10 strategies to build your anxiety toolkit

10 strategies to build your anxiety toolkit

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Anxiety takes many forms—you probably have your own excruciating version—but it’s usually a feeling of extreme fear or worry, often accompanied by catastrophic thoughts and physical symptoms.

When it’s problematic, anxiety can become debilitating to your mental and physical health, contributing to a number of serious conditions, including burnout, heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, hypertension, migraine headaches, and dementia.

Environment plays a role, but so does your heritage. Anxiety runs in the family: 30 to 50 percent or more of your anxiety is due to your genes.

Forty-one percent of people with anxiety disorders go untreated, which is tragic, since there are scientifically proven strategies to help you feel better.

“Everyone feels anxious at times,” says Elizabeth Hoge, director of the Anxiety Disorders Research Program at Georgetown University School of Medicine. “It’s the intensity and frequency of the symptoms that make it problematic.”

It’s hard to tame anxiety when you’re repressing it, hating it, or, worse, feeding it. Approach anxiety like any other surmountable problem.

To quell your anxious mind, make friends with him. Put your arm around that part of you that gets anxious and be curious.

Consider these tactics to tackle your anxiety. And make sure you prioritize sleep, everything is harder when you’re exhausted.

When you start to feel anxious, stop and try to identify your feelings as accurately as possible. Maybe it’s something like: I feel a sense of dread about going to work today. Labeling feelings helps your prefrontal cortex organize chaotic emotions into rational thoughts, blunting their effect, according to research by Matthew Lieberman, a neuroscientist and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Then, confide in someone you trust so you feel less alone. Explain that you don’t need help, you just want to share your emotions.

Explore what lies behind the feeling. Perhaps your work anxiety is fueled by the fear of being fired or judged harshly by a boss. Tune into your triggers. Also, practice what’s known as cognitive reappraisal, which means reframing the meaning of an emotion to change its impact. For example, being fired from your job is scary, but it can also be an opportunity to find a better position where you feel more secure. Reappraisal is associated with decreased anxiety, while suppression of emotions is associated with increased symptoms.

“Relaxation is important,” says psychologist Edmund Bourne, author of “The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook.” “It’s the first thing I teach my patients.” Taking a few deep belly breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth, can reduce your body’s stress response, which is especially helpful if your anxiety is accompanied by physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, a racing heart or upset stomach. Make it a habit to take breathing breaks throughout the day. An app like Breathwrk and Breathing App can help guide you.

Several studies have found that music can reduce anxiety levels in critically ill patients. Experiment with different types of music to see what helps you feel more relaxed.

“A single workout can improve your mood,” says Kristin Szuhany, a clinical psychologist at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. Walking outside while focusing on your surroundings can help you feel more connected to your present experience and away from the anxious thoughts in your head.

A recent study by Hoge found that people who took an eight-week, in-person course in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) experienced a reduction in anxiety similar to those prescribed escitalopram, an anti-anxiety drug. anxiety. Participants in both groups started out with moderate anxiety; after eight weeks, their anxiety had dropped to levels considered mild. Anxiety levels continued to drop even after the study ended. MBSR, which was developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, teaches skills such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, and breathing awareness.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches you to challenge your irrational thoughts and behaviors. It is a short-term therapy, about 8 to 16 sessions that has been proven to help with anxiety and help you learn to manage anxiety spirals. You will be given homework to do between sessions and after therapy is over. “Patients tend to see a lot of progress in a short amount of time,” said Szuhany, who uses CBT with her patients.

Research into the relationship between diet and mood is in its infancy — but making your diet healthier can’t hurt. A journal review found higher levels of anxiety in people whose diets included high intakes of sugar, refined carbohydrates and high-fat foods and low levels of tryptophan and protein. A recent study found that the artificial sweetener aspartame produced anxiety-like behavior in rats.

Anxiety can become an addiction. “You can get so used to anxiety that it becomes who you are,” says Judson Brewer, author of Unwinding Anxiety. “It fills the space and gives your mind something to do.” Brewer, an associate professor at Brown University, says it’s vital to be aware of your worrying habits. Let’s say you feel anxious every time you give a presentation. Your mind tends to worry in the days leading up to the event. Worrying breeds your anxiety. And then the anticipation of the next presentation becomes more burdensome and a negative loop is created. Instead, you can sit with the original fear and get used to the feeling, rather than worrying about it. To try tracking your anxiety habits, download Brewer’s free habit planner.

There are many medications that have been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety. Talk to your healthcare provider about your specific symptoms to determine which medication might work best. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) (such as escitalopram, brand name Lexapro) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are commonly prescribed for anxiety as well as depressive disorders. They take a week or more to work fully, and then lead to a reduction in symptoms. Benzodiazepines such as lorazepam are prescribed to treat short-term symptoms and take effect within hours. Beta-blockers are also fast-acting and can help if you struggle with uncomfortable symptoms like a fast heart rate, sweating, and tremors, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

The more you understand your anxiety—what causes it, what helps alleviate it—the better you’ll be able to manage it, and the healthier you’ll feel.

Lesley Alderman is a psychotherapist based in Brooklyn.

We welcome your comments on this column at [email protected]

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