We all know that anxiety feels bad emotionally, and therefore we’d rather not have it in our lives. But in reality, managing anxiety is important for your whole being – body, mind, and soul – not just your emotions. You may be aware of some of your physical symptoms of anxiety, or you may be living with them and not even realize that they’re tied up with your anxiety. If you have recurrent symptoms like these and you know of no other reason for them, they very well could be tied to your anxiety (though always consult a doctor; don’t make assumptions):
- muscle aches and pains
- stiff neck
- shortness of breath
- cold or hot flashes
- heart palpitations
- trouble swallowing
Karen Young explains that these physical symptoms occur because the stress you face when you’re in a state of anxiety triggers the brain’s “fight or flight” responses in the amygdala. We have those responses for good reason – to protect us from danger – but those responses aren’t meant to last for long periods of time, or to happen in response to situations that aren’t life-threatening to us. So when they do, we experience uncomfortable physical symptoms.
So what can you do to manage your anxiety and see an improvement in both your physical and mental health?
1. Cut down on alcohol and caffeine.
I know, I know – these often feel like the beverages that make life fun. But this advice comes straight from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, who say that alcohol and caffeine can “aggravate anxiety and trigger panic attacks.” You don’t have to cut them out of your life completely, but replacing some of your intakes with water will be good for your health across the board.
2. Exercise regularly – shoot for 5x a week.
The ADAA recommends shooting for some form of exercise every day, or at least 5 days a week for 30 minutes each day. This may seem like a big time commitment, and you may be wondering, “Why can’t I just exercise longer on the weekends when I have more free time?” You can, but the results won’t be as beneficial. Research has shown that the consistency of exercise is important if you want it to positively impact your anxiety symptoms.
3. Fill some of your free time with activities through which you’re around others.
This could be anything from a community soccer team to an organization that volunteers with the homeless. The important things are, first of all, that it gives you a specific activity to do to take your mind off what worries and stresses you, and, second of all, that it gives you a wider range of people to interact with to grow your support base. Yes, it’s possible that you’ll sign up for such an activity and not meet anyone you feel close enough to really talk to, but it’s worth a shot if it fulfills the dual purpose of keeping your mind away from worrying.
4. Distract yourself when you feel a wave of anxiety coming.
The Calm Clinic recommends having a core group of people that you consistently have fun, enjoyable conversations within a mental list in your mind for when you feel that wave of anxiety coming over you. Call up the first person on the list and make your way down until someone answers and can talk. This is a good way to send your brain the message that you’re just having a normal day, and that it doesn’t need to go into the “fight or flight” mode that gives you uncomfortable physical symptoms.
5. …Or don’t.
On the other hand, Karen Young mentions the possibility that some people might react to anxiety better if they let their brain fully think out the thing that’s worrying them. For instance, let’s say you’re stressed out about a difficult conversation that you know you have to have with a family member. If you feel like it’s getting to be too much, set a timer for 15-20 minutes. Take that 15-20 minutes to go through all of the possible outcomes. What’s the best case scenario? The worst? When will you have this conversation? What will you say? What’s your plan for what you’ll do if the other person reacts well? If they react angrily? Going through the situation in great detail but just until the timer runs out might help you feel more in control, and once the timer goes off you move the issue to the side and very deliberately pick a different task to focus on. Depending on what type of person you are, this might work very well for you, or might only make the anxiety worse. If it makes the anxiety worse, then try the methods focused on distracting yourself instead.
6. Practice mindfulness.
I won’t go into great detail about what mindfulness is because you can read about it in this previous post but the main idea is that it’s a way to cultivate awareness of what’s going on inside your brain, of recognizing and naming your internal processes without judging them. Once you start doing this, the thoughts are no longer in control of you the way they once were. This technique has been shown to help with many mental health issues, including anxiety.
Keep in mind that if you try techniques like these for several weeks without noticing any changes, it would be a very good idea to see a doctor – preferably both your regular physician and a therapist. Your regular physician can rule out any bigger underlying cause that might be behind your anxiety-like symptoms, and a therapist can help you figure out why you’re not having success at managing your anxiety and what you can do to change that.
If you’d like help managing your anxiety, you can call us at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult to learn more about how one of our therapists can help you start to feel less worried and overwhelmed.