Anxiety is the most common and first sign that we are having difficulties coping. In fact, Freud was the first psychiatrist who introduced the term “signal anxiety” suggesting that our anxious states signal something beyond our immediate awareness. The American Association of Depression and Anxiety estimates that roughly 40 million adults above the age of 18 years are currently facing significant anxiety, causing a cascade of mental health and physical illness. This is roughly equivalent to 18% of the US population. However, anxiety isn’t limited to this age group as even young children express symptoms indicative of anxiety, although they tend to express anxiety differently than adults
People may experience anxiety alone or alongside another health condition, such as depression, ADHD, OCD, PTSD, addiction, sleep disorders, bipolar disorder, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, stress, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and headaches. Anxiety is treatable, but only about 36% of those affected seek out professional treatment. In my private practice, I help clients gain an understanding of the root causes of their anxiety by tapping into what we call primary and secondary emotional reactions. This process promotes identification and acceptance of individual needs, and helps people to learn the skills to cope with anxiety long-term.
But what if professional therapy is not an option for you at this point? Fortunately, there are “simple” ways to achieve a significant reduction in anxiety symptoms until therapy becomes available. These anxiety strategies are related to the basics of life. All it takes is a little bit of commitment. I encourage you to give it your best effort for at least 2 weeks. You may also want to consider keeping an anxiety diary to track your progress. Simply rate your anxiety level and fluctuation throughout the day. Anxiety logs are a powerful way to gain insight into the situations or places that trigger your anxiety and can help you to stay motivated to keep up self-care practices to combat anxiety symptoms. Anxiety triggers are discussed in another blog post. But for now, let’s focus on how you can reduce anxiety fast without thinking about anxiety.
Here is what you can do today to reduce your physical response to stress and relieve anxiety:
1 – Slow down.
See, simple, or is it? Most adults have probably bought into the idea that busy equals productive, and therefore, the busier you are the more you accomplish. But too much work can actually lead to inattention, and poor boundaries at work and in your personal relationships. And what we happens when we suddenly slow down? While evidence shows that we tend to adjust our productivity level to the amount of time available to us, there are no clear ways to cope with the negative feelings we may experience when we decelerate. But are you keeping yourself occupied for the right reasons? If you’re keeping busy to avoid feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety it might feel like it’s never quite enough, no matter how much you get done. You may also notice that you’re rushing in order to compensate for a lack of perceived accomplishment.
Slowing down means allowing yourself the time to tune into whatever you are doing with full awareness. If becoming more present in the moment is a personal goal of yours than slowing down is imperative. Don’t pride yourself in multi-tasking and rushing. Neuroscience research clearly shows that attention is a limited resource and multitasking reduces productivity and increases mistakes. Reflect on the true outcomes of your accomplishments rather than on the subjective feeling of stress. Did you give it your full uncompromised attention? Then you did your best, whether you finished or not. Make slowing down your new default mode that spans all areas of your life. Slow down at work, on your commute, at the grocery store, when spending time with your children, and when talking to your mother-in-law on the phone. Not only will this ease some of your anxiety, you’ll be surprised how many of the tasks you used to experience as unpleasant become a lot more manageable when you slow down and engage deliberately rather than rushing through them.
If you are not convinced that you can slow down and keep up with your workload, I recommend the book “The Productivity Project” as a resource for learning about the link between slowing down and productivity. This book also offers many simple strategies that are proven to actually increase productivity.
2 – Don’t compromise your basic needs.
Are you sleeping poorly because you are anxious or are you anxious because you don’t sleep well? The answer is probably both. This highlights the self-perpetuating cycle between feeling anxious and ignoring basic needs. If you are not sleeping, eating, and enjoying leisure activities because you feel too nervous and stressed, you will probably experience an increase in anxiety over time. Never compromise basic human needs. Your body and your brain require an adequate level of glucose and rest for proper functioning. Without satisfying these basics, it will be very challenging to fight anxiety. Allow yourself time for meals, rest, and leisure. Put these basics in your calendar if you have to. And make them a priority every day. Aim to establish routines that allow you to restore the energy you need for healthy coping. If you struggle with breakfast or lunch, you could enjoy a nutritious smoothie on your commute to work or carry a nutbar with you for a quick snack. In the evenings, stop yourself from spending time in front of screens at least one hour before going to bed. The blue light emitted by electronics suppresses the natural melatonin production of the body and thus interferes with sleep. How about trying something new instead, like meditating, cooking, learning an instrument, or writing a book? The National Sleep Foundation has some helpful tips to help you develop a healthy sleep pattern.Remember that you want to start and end your days deliberately rather than passively reacting to the world around you.
3 – Connect
Human brains are wired to connect with others. Even young infants give special importance to social cues received from others. Independence and self-sufficiency have become idealized values which has led to social isolation being on the rise. Loneliness now affects one-third of Americans. But social connection is a fundamental human need and lack thereof poses a great risk for mental and physical health. In fact, many studies suggest that a lack of close relationships can be more harmful than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. So, even if you don’t particularly enjoy social interaction, remember that isolation and loneliness increase your vulnerability to depression, anxiety, and antisocial behavior. The good news: surveys show that you don’t need to become a social butterfly to feel connected. Spending time with just one good friend or family member regularly can go a very long way in reducing anxiety and depression, enhancing your self-esteem, and helping you to step outside of your comfort zone. If you consider yourself an introvert, the thought of reaching out to others may trigger a little anxiety. But this is usually a temporary state that will quickly pass. It’s a small price to pay for the long-lasting protective effects that connectedness will bring to your life. As with many health choices, they don’t always have to feel good right away, yet you keep taking your medication and keep showing up to your gym class because you know the benefits will come – eventually.
Don’t know where to start? How about talking to your neighbor or volunteering for a good cause? You can also reach out to a non-profit organization that facilitates connection, such as Connect2Affect or the UnLonely Project. Break the silence and the stigma and you will help yourself and others!
Livia Freier, Ph.D., licensed psychologist at MindWell Psychology in Providence, RI. – author
copywriting author Anne Freier, Anne Freier senior pharmaceutical scientist- Contributing editor