiety disorders can include talk therapy and medication (including escitalopram, better known as Lexapro, or fluoxetine better known as Prozac), but there are many things you can do on your own, at home and anytime, that will assist in alleviating your symptoms.
1) Learn some breathing techniques. Most of us don’t even think about our breathing – we take it for granted that we take in the air, our blood cells get the oxygen they need and release carbon dioxide.
But what we may not realize is if we’re breathing improperly, we can actually upset this perfect system. When we breathe improperly, it can contribute to physical ailments, anxiety attacks, panic attacks and exhaustion.
There are two types of breathing patterns. One is called chest breathing (thoracic), and abdominal breathing (diaphragmatic).
When you’re scared or panic or anxious, you tend to tape fast, shallow breaths from the chest. This kind of breathing is what upsets that oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange. It causes the feelings of dizziness, tension and increases your heart rate, because your blood isn’t getting the right amount of oxygen. Because of this, your body is triggered and stressed, which will contribute to more feelings of anxiety and panic.
In comparison, abdominal breathing is even and deep. Singers, musicians and babies breathe this way – you do too when you’re sleeping.
There’s an easy way to check if you’re breathing properly. You can place one hand on your upper abdomen, near your waist. Place your other hand right in the middle of your chest. Now breathe. If you’re breathing correctly, your stomach should expand, raising that hand. If it’s the hand over your chest that’s moving more, you’re breathing incorrectly. If you’re feeling stressed out while during this exercise, it’s a great time to switch your breathing style.
Here are two exercises you can do when you notice you’re breathing improperly:
1. Take a deep breath in through your nose and hold it while you count to five. Next, slowly exhale through your mouth. Repeat this process until you start to feel relief. When taking deep breaths you are literally slowing your heart down, which slows your blood flow down.
2. Hold a large book against your stomach, the spine against your body. Inhale slowly and deeply. You should feel the book moving away from you as you exhale, and back toward you as you breathe in. Exhale slowly through your mouth, keeping your jaw relaxed and your mouth slightly open (like you’re drinking through a straw). Listen for a whooshing sound coming from your mouth as you exhale, as if you’re a balloon being deflated. Repeat for at least five to ten minutes.
If breathing exercises feel overwhelming to you in the beginning, start off slowly. Even breathing properly for a few minutes helps, so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do more than that. For some people with certain anxiety or panic disorders, breathing exercises can be intimidating. It’s ok. Try it a few minutes at a time until it becomes comfortable for you.
2) Listen to music that feels calming to you. For many, listening to music is a pleasant, fulfilling and calming experience. Some students report studying better with music playing; some pregnant moms play music to their babies in the womb for calm and tranquility.
Music therapy is a legitimate treatment for several mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety. Some of the activities that a music therapist introduces to a patient include performing, writing or listening to music, either in a group or alone. Some music therapists even incorporate dance or art into the program.
Such programs work because it’s been proven that music provides anxiety relief naturally. Not only is it helpful with anxiety, it’s even used before surgery, during chemo and radiation treatments, even blood tests. Because music is calming, it reduces pain, shifts your focus from the stress, and lowers your heart rate and modulates your nervous system.
But you don’t need to seek a music therapist to reap the benefits of music. Create a playlist for yourself filled with music that gives you joy and calms you down. For some people that’s classical music, but that might actually make you more anxious. Others might love acoustic rock, which drives you crazy. The secret to calming down your anxiety with music is finding the music that works for you.
When you listen to calming music, endorphins are released and pain pathways are blocked. You’d be surprised what great music will do to ease your discomfort and stress.
3) Talk to someone. Fortunately, having anxiety and admitting to having anxiety carries less of a stigma in recent years than it has in the past. Acknowledging that people live with anxiety, the same way they might live with headaches or stomach troubles, reduces a person’s fear of owning their anxiety. That fear is often what stops people from seeking support.
Talking to someone you trust, whether it’s a friend or a mental health professional, is a huge step. Talking things out can be instrumental in helping you deal with your anxiety because it gets it out and helps give you a new perspective.
If you’ve never seen a therapist before, it might be less daunting if you know what to expect. You may wonder, 'what's a first therapy appointment like?' Every mental health professional is different, as is every doctor, but a common thread among professionals, when first meeting you and learning about you, is that they’ll ask a lot of questions, especially at the first session. Your therapist’s goal is learn about you and what troubles or concerns you might be having. Having a full and colorful picture of your past and present will help them create a plan, in collaboration with you, to get you on the road to recovery and to help you build the skills you need to address and control your symptoms of anxiety.
There are different types of therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps you take your negative thought patterns and reframe them into positive ones. You may need a few sessions, or several, and it might take some effort to find the right treatment for you. You may be advised that medication is what you need to help you live a healthy, happy life. Or you may find that you’re not really connecting with one particular therapist and you need another who may be a better fit.
Outside of professional therapy, you can also lean on and talk to a good friend or trusted family member. Knowing there’s someone you can call at any time of day or night when you’re struggling is a comfort in itself.
If you do have a friend you’ve started talking to, and they say “just relax,” or “stop worrying so much,” try not to take it personally or offensively. Anxiety disorders can be difficult for others to understand. Some might not get that our anxieties or negatives thoughts aren’t based on logic – they sound and seem ridiculous, but for someone who lives with anxiety, they’re very real. Don’t stop trying to find that one good friend who you can confide in, someone who is open-minded, genuine, and sympathetic to your needs.
4) Journal. Much like talking to someone, journaling for anxiety is so beneficial because it gets your fears out and on paper. It gives you a chance to evaluate what you’re going through. Effective journaling has been reported to result in so many positive outcomes, and really does improve your quality of life and sense of wellbeing.
Journaling helps you record what’s gone in your day or your week, and helps clear your mind. When you see things written down on paper, they may not seem as intimidating, or you may be inspired to find solutions to what you originally thought were impossible problems. When you journal, you’re writing, so it requires the left side of your brain to work (which is the analytical and logical side). But depending on the kind of journaling you choose to do (yes, there are many!) you may need to call on the right side of your brain too, which is the creative, imaginative side.
Journaling makes a huge difference in improving your mood and reducing effects of depression and anxiety, especially if you follow the following acronym, which is suggested by the Center for Journal Therapy:
W – What do you want to write about?
R – Review and reflect, using “I want,” “I think,” or “I feel” statements
I – Investigate your thoughts, especially if you think you’ve run out of things to write, or if your mind starts to wander away from your project
T – Time yourself, making sure you’re writing consistently for at least five minutes
E – Exit with introspection, meaning read what you just wrote and reflect on it, taking care to note what action steps you might be able to take next
Experts say that journaling reduces symptoms of anxiety so effectively that it will strengthen your immunity, help you sleep at night, and even drops your blood pressure.
5. Run. Or do any exercise! Exercise is not only a great way to improve your physical health, it’s beneficial for your mental wellness too. Studies show that people who exercise regularly are 25% less likely to develop a depressive or anxiety based disorder.
Exercise can treat mild depression and anxiety as effectively as medication, without any of the side effects. Exercising reduces inflammation, promotes neural growth, and assists in your feeling calmer and happier by releasing endorphins in your brain (the chemicals that make you feel good).
When you’re stressed out, your muscles feel tense, you might have headaches, or you just feel fatigued all over. More severe anxiety might even cause you to feel tightness in your chest, cramps, heartburn, diarrhea, stomach pain, and insomnia. All of these symptoms could cause you further stress and add to your anxiety.
When you work out, you break this cycle. Exercise helps alleviate a number of these symptoms. Because your body and your mind are linked inextricably and intricately, it makes sense than that if your body feels better, so does your mind – and vice versa.
You don’t have to run a marathon or join an expensive gym to feel like you’re contributing to your body and mind. You can start with just a few minutes a day of light exercise (like walking), especially if you’ve been living a sedentary lifestyle, and gradually build up to 20 or 30 minutes a day. Any little bit of exercise is better than none, but the trick is to do it consistently and to keep building and challenging yourself one day at a time.
If you’re living with anxiety and would like further guidance, we'd love to talk to you. Contact us today for a free 15-minute consultation.