The 5 Things I tell myself when anxiety creeps in

When anxiety takes hold, it may take a few minutes, but eventually I recognize that I am running wild with intrusive thoughts, wallowing in dark possibilities, surfing the downward spiral.

If you’ve been there, maybe that’s when you hear yourself saying: “What the heck! Why am I freaking out right here, right now?”

In those moments, there are some things I can do to help ease my way back to the moment and out of anxious thought patterns.

Here are The 5 Things I tell myself when I’ve noticed I’ve gone over to the dark side. See if any one of these can help you. You may need to try them several times to get into the habit. You may need to try several of them in concert. That’s what I usually do, almost like grabbing on to different rock holds while climbing boulders. Try and try and try. Eventually you will find something that lifts you up.

1. Where are you now? Explore all 5 senses. Feel everything about the moment you are standing in as opposed to the one you’re imagining. For example, if you’re in the shower (I meet up with a lot of anxious thoughts there), feel how the streams tickle your back, smell the scents of your soap, what aromas did you choose, open your mouth and taste the water, listen to the cascade hit the ceramic tile. I repeat to myself over and over: Where are you now, in this moment? I try to do this for a few minutes. Any time my mind wanders back to the worry, I ask it again and again. “Where are you now?”

2. Imagine it differently, imagine the good. Imagination and anxiety go hand in hand. I let my mind wander through some scenarios and why-oh-why it inevitably falls into the catastrophic. It can feel all too real. And while it seems so logical to recognize these scenarios are pure imagination, or projection, what is sometimes harder to remember is that we can turn it around. Instead of imagining negative, imagine the positive. (Trigger warning: I’ll discuss one of my fears openly here and will note with “Trigger ended” when I’ve finished the details) I often fear my partner, if late from work, is dying in a car accident somewhere between work and home while I am too busy fretting over dinner details and which kid started the latest bite-fest. (Trigger ended) Instead, I take a moment and imagine a smooth drive home, he’s enjoying his music, the traffic is quite smooth. Then I imagine him walking into the door, safe and sound, just like every work day of the week. If we can imagine the bad, we can imagine the good. Just remind yourself to do it. Imagine the good and then get back to the moment you’re actually in.

3. Dear Fear, Thank you for your concern, now kindly be quiet. I sometimes imagine all of my emotions as separate characters in an office comedy. Stay with me here, I know it’s a little odd-ball. But, Fear, the well meaning albeit loud one of the bunch, calls board meetings to warn everyone of the latest impeding doom. While it’s helpful to recognize down sides, Fear’s incessant yammering at the top of her lungs isn’t productive. So me, as the CEO, calmly asks Fear to state her concerns in a precise manner, I will write them down on the white board and then I’ll ask her to be quiet now while we consider the validity of the concerns and determine any course of action if necessary. If she won’t quiet down, she has to go sit in the waiting room. Imagining fear as merely one aspect of who we are (rather than the entirety of who are) gives us a little more space between our true selves and our anxiety, just enough to bring you back to the moment and recognize you were getting lost in the gunk. If you want to take it a step further, perhaps in a journaling exercise, actually write down what Fear says. Then give the rest of the Board — your other aspects, your rational side, your historical knowledge, your statistician that calculates how probable these outcomes are, etc. — a chance to say something. Then see if you can find a more likely outcome or more reasonable solution to Fear’s concerns. I have found giving fear a little respect (because it is after all a very natural and necessary part of existence) eases its grip. Fear has a real-world job to do and I don’t believe we should demonize it (her?). But we need to be in control of how much she can blow hot air.

4. Get your shoulders out of your ears and breathe. When I’m in the throws of anxiety’s downward spiral I notice that my shoulders have crept up into my ears, like they’re trying to take cover there until the storm’s passed. I have to exhale, strong, and force them down, even shake out my arms. Then I wonder: “My god, how long have I been walking around like Frankenstein’s monster?” Since the tight shoulders, for me, are also linked to tight-chested breathing, I find if I do a few deep breaths I can suddenly refocus, return to the moment. Don’t just focus on breathing in, though. Start by blowing out all the air you can and then slowly let it back in. Do this a few times focusing on the exhale and see if that helps you to physically banish the tension (or at least dial it down a bit) and get your mind past the skip in the broken record, back to the moment.

5. This too shall pass. I actually hate this saying because in the moment it’s the last thing I want to hear. But that’s OK, it’s the truth. (I guess the truth hurts, eh?) We’ve all been in the grips of anxiety and somehow we’ve made it through. Maybe it’s 30 minutes of horrible feelings and being controlled by our thoughts. But when we start to feel lost and dizzy in the fear, if you can hear yourself say, “I’ve been here before, I know what it feels like, I’ve made it through,” in a little while it will be over. If you can somehow squeeze that thought into your mind and then incorporate one of these other tips (often it’s more than one exercise that helps us get through), you will be well on your way to feeling less rocked by the anxious times.

What do you think? Did any of these tips resonate with you? What other ideas have helped you in the moment tamper your worries?

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