How to Deal with Anxiety: Tips from a Professional Counselor
So, you’re feeling anxious? Maybe your heart is racing a bit faster than you’d like. Maybe your palms are sweating. Maybe you can’t sleep at night because your mind is racing with ideas of what you could have done or about what might happen next. Maybe you’re feeling like your worrisome thoughts are uncontrollable. If any of these above examples strike a chord, you might be dealing with anxiety.According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders affect nearly 40 million adults in the U.S. That is a lot of people. It’s comforting to know, however, that you’re not alone and that there is a plethora of treatments and interventions dedicated to helping people learn how to deal with anxiety.
How to Deal with Anxiety: 4 Practical Tips
Here are a few tips that I find particularly effective and worth passing along to clients struggling with anxiety:
1. Understand what’s happening
One way to address anxious thoughts is to first understand why they’re happening. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score (a book that helps us understand brain chemistry and how anxiety can lead to disorders, particularly those related to trauma), explains the amygdala of the brain as the control center for anxiety.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the phrase, ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ before? Well, those words are in reference to the autonomic nervous system (ANS), where the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) gets triggered when our brain senses a threat.
Imagine being bitten by a dog. Since you have experienced a dog as causing you harm, your brain (the SNS) might thenceforth automatically tell you how to react the next time you see a dog because it has unconsciously categorized ‘dogs’ with ‘harm.’
In that moment, your reptilian brain takes over and your higher level functioning brain (that controls your thinking, rationalizing, and organizing processes) shuts down, and reacting, fighting, freezing, or ‘flighting’ sensations kick in.Think of the Amygdala as an alarm bell or a smoke detector. Sometimes it goes off because there really is a fire imminent and it is saying, “Get out! Run! Danger is imminent!” But other times the alarm bell goes off because it falsely perceives there to be a fire, when really it’s just smoke.
Our brains release large amounts of cortisol, causing our adrenaline to motivate us to act, but it is all for nothing. We can begin to feel totally powerless if every time a dog walks by we react, because the reality is that not all dogs bite.
This is what anxiety feels like. We feel helpless to not respond with fear, a racing heartrate, sweating, etc., whether a threat is real or not.
If we could remain calm enough to approach new, well-behaved dogs calmly, we might find the assumptions we formed in our head about all dogs being harmful creatures to be less accurate than we think. As a result, our previous experience of being bitten by one dog can now be treated as an isolated incident in which a fire really was going off (i.e. there really was a threat), but now, it’s just smoke.
By understanding that your brain is in a reactive state, you can reduce the urge to blame yourself or feel like you should be able to just ‘calm down’ or ‘get a grip.’ The reality is that some parts of your rational brain have gone off-line, and you are simply overwhelmed because of stress hormones taking over. That being said, the next piece of advice I can give on how to deal with anxiety is this: notice your ‘thinking traps.’
2. Recognize and replace thinking traps
Catastrophizing, black and white thinking, overgeneralization, focusing on the negative, and more are some examples of thinking traps. I’ll explain each of these primary thinking traps here. But first, let’s talk about how easy it is to get sucked into these ways of thinking because they really are just that — traps!
Have you ever heard yourself thinking, “Now every time I try to do that I will fail,” or “nodbody gets it”? Those are some examples of thinking traps because they take a feeling and make our minds think the feeling is logical, but often times it’s actually not! You might feel like you will fail again, or as though no one understands you, but if you really stop and think about it, that just isn’t true.
Let’s look at a few types of traps more closely:
Overgeneralization is taking one experience or feeling you had and projecting it onto a multitude of others. Overgeneralization thoughts usually contain words like ‘always,’ ‘never,’ ‘every time,’ and ‘everybody,’ and overall project one or several experiences onto many.
For examples, you get a cup of coffee from a new coffee shop and it tastes horrible, but now you project that reality onto the entire coffee shop itself, believing every cup of coffee you get from there will be just as bad. As a result, you never go back!
I am a huge sushi lover and I have met many people who have said, “Oh, I hate sushi, I tried it once and it was awful.” But then later, several of those people bravely agreed to give it a second chance and came back stating they now love sushi!
The point is, not all baristas make coffee the same way, nor do all sushi restaurants make sushi the same. With anxiety-related experiences, not all future experiences that begin similarly end the same. This new stranger may actually be really nice to talk to, and that boss might actually treat you fairly. You get the point.
Focusing on the negative
This thinking trap is pretty self-explanatory. Focusing on the negative is a downward spiral of thinking that can get us stuck in anxious thoughts. It begins with a negative (and possibly true) thought about your day, such as “I hate getting up early,” or “This is the worst,” but before you know it you are only thinking about your day in a negative way and totally overlooking all the positives it contains!
Maybe you can see how getting up early allowed you to see the sunrise. Focusing on the positive is one simple way to alleviate feeling as though life is a shade darker than it really is.
I have a client who I enjoy working with very much, but who comes to most sessions saying statements that are the most catastrophizing I have ever heard. I will ask them how their day is going and they will say rapidly, “Well, it’s going awfully, we’re all going to die, everything sucks, I’m doomed!”While they are being somewhat facetious, they also really are there to work on their anxious thoughts leading to catastrophic feelings. In cognitive behavioral therapy, we teach clients how thoughts lead to feelings, which then lead to behaviors.
This is called the CBT triangle because it shows how powerful our thoughts are to directing our behaviors. By paying attention to how a thought like, “The world is going to end” will make you feel, it becomes easy to see how unhelpful a thought like that is. Sure, someday the world might end, but today we are here.
Black and white thinking
Black and white thinking is another pretty self-explanatory thinking trap. This type of thinking is often addressed in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which is a therapy designed to find the ‘middle ground’ or balance between two extremes. When we think things are ‘all good’ or ‘all bad,’ we can begin to experience worrisome thoughts that stem from a narrow view of reality.
My biggest piece of advice to people is to challenge the accuracy and trueness of their thoughts. The easiest way to combat unhelpful thoughts or thinking traps is to literally pick them apart.
Ask yourself, is that actually true? Is there really evidence that that is guaranteed to happen? Is it really fair to assume that person or group will treat me the same as the last?
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for anxiety, we call this ‘examining the evidence.’ It is a very powerful way to dilute seemingly powerful thoughts. I have found this very helpful to do in my own life because my thoughts can be so automatic that unless I slow down to really challenge the accuracy of them or not, I tend to just believe they are true.
One of the biggest things about anxiety is that it begins with thoughts about the past or the future but rarely begins with thoughts about the present. We might begin having thoughts that start off with a “what if” or “I’m going to” or “I wish I didn’t” phrase that leads to all sorts of conclusions about things out of our control.
The reality is that we really don’t have any idea what the future will bring. We can become anxious if we experience repeated harm and begin to expect it to happen, as is the case with PTSD clients. We can also become anxious when we look back on an event and begin to ruminate on all the things that happened that we now wish we had prevented.
We might think, “If only I had thought to do that instead.” We can become our harshest critics by believing the past or the future is somehow a result or will be a result of our choices alone. But focusing on what might happen or what did happen can lead us to all sorts of false conclusions. But by staying present on what is helps us prevent those types of thoughts.Dialectical Behavioral Therapy focuses on the importance of staying ‘grounded’ in the here and now as a way to act out of our ‘wise mind.’ Our wise mind is the frame of mind we’re in when we can calmly, rationally, and neutrally examine ourselves and the world for the way it is, without criticism and without anxiety.
Studies show that practices like meditation or yoga or praying are strong ways to practice staying present and prevent anxious thoughts from wandering. You can practice being mindful of your surroundings by simply acknowledging what you see, feel, hear, etc. with your senses and finding neutral or positive thoughts about that.
This is a great way to combat anxious thinking because it strengthens the control you have over your thoughts and reminds you how sometimes worrying about today is enough.
Remember what Scripture says about being anxious? Phillipians 4:6-7 says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
Wayne Jacobson, in his series called Transitions, has a great commentary on this passage. He jokes about how many of us read that verse and become even more anxious, because all of a sudden we are facing what can feel like a command: “Don’t ever be anxious for anything!”
But he goes on to say that Jesus Himself experienced anxiety to an extreme degree when Scripture describes Him as sweating blood while praying before His crucifixion because He was so anxious!
Wayne Jacobsen reminds us that this verse is not about condemning us for feeling anxiety, but it is about reminding us how free of anxiety we can become through Christ’s peace in us. This peace of God that ‘surpasses all understanding’ is not something we create, it’s something we find in turning to Him and giving Him our worries.
I don’t know about you, but there have been many times in my life where through prayer I’ve felt a wave of peace come over me that is only described as the Holy Spirit muting my anxious thoughts and replacing them with calmness.
Another verse of encouragement is: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” – Isaiah 41:10. In all of this, we become less anxious when we learn to lean on Him.
4. Take care of yourself
Lastly, take care of yourself – Eat 3 meals a day, sleep 7-8 hours each night, exercise a couple times a week. Numerous studies show that when one or more of these areas is neglected, we are much more susceptible to stress hormones being released, which leads to anxiety.
If you want to talk with someone to work through feelings related to anxiety, schedule an appointment today. Together we can continue to discuss more ways to recognize, address, and overcome anxious thoughts and overall lead to a happier, healthier, and more peace-filled life that God means for you to live.
“Fed up,” courtesy of Francisco Moreno, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Candle burning,” courtesy of Alex Holyoake, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Train tracks,” courtesy of Jay Mantri, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Mindfulness,” courtesy of Lesly Juarez, unsplash.com, CC0 License