What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear that sits in our minds and bodies. It is an alert system, telling us that something is up. It can be felt when you are in a dangerous or threatening situation (raised heart rate, perspiration, mind working quickly to assess what is happening and what is needed in response, etc), or in a situation that your mind/emotions perceive as risky.
What Causes Anxiety?
Many external factors can cause or contribute to anxiety:
- Environmental stressors (i.e. election season or worldwide pandemics)
- Childhood experiences, underlying traumas, or health conditions
- Major life changes (moving in with a partner, having a baby, losing a loved one, starting a new job or educational/vocational program)
- Even simply having too much on your to-do list and not enough time.
- Biological or physiological conditions like anxiety disorders.
- And many other experiences that are often highly specific to each individual
When this feeling of being overwhelmed becomes too invasive – to the point where we are inhibited from normal functioning in our daily lives: that’s when we may need to consider getting external help to find tools and support to cope with our anxiety symptoms.
How Can I Calm Anxiety?
First, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to calming anxiety. For some situations, one anxiety-coping method might be really helpful, while the same situation could be unhelpful in other instances or for other people. For example: breathing techniques may help some people cope well with intense anxiety, while another person (or even the same person, at a different time) may need medication and/or therapy to handle anxiety. Getting appropriate care for us is a way to take good care our ourselves and our anxiety.
A few more ways to approach and help reduce anxiety symptoms are:
- Try breathing exercises
- Mindfulness exercises like this illustrated one
- Flipping through an anxiety-soothing card deck of body-based grounding exercises or do drawing exercises to help cope with anxiety
- Do a guided meditation
- Drink enough water and enjoy nutritional balance
- Notice how caffeine and alcohol impact anxiety symptoms, and adjust your use as appropriate.
- Try to get plenty of sleep (here’s a fun flow chart to help troubleshoot your sleep hygiene)
- Move your body (you can try yoga, aerobic exercise, or even just a walk around your block!)
- Practice self-compassion
- Reach for skin-to-skin contact with a partner, or skin-to-fur contact with a pet. According to researchers, both can help brains release chemicals that soothe anxiety.
If your feelings of anxiety are invasive enough to make it hard to handle normal daily functioning, it may be appropriate to seek further help.
What is Self-Compassion?
According to Dr. Kristin Neff, Co-Founder of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, self-compassion involves cultivating self-kindness and mindfulness, as well as realizing your common humanity.
To cultivate self-compassion, she suggests a few guided meditations and/or working through the following exercises:
- Thinking about how you would treat a friend if they were suffering
- Taking a break to practice self-compassion
- Exploring self-compassion through writing
- Supportive touch
- Changing your critical self-talk
- Keeping a self-compassion journal
- Identify what you really want
- Taking care of “the caregiver”
Source: Dr. Kristin Neff Dr. Neff, Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. Clock to learn more about her research and resources on self-compassion.
Anxiety is not our enemy. It is so easy to slip into a cycle where we have anxiety, then have anxiety about having anxiety, have anxiety about that, etc, until our world gets very small.
One way to interrupt this pattern is to open up a conversation with your anxiety. What is it really saying? What is the unmet need? (You can use this worksheet to facilitate a conversation with your anxiety!)
If we find a way to validate the need with self-compassion, we can lower anxiety and – with practice – break the cycle.
PRO-TIP: Research shows that with performance-related anxiety, people who have this anxiety conversation but tell their brain to reframe it as “EXCITEMENT” perform better and have lower anxiety than those who don’t.
Image description for screen readers:
Handwritten text that reads, “Learn to welcome anxiety. Listen to it! Pay attention to the message, have an internal conversation with it.”
Hand-drawn picture of a fuzzy gray creature with raised eyebrows, bags under its eyes, and a downturned mouth with two teeth sticking out. The creature has striped pants and blue shoes on, and is holding an envelope that has the word “invitation” written on it.