Anxiety is a normal response to stress, which involves a feeling of fear of what is to come. This is a natural reaction for one to experience, however, when this response becomes severe or constant, that is when it can turn into a disorder. Anxiety can be a helpful response by controlling impulsivity, regulating the reckless parts of ourselves, and motivating you to work hard and do better. This is something that most people will only feel on occasion, maybe before a presentation or interview, leading up to an exam, or leading up to a difficult conversation with a loved one or coworker. When this reaction has become a part of daily lives, this is an indication of an anxiety disorder, which can be overwhelming and even debilitating.
Anxiety can also appear to different people as different symptoms. Some commonly reported symptoms are increased heart rate, rapid breathing, restlessness, trouble concentrating, and difficulty falling asleep. Other symptoms that individuals report include nervousness, feelings of panic, increased or heavy sweating, trembling, lethargy, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, digestive or gastrointestinal problems, and a desire to avoid triggers of anxiety.
Living with this can be overwhelming, so it is important to recognize ways to better cope with this. While therapy is always a great opportunity to work through anxiety, there are also different skills that people choose to utilize to assist them in coping on a day-to-day basis. Each person has their own tricks to assisting with anxiety, but here are some common ideas that can be beneficial:
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- 5 Senses Coping Skill
- Counting to 10
- Deep Breathing
- Challenging Irrational Thoughts
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This coping skill, along with many of the others that will be discussed, involves grounding yourself. While this stress response may be causing you to experience racing thoughts, it is important to bring yourself back into the moment and remind yourself that you are physically safe. Utilizing this technique, you can relieve anxiety through muscle tension. While sitting or lying down, you will tense a group of muscles while breathing in and relax your muscles while breathing out. Some people choose to listen to an audio recording until memorizing the muscle groups in order, as well as to not speed up or slowdown from one group to the next. This procedure can also help with falling asleep.
Start by finding a comfortable place where you will not be interrupted. While breathing in, you will tense the first muscle group for 4-10 seconds. Next, you will breathe out, while suddenly and completely relaxing the muscle group. Relax for 10 to 20 seconds before moving on to the next muscle group. So here is the order to go in and what to do:
1. Hands—clench them
2. Wrists and forearms—extend them then bend your hands back at the wrist
3. Biceps and upper arms—clench your hands into fists, bend your arms at elbows, flex biceps
4. Shoulders—shrug them, raising towards ears)
5. Forehead—wrinkle it into a deep frown
6. Around eyes and bridge of nose—close eyes as tightly as you can
7. Cheeks and jaws—smile as widely as you can
8. Around mouth—press lips together tightly
9. Back of neck—press back of head against floor or chair
10. Front of neck—touch chin to chest
11. Chest—take deep breath, hold for 4-10 seconds
12. Back—arch back up and away from floor or chair
13. Stomach—suck into a tight knot
14. Hips and buttocks—press buttocks together tightly
15. Thighs—clench them hard
16. Lower legs—point toes toward face, point toes away, curl downward at same time
After completing this process with each muscle group, count backwards from five to one in order to bring your focus back to the present.
5 Senses Coping Skill
This coping skill can be wonderful as it is something you can do in any situation, at any time, and you can even be doing it without anyone recognizing that you are utilizing this. This can be utilized when feeling a panic attack coming on, when needing to slow down breathing, or just when feeling slightly on edge. Concentrate on your breathing being slow, deep, and long breaths, which can help slow down the heart rate and return to a calm state.
1. After concentrating on your breathing, start by acknowledging FIVE things that you see around you. This can be anything from a coffee mug, a bench, or anything that you can personally see in the moment.
2. Next, identify FOUR things that you can touch around you. This can be something you can move around to touch, such as a table, a glass of water, or something physically on you such as your sweater, your hair, etc.
3. Now recognize THREE things that you can hear in the moment. This could be music, birds chirping, conversations around you, or even your stomach rumbling.
4. Next, acknowledge TWO things that you can smell. This can be food cooking near you, soup in the bathroom, or the smell of your newly-washed sweater.
5. Lastly, find ONE thing that you can taste. This could be a lingering taste from your morning coffee or it could be something you have to seek out, such as chewing a piece of gum, having a soda, or eating a snack.
Counting To Ten & Deep Breathing
Many times we teach coping skills to kids to calm down when feeling angry or anxious, yet these are skills that we forget to utilize ourselves as adults. A simple way to cope with anger or stress in the moment is to count.
First, close your eyes, then take three slow but deep breaths; inhaling through your nose then exhaling through your mouth. Count from one to ten slowly, then when you reach ten take another deep breath; again, inhaling through your nose then exhaling through your mouth. Now count backwards from ten to one. This can help to de-escalate when feeling on edge or when feeling a panic attack coming on.
This coping skill incorporates deep breathing, which can be done organically, or if you are struggling to get into the rhythm it can help to have something to keep your breathing at a consistent pace. This could involve using a smart watch with the ‘breathe’ feature, utilizing a piano pendulum, using a timer to stay on pace, etc.
When feeling anxious, individuals tend to breathe rapidly and more shallow breaths, so the goal of deep breathing is to slow down the breaths, allow for your heart rate to slow down, and getting enough oxygen into your lungs. When one is not getting enough oxygen this can lead to a stress signal in your brain, which can contribute or even worsen the anxiety and panic attacks.
There are multiple breathing exercises to utilize, but one that can be great for stress involves 20 to 30 minutes of ‘belly breathing’. In order to do this, first, find a place where you are comfortable, it is quiet, and you will not be interrupted. You can be sitting in a chair or lying on your back.
1. Start by placing a hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your stomach, below your ribcage.
2. Next, allow your stomach to be relaxed, actively ensuring you are not forcing it inward or clenching your muscles.
3. Breathe in through your nose, slowly. You should feel your stomach rise with one hand then fall inward.
4. Exhale slowly while keeping your lips pursed. Note that your hand on your chest should remain mostly still.
Another helpful breathing technique is called Box Breathing. This technique is exactly how it sounds, breathing as if you are forming a square with your breath. This can also be done through inhaling and exhaling to the rhythm of a song.
1. First, exhale to a count of four.
2. Next, hold your lungs empty for a count of four.
3. Inhale to a count of four.
4. Now hold the air in your lungs for a count of four.
5. Lastly, exhale and start over again.
Challenging Irrational Thoughts
Irrational thoughts are products of cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are defensive thought patterns that we develop based on past experiences. More times than not these distortions have a negative biased. In order to combat cognitive distortions, one first must be able to recognize which ones that they are using. Some cognitive distortions are polarized thinking, overgeneralization, catastrophizing, personalization, mind reading, mental filtering, demanding, emotional reasoning, and labeling.
Polarized thinking is also called all-or-nothing thinking or black and white thinking. This is common amongst people who think in extremes. With this cognitive distortion, people find themselves thinking situations and people are all good or all bad. An example of this would be finding out that a close friend has cheated on their spouse and assuming that they are an evil person and their entire relationship has been a lie.
Overgeneralization is used when one event takes place and the individual then applies what happened in that situation to all similar situations. For example, if an individual previously had a relationship where their significant other was secretive about their phone and they found out down the line that their significant other had cheated on them, in future relationships, they then think that their current significant other is cheating on them when exhibiting similar behaviors with their phone or devices.
Catastrophizing is when an individual assumes the worst when looking at an unknown situation. This often involves escalating a situation to an extreme. An example of this would be if one were to fail an example and then think they were going to fail the class, get kicked out of school, and end up homeless without a job.
Personalization is when one blames themselves for everything negative happening around them. This can involve blaming one’s self for something that truly has no connection to them or taking something personally that is not personal. An example of this is an individual hearing that coworkers are going out to get drinks on a day that the individual is working late and thinking the other coworkers do not like them and purposely chose to go out when they are working.
Mind Reading is when people assume what others are thinking. Typically, individuals utilizing this tend to have a negative perception of what others are thinking. For example, if one was to walk into a room and everyone in the room seemed to stop talking, they may think that everyone had been talking about them.
Mental Filtering is when one ignores the positive and focuses entirely on negative aspects. This can even take a situation that is entirely positive and make it into something negative. An example of this is getting invited to go out with coworkers and assuming the invite was simply out of pity.
Demanding is when one expects others to do things the way they personally choose to do things. This involves placing one’s own expectations onto others. An example of this may be asking a significant other to clean the kitchen, then getting upset with them when they did not clean it the way you would like it to be cleaned.
Emotional reasoning, also known as emotive interpretation, is when one believes their emotions are an accurate interpretation of a situation. In these situations, what one feels, they automatically assume must be truth. For example, if an individual were to see their significant other text messaging an ex-significant other, that individual may assume they are having an affair or getting back together with that person.
Labeling is when an individual places labels on themselves or others, typically with a negative meaning, based on one characteristic or trait. An example of this is that one sees a friend drinking excessively and places the label on them of this friend being an alcoholic.
After identifying which cognitive distortions one uses, it is important to know how to combat these thoughts. One way to go about this is to reframe the situation, such as looking for alternative explanations, finding evidence against the distorted thought, and trying to find a positive spin to the thought. Another option is to look at what these cognitive distortions do, whether that be helping you cope, or making it harder to cope. If one finds that these cognitive distortions are having a negative impact on them, it may make it easier to combat these thoughts and concentrate on reversing them. Yet another option is to point out these common distortions to loved ones so that they can help to keep one another accountable when utilizing these distortions.
According to Psychology Today, “Regular exercise alleviates chronic anxiety and may reduce the frequency and severity of panic attacks”. Workouts consisting of 20-30 minutes of exercise should be done daily in order to significantly decrease anxiety related symptoms. Studies have shown that individuals prone to panic attacks who have tried regularly walking or jogging four miles, three times per week, reduced both the occurrences and the severity of panic attacks.
Finding ways to cope with anxiety can be an important part of coping through day-to-day life, can increase overall happiness, can improve interpersonal relationships, and can improve both mental and physical health. Whether it is a coping skill discussed above, or finding a unique coping skill, such as a hobby or talking to a good friend, developing these skills will be beneficial for overall well-being. In addition to finding coping skills, therapy is always a great option for anyone needing an unbiased professional to talk with. Online-Therapy offers a free program that gives users access to 25 CBT-based worksheets, a personal journal, an activity plan, tests, and yoga and meditation videos. For those needing additional support, our basic program incorporates daily therapists comments Monday-Friday on worksheets, as well as the services offered through the free program. The standard plan incorporates all services offered through the basic plan, plus one session per week. The premium program offers all services included in the standard plan, plus an additional session per week. Here is link to learn more and to get started: Online Therapy
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