BR’s Tips for Beating Anxiety

Okay, it's Mental Health Month – time for a new list! I want to talk about anxiety, because over thirty years as a therapist has convinced me that anxiety is the mother lode of a lot personal difficulty and bad behavior.

Anxiety causes people to lash out, react impulsively and jump into places and relationships they shouldn't. Nine times out of ten, anger and nasty behavior is born of anxiety, looking for a place to get released.

It's also a huge energy waster and time-sapper, preventing people from getting things done, simply because it sucks up so much time and focus. More often than not, efficient, productive people aren't any more talented or educated than others, but they're people who are unhampered by anxiety, so they get a straight shot at their goals.

I recall seeing a surprising statistic that 50% of all office visits to the doctor are due to anxiety in one form or another (as opposed to illness).

So here are a few tips and tricks for anyone who wants to better manage his or her anxiety and get back into the driver's seat, where surely their tush belongs. I doubt any of these will be news to you – but they might serve as a good reminder and punch list. Please add your own suggestions – this is by no means comprehensive. And, of course, if you've got persistent, unrelenting anxiety that is interfering with your life, get some professional help too.

  1. Get Mindful of Your Triggers
    Focus your attention on your innards enough to become mindful of how and when your anxiety gets activated. You're going to need to know this if you want to get ahead of it and short-circuit it, before it develops into full-blown flooding. So this is the key to everything else, unless of course, you want to become a full time meditator, 24/7 – a pretty ambitious alternative.

  2. Learn to Breathe
    Learn to breathe slowly, deeply at will. It's the quickest way to trick the body into thinking it's relaxed, and everything else will follow suit. When we're relaxed, we breathe like sleeping babies – slowly, with the belly rising with the in-breath and emptying with the out-breath. Practice at this and you're halfway there, even if you do nothing else on this list. (You may also want to read Priscilla Warner's book by this very name: Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life).

  3. Listen to Guided Imagery or Affirmations
    Take a few minutes each day to listen to some soothing guided imagery or listen to affirmations in the car while driving. Again, all your'e doing is habituating your mind and body to the habit of relaxation. Then when something happens and you need it, it's right there for you, in your back pocket.

  4. Get Stuff Out of Your Head and onto a List
    Carry around a lightweight notebook, so you can relieve your mind of having to keep track of all the dumb detailed stuff you need to do. Simple, it's true, but you'd be surprised at how unburdening this can be on your mind. Plus, it's a good habit for actually remembering to do them!

  5. Use Physical Exercise to Channel Anxious Energy
    You don't have to run a marathon – just walk briskly or go crazy with the vacuum cleaner. Like learning to breathe, this is a physical way to approach calming your mind, as old as dirt, but very effective.

  6. De-Clutter Your Surroundings
    Studies show that messy, disorganized surroundings subtly but surely feed anxiety (depression, too). This doesn't mean you should become a compulsive neatnik and give yourself one more thing to worry about. But if you can reduce the clutter in the living spaces that you use (or even throw it all in one room you don't use, where you don't have to see it) you can reduce your baseline anxiety levels.

  7. Eat Smart
    You know the drill. Take it easy on the caffeine – coffees, colas, teas and, yes, even chocolate, all stimulate adrenaline, so use them wisely and judiciously. And do lean on the omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin B's, and whole grain carbs for regulating serotonin. And big doses of sugar is NOT your friend.

  8. Practice Silence
    Give yourself some quiet. Shut off the radio, take a news fast from the TV, let the phone go to voicemail, get away from chattering colleagues and friends (even the really nice ones) and help yourself to some silence. This includes text messages on your phone and emails on your computer. Mini-retreats taken during the day give your brain a chance to rest and your psyche to sort itself out.

  9. Try Aromatherapy
    You'd be surprised at the relaxing impact of aromatherapy, and what certain fragrances can do to make a dent on your anxiety levels. Scents like lavender, sandalwood, pine, chamomile, lemongrass and bergamot can be mixed or matched uniquely to suit you – all it takes is a little experimenting to see what works best. And you can access them through lotions, candles, bath oils, inhalation beads and diffusers – even scented pillows.

  10. Laugh, Play, Smile
    Even if you don't feel like it at first, and even if your anxiety is telling you that you can't possibly afford to take the time for it, a little break with friends or an absorbing, light-hearted movie or just a laugh with a laugher can interrupt anxiety.