Sweaty palms, elevated heartbeat, palpitations, trouble with breathing, eating, sleeping. We’ve all been there. The first day of school, the first day at a new job, an uncomfortable discussion, delivering or hearing bad news, triggering situations — all reasonable events that can cause anxiety.
Anxiety is our body’s natural response to stress. It’s a feeling of fear or apprehension about forthcoming events. Uncertainty triggers it more than bad news because we can’t prepare for uncertainty.
If you are prone to getting anxious regularly, it is because your body cannot tell the difference between real and perceived threats. Our brains react to real events the same way as it does to imagined events.
When we don’t know what will happen it might send our brains into imagining the worst that can happen — as a preparation to be able to give the quickest possible answer, mobilising all resources, deciding on fight or flight.
Anxiety on its own is not bad — it is a sign that something disrupted our feeling of safety and our body responds first to keep us alert.
I am, sadly, familiar with anxiety attacks — ever since my abusive relationship, I had all sorts of situations triggering me, sending me into a self-destructive spiral of emotional, mental and physical symptoms. I had every right to be anxious, yet having to manage anxiety attacks were not exactly a walk in the park.
There is a whole vast universe out there with self-help tips and tricks, breathing, meditation, mindfulness practices, progressive muscle relaxation that could help. But the problem with anxiety attacks is that you need a lot of self-discipline to do the helpful things — at a time when you are everything but disciplined.
These past weeks brought up many new — and not too positive — events that disrupt our lives. In a short week, everything we knew has changed. Work is different, parenting is different, social interactions are different — life is different. And it’s very uncertain.
It is only reasonable to worry about your health, your loved ones’ health, your job, your finances, your communities, the whole world on a global scale. It is a lot. It is too much to take in. There is news but it’s overwhelming. There is good news too, but it sinks in too slowly.
You have every reason to worry, every reason to be anxious, afraid or overwhelmed.
But just because it is justified to be anxious, you can still manage your anxiety and you should too.
Based on my previous anxiety management practices, I collected a few simple routines that can help you if you feel overwhelmed and you can’t control your body’s reactions.
Go for immediate reliefs
When you are anxious it usually means that your mind is wandering into an unknown and scary future, instead of staying in the present. In these cases, you need to find ways to anchor yourself in the present.
- Breathe. Don’t worry about breathing techniques. Don’t start to look for an app of guided breathing. Just sit down or stand still and breathe. You don’t need to overthink and go into full-scale mindfulness: just breathe. Inhale, exhale — count slowly to four while inhaling and four while exhaling. Repeat until you calm your uneven breathing.
- Stay in the present. If your mind goes into information overload and you can’t stop thinking about a looming future make sure you are aware of your present. Ask yourself if you are safe. Ask yourself if you are alive. The answer will be yes — and this is what you need to cling to. Stay in this here and now and calm yourself with knowing that nothing harmful is happening at this very moment. This is not about belittling your experience, it is about counteracting it.
- The technique of three. Look around, name three things you see: mirror, window, lamp. Then name three sounds that you hear: cars outside, clock ticking, water flowing. Then move three parts of your body: your fingers, your arm, your leg. This technique works to let you know that you are in control of your body, it is you in charge. And it is empowering to know that you can get back to being calm.
- Do something and move. Stand up. Do squats. Go for a walk. Wash your hands and face. Take a cold shower. Clean your desk or wipe all the doorknobs. It doesn’t matter, just do some physical exercise. The movement and the energy you need for it will elevate your heart rate, but not associated with anxiety, but with physical movement.
Learn techniques when you are not anxious
Anxiety attacks come and go — they can be devastating, but they pass. If you are prone to having them, practice mindfulness routines when you feel fine. This is not a shortcut and unfortunately, it doesn’t work when you are already deep in panic.
If meditation, mindful breathing is part of your daily routine, you will know how it feels when you are calm and relaxed. It is easier to get to a state that you know than trying to fish for something in the dark just because you heard you should.
Start meditation, mindfulness practices, progressive muscle relaxation today — even if you feel fine. Especially if you feel fine. You will have several tools to reach out for when you need them, and practising them regularly will help you stay calm and focused in general.
Take a break from the world
We need it now more than ever. Take a break from the world. Stay away from it for 24 or 48 hours. I promise you, it will still be there after you get back.
Stay away from the news, stay away from social media. This is the time when you probably can easily stay away from your job as well. Clear your head. Allow yourself to be in silence. Do something that you like.
Pretend that everything is fine — and get away from triggers. If you can do it, do it for a whole day. If not, just half a day off the incoming news will be already like a breath of fresh air.
Read a book. Sleep in. Meditate. Take a bath. Go for a walk — if you can. Just stay within yourself and don’t let anything disturb you — just for one day.
Eat well and stop drinking alcohol and coffee
Have a proper meal, fill your body with nutrients, give it enough fuel. Don’t wait for your appetite to show up — eat something healthy and ditch the junk food. Eat some fish, veggies or fruits. Go for something light, do not burden your organism with having to deal with lots of fats to digest.
Stop with the coffee. I mean it. Replace it with herbal tea — if you insist on hot drinks. Your body is already exhausted from being in a constant lookout for danger — you don’t need more stimulants, you need to rest. Coffee won’t help to manage your anxiety.
Same with alcohol. It is very tempting to reach for a bottle of wine (or your drink of choice) to get some tension relief, but just like any other time, it is not the answer. It is always about moderation, but when you are anxious or depressed, reason goes down the drain and it’s easy to believe that alcohol will solve your problems. It won’t. Ask any recovering addict, not dealing with your initial problems won’t solve them and you are just adding another bunch of issues to solve later.
Worry with a timer
Allow yourself to worry, but put a timer on it. Give yourself time to wallow in sadness and self-pity. I find it counterproductive to stop myself worrying, because it spirals out of my control and I get even more anxious about it.
Being anxious is normal these days — but you can still be in control.
Give yourself 10 minutes to worry. Set a timer for it and get to it. Overthink it. Worry as much as you want. Think about all the negativity and let yourself go deep into your fears. But when the time is up, stop it. Schedule another time for yourself and make sure that you keep yourself to your worry-date.
This will allow you to face all your suppressed emotions while still knowing you are in charge. The best thing is if you know that you control the situation and it doesn’t control you.
Do something that requires your full attention
Gather a few things around you that you can’t do mechanically and they require your full focus. It could be learning a new skill — coding or drawing. It can be playing a musical instrument — playing the piano is my go-to method, for I am so bad at it that it needs my full concentration. It could be solving crosswords or Sudoku, it could be anything that needs more focus from you than just doing the dishes.
I find that physical exercise just for a few minutes distracts me perfectly. I can’t worry when I am catching my breath doing burpees or push-ups. Start a physical challenge and build it up. Now is the time when physical distractions can be beneficial both for your body and mind.
It is completely reasonable to feel anxious. The world has changed overnight and there are way too many things to worry about. But our species is famous for adapting to new situations — this is how we survived, this is how we grow, how we evolve.
Dealing with your anxiety might be a new routine for some time — but you can get good at it and in the meantime, you can acquire new skills and new mindsets. If you search for something positive in it, growing in adversity is a definite positive. Cling to it and celebrate all your tiny accomplishments. This is how we get through this.