We are currently living in some of the most uncertain times in history, and more and more Americans are being faced with troubling questions about their lives.
Will I keep my job? Will I get sick? Will I make others sick? Will love ones stay safe?
Unique times like these mean significant increases in anxiety. It is normal to experience anxiety in small amounts, such as before a test, giving a speech or meeting someone new. However, when anxiety becomes so intense that we find ourselves avoiding situations and parts of our lives, we can be sure it has become a problem.
Everyone experiences anxiety. It's what motivates us to focus and perform well in our jobs, sports and other situations where we feel pressure to succeed, but some people are more at risk of anxiety than others. Risk factors include: a family history of anxiety, experiencing something traumatic, physical health conditions, experiencing high levels of stress and substance abuse withdrawal.
Being aware of your risk factors can help you focus on what might be causing your anxiety to be higher than usual. So, what do you do when you start to notice that your anxiety is higher than usual?
Use the following list of research-proven coping skills to reduce anxiety:
I think that this has become a vague term these days. Just take care of yourself. Well, what does that exactly mean and look like? Self-care is choosing to take a moment to focus on what you want out of life and what would make you happy. We often get caught up in what others need at the expense of neglecting what we need.
Focusing on taking care of yourself can look like taking some time where you turn off your phone, go for a walk in the woods, or simply treat yourself to your favorite dessert once a week. Either way, it's paying attention to what would be good for your mental health.
Meditation and deep breathing
These are all scientifically proven coping skills that can reduce anxiety. Meditating for five minutes a day can have positive benefits such as better focus, clearer thinking and reduced anxiety. You don't have to be a Buddhist monk and meditate for 12 hours straight to notice the benefits. Just five minutes a day will make a difference. There are also several meditation apps — such as Calm, Headspace and Breethe — that can help you get started.
Taking deep breaths into your diaphragm (stomach) can reduce anxiety. Research has proven that when we take deep breaths into our stomachs, we activate the part of our nervous system that helps us calm down and relax. Deep breathing is used during meditation, where the focus is on our breathing instead of what we're thinking.
Tapping into your creativity
If you enjoy creating such as painting, drawing, poetry, sculpture, woodworking, etc., you can use this outlet to express yourself and cope with anxiety. Being creative can boost your self-esteem and make you feel more confident about what you are creating. Engaging in creative activities and exercises can help our minds unwind and relax. Drawing patterns on a blank piece of paper can help reduce anxiety as it allows the person drawing to have control over what they're creating. Coloring has also been shown to reduce anxiety.
Going for at least a 20- to 30-minute walk, or engaging in another light aerobic exercise, helps reduce anxiety. When we move and exercise, we release natural endorphins in our brains and bodies that help reduce anxious feelings. Exercise also has cardiovascular benefits, in addition to mental health ones.
Getting healthy sleep
One of the culprits of increased anxiety and other mental health problems that we never think about is sleep. Healthy sleep is considered getting eight hours per night of restful sleep. This can present a challenge in our fast-paced society where we live by notions such as "I'll sleep when I'm dead." It's helpful to set an alarm on a smartphone to remind you that it's time to go to sleep.
It's also important to ensure that your bedroom, or wherever you sleep, is comfortable. I recommend no television or electronic device screens before bed — as this can make it harder to go to sleep. If you have difficulty falling asleep, only spend time in your bed for sleeping and sex. This will help your body and mind associate being in bed with sleeping more.
Focus on your thoughts
Earlier I mentioned meditation as a healthy way to deal with anxiety. Focusing on your thoughts is another way to pay attention to what could be increasing your anxiety. People who experience intense anxiety have challenges seeing and thinking about situations where nothing goes wrong. Everything is always experienced as dangerous and harmful.
If you can identify thoughts that cause you to feel anxious, you can talk about them with someone you feel comfortable with to challenge their validity. Many mental health professionals use an approach called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help patients identify irrational thinking patterns and beliefs that elevate their anxiety. There are several therapists at Willowbrooke Counseling Center who are trained in this approach that can help.
Finally, a way to shift your thinking about anxiety is to see it as a teacher or a guide. It is present for a reason. Although anxiety is an uncomfortable emotion, it oddly has good intentions. Most of us wouldn't be here today if our ancestors didn't get anxious about being killed by wild animals and other threats. It kept them safe, but sometimes anxiety can become so overwhelming that it might be the time to seek a mental health professional's help.
For questions or to make an appointment, call the Willowbrooke Counseling Center at 770-812-8863. Learn more at WillowbrookeCounselingCenter.org.