If your mind were a diesel engine, anxiety would be the leaded gas that was accidentally poured in and responsible for all the burps and stutters. Even more so than depression, I think, anxiety is the big disabler in life, with a capital D, which is why I try to nip it in its early symptoms. That doesn’t always happen, of course, but here are some techniques you may use:
1. Recognize the reptilian brain.
Elvira Aletta gives a brilliant neuro-psychology lesson where she explains the two parts of our brain: the primitive part containing the amygdala – which is responsible for generating and processing our fear and other primal emotions – and our frontal lobes: the neo-cortex or the newest part of our brain, which is sophisticated, educated, and is able to apply a bit of logic to the message of raw fear that our reptilian brain generates. Why is this helpful? When I feel that knot in my stomach that comes with a message that I am unloved by the world, I try to envision a Harvard professor, or some intellectual creature whacking a reptile on the head with the a book, saying something like “Would you just evolve, you overly dramatic creature?”
2. Exaggerate your greatest fear.
I know this doesn’t seem like a good idea, but truly it works. Tell your fear to someone else and make sure to be as dramatic as possible, with very descriptive words and emotions. Then, when you’ve told every detail you can think of, start over again. Tell the entire, dramatic story, again with very elaborate descriptions. By the third or fourth time, it becomes a bit silly.
3. Distract yourself.
“Distract, don’t think.” Your thinking – even though you are using cognitive behavioural techniques – can make things worse. Stay away from the self-help books and work on a word puzzle or watch a movie instead and surround yourself with people as much as possible. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for cognitive behavioural techniques and mindfulness. But when you reach a point of disabling anxiety, it’s sometimes more beneficial to try to get out of your head as much as possible.
4. Write twin letters.
Rossi Lebowitz offers a smart strategy for anxiety: Compose a love letter to your object of hand-chill (your fear). Celebrate all of the reasons you fell in love with him/her/it in the first place. List everything positive you can think of, and nothing negative. Now write a missive. Vent all of your worries about the situation and try to make a case against moving forward. I’ll bet you can’t come up with a single true deal-breaker but giving your worries some air will feel good.
Many people have found only one full-proof immediate solution to anxiety. And that is exercise. Bike. Walk. Swim. Run. I don’t care what you do, as long as you get that ticker of yours working hard. You don’t have to be training for an Ironman to feel the antidepressant effect of exercise. Even picking the weeds and watering the flowers has been shown to boost moods. Aerobic exercise can be as effective at relieving mild and moderate depression as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac and Zoloft). Stephen Ilardi writes: “Exercise changes the brain. It increases the activity level of important brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. Exercise also increases the brain’s production of a key growth hormone called BDNF. Because levels of this hormone plummet in anxiety and depression, some parts of the brain start to shrink over time and learning and memory are impaired. But exercise reverses this trend, protecting the brain in a way nothing else can.”
6. Watch the movie.
Elisha Goldstein explains that we can practice mindfulness and experience some relief from anxiety by procuring some distance from our thoughts, so that we learn to watch them as we would a movie (in my case, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”). That way, we can sit back with our bag of popcorn and be entertained. Most importantly, we must try to let go of judgments. That’s a tad hard for a Catholic girl that tends to think like the Vatican: dividing every thought, emotion, and behaviour into two categories, which are “good” and “deserving of eternal damnation.”
7. Eat super mood foods.
Unfortunately, anxiety is usually the first clue that I should, once again, analyse my diet: to make sure I’m not drinking too much caffeine, not ingesting too much processed flour, and not bingeing on sweets. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve usually committed a misdemeanour in one of those areas. So, I go back to power foods. What are they? Elizabeth Somer, author of Food and Mood, and Eating Your Way to Happiness, mentions these: nuts, soy, milk and yogurt, dark green leaves, dark orange vegetables, citrus, tart cherries, and berries.
8. Return to the breath.
A very simple and effective way to meditate is by counting your breaths. Merely say “one” as you inhale and exhale, and then say “two” with my next breath. It’s like swimming laps. You can’t tune into all the chatter inside your brain because you don’t want to mess up your counting. When you bring attention to your breathing – and remember to breathe from you diaphragm, not your chest – you are able to calm yourself down a notch, or at least control your hysteria (so that you can wait five minutes before bursting into tears, which means you avoid the public cry session, which is preferred).
9. Break the day into minutes.
One cognitive adjustment that helps relieve anxiety is reminding yourself that you don’t have to think about 2:45 pm when you pick up the kids from school and how you will be able to cope with the noise and chaos when you’re feeling this way, or about the boundary issue you have with a friend – whether or not you’re strong enough to continue putting yourself first in that relationship. All you have to worry about is the very second before you. If you are successful at breaking down time down that way, you usually discover that everything is fine for the moment.
10. Use visual anchors.
I often look up to the clouds. They calm me down in traffic or whenever I feel anxious. Water also helps me. Water has always calmed me down in the same way as Xanor, and since I don’t take the latter (I try to stay away from sedatives), I need to rely on the former. Some of my clients downloaded some “ocean waves” that they can listen to on their iPod when they feel that familiar knot in their stomach. One person has a medal of St. Therese that he grabs when he becomes scared, a kind of “blankie” to make him feel safe in an anxious world.
11. Repeat a mantra.
Mantras can be very simple: “I am okay” or “I am enough.” But you can also recite a “metta meditation.” It slowly changes the way you respond to things in your day. Say to yourself:
May I be filled with loving kindness.
May I be happy, and healthy.
May I accept myself in the moment right as I am.
May all sentient beings, be at peace, and free from suffering.
Flexing your funny bone does much more than relieving any crushing anxiety. It boosts your immune system, diminishes both physical and psychological pain, fights viruses and foreign cells, heals wounds, and builds community. You have no doubt experienced a moment when you were crippled by anxiety until someone made you laugh out loud, and in doing so anxiety lost its hold over you. Why not laugh all the time, then?