“The only way out is through.” ~ Robert Frost
Anxiety is a word we use to describe feeling worried, overwhelmed, or stressed out. Managing anxiety is challenging, but not complicated. The pandemic has created uncertainty and great stress for many individuals and families; 2020 has been a difficult year! In light of everything we are facing, I wanted to offer a few tricks that can help manage anxiety!
First, anxiety often has a physical component. We literally feel the anxiety in our bodies. But not everyone feels it the same way, so it’s important to learn how you feel your anxiety. Some people get headaches or stomach aches. Some people experience lightheadedness, dizziness, heart palpitations, and other serious symptoms. Still others experience gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea or diarrhea. It’s important to recognize these symptoms for what they are and treat them appropriately. (Make sure to meet with your doctor to rule out other causes).
Most often, when our anxiety increases, our breathing becomes shallow and our bodies go into a natural protective state we call “fight or flight.” The purpose of fight or flight is to protect us from harm. It takes oxygen from our brains and sends it throughout our bodies to increase our strength and reflexes so we can beat the danger! This is awesome for survival! However, our bodies can’t tell the difference between “real threats” and “maybe threats” and “not really threats.” A “real threat” would be standing in front of a huge truck that is barreling toward you. Your fight or flight reflex takes oxygen from your brain, sends it to your muscles, and you are able to run fast enough to get out of the way. A great example of a “maybe threat” is the Coronavirus pandemic happening right now. It might be a threat to you personally, but it might not, and the unknown potential threat causes our anxiety to increase. The fight or flight response is not super helpful right now! We need that oxygen in our brains-we don’t need to run or physically fight our threat right now, but we do need to use our thinking brains. A “not really threat” would be a response to something that has happened in the past or an imagined threat that probably will never happen. Some examples are fear of a spouse leaving or worry about losing a job when there are no indicators of those things happening. We also call these “irrational fears.”
So what do we do when our fight or flight instinct has taken over? First, we attack the physical symptoms. Some ways to do that are deep breathing exercises, mindfulness exercises, relaxation exercises, grounding exercises, yoga, massage and meditation. These types of experiences can reset our fight or flight responses and get that oxygen back into our thinking brains!
The second trick for managing anxiety is balance. Each of us has a certain amount of stress and anxiety in our lives. Some people can handle a lot of stress and manage it well. Some people have difficulty managing a very small amount of stress. Everyone has a different capacity for handling stress. The trick is to balance the capacity for managing stress with the amount of stressors in our lives. Stressors are anything that adds stress to our lives, and these things can be both good and bad. Some examples of stressors are relationships, employment, home ownership, planning a vacation, managing health problems, and meal planning. Imagine a glass of water. The glass can only hold a certain amount of water before it overflows. If you have more water, you need a larger glass, right? And if you have a smaller glass, you can only have a smaller amount of water before it overflows. The glass is our capacity to handle stress, and the water is the stressors (remember that stressors are anything that causes stress-good or bad). We want some stressors/anxiety in our lives! If we had too few stressors, we wouldn’t care about things, hold down jobs, build careers, have families, function in society, etc. It’s good to have a certain amount of stress. Too few stressors leads to us feeling bored or unimportant. If we have too many stressors, we feel anxious, stressed out, worried, overwhelmed, and so on.
So if our balance is off, we need to adjust the capacity vs stressors in our lives. We are usually pretty good at increasing stressors if needed. If we are feeling anxious, stressed out, worried, or overwhelmed, we need to either increase our capacity to deal with stressors (a good therapist can help a ton with this), decrease the stressors in our lives, or both! This helps us bring our lives back into balance.
So in summary, anxiety doesn’t have to take over your life! Find the balance of stressors that is comfortable for you and remind your body to chill out when that fight or flight reflex kicks in. Managing anxiety is a lifelong pursuit, so don’t forget to do these again and again!
MaryAnn Paligo, LCSW lives in Colorado with her husband and five children.
Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.
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