Simple ways to help with anxiety
My family has bunnies for pets: two tiny creatures that, even after years of keeping them, act as if we could eat them every time we get close. The other day I sat down with the fluffy white John, who had recently had his hair cut courtesy of my three-year-old daughter, who, perhaps in solidarity, cut her own hair. As I held him to my chest, I felt his heart quicken. Soaking in a moment of silence in the sun, I measured my breath, smelling a lemon blossom in the air. As John and I sat there, his heart rate slowed and his little hips relaxed. I think a lot about our delicate animal bodies: how we endure threats, upset, and trauma, and how we recover.
As a therapist and mother of three young children, I also think a lot about how I deal with my own stress. I find my own center so I can clearly discover, feel, and hold space for what comes with my clients without interfering with my emotional reaction. I try to calm my own buzzing agita so I don’t put it on my kids. This does not mean that one should strive to be in some unattainable state of emotional neutrality. I’m talking more about the moments or days when we unconsciously move through life in an enhanced state, when everything becomes a challenge, we become exhausted, and any disturbance can easily undo that.
Name your anxiety
I believe the first part of anxiety management – or at least a good place to start – is to develop an understanding of it.
Simply recognizing my anxiety as anxiety is a good first step: “Ah, it’s you, anxiety,” I say when I catch myself upset, upset, and worried about tending to seven things at once. “Anxiety, now is the time to rest,” I tell myself when in the middle of the night my awake brain keeps me awake, squeezed in tension.
Anxiety can come from many sources. These include fear of the unknown, desire for control, excessive nervous system or simply excess energy. If we can recognize the root of what we are feeling and view anxiety as a defense mechanism in overdrive, we can begin to dissect the actual level of threat we face. For example: Getting lunch at the table doesn’t have the same stake – nor does it need the same intensity – as a response to my child falling off a monkey bar. If I feel stressed about preparing lunch and reacting to that experience as if one of my children had just fallen off a monkey bar, I can learn to recognize that anxiety, not just the experience, is what shapes how I feel and behave. If I can recognize that, then I can create even the smallest part of space from feelings. Maybe enough to inhale and lean towards myself.
Once we understand anxiety and the way it works in us (or against us), we can create space to remind ourselves that we have our own experience over our own experience. We can gently hold on and practice presence. I don’t apply this to the moment we are actively traumatized; this is for times when we can’t slow down our thoughts, when fear prevents us from doing things that bring us pleasure, or when we are exhausted by our own inner motor. My favorite ways to slow down – and help my clients – are to perform caution and creative practices.
Focus on the current moment. There are many ways to do this, but here are some of the ones I recommend:
If we get lost in the future or the past and find ourselves spinning, we can build on the present sensory experience. List five things you see, five things you hear, and a few things you can feel. Even simpler: when you take a moment to keep the bunny in the yard, seize the moment. Notice what you see, feel and feel.
Try to focus on the object that is located, drawing attention to it if your thoughts move away.
Ritualize daily activities. Notice how the brush feels in your hand; notice how the toothpaste smells. Slowly down and just brush your teeth, working and not thinking about anything else.
Practice imagining yourself in a real or imaginary place where you feel safe and calm. Write about this place, dream about it, draw it. Notice what happens to you when you spend time imagining yourself in a place where you feel safe and calm. Come back to this place when you feel isolated.
Imagine your intrusive thoughts as trains passing on a running track: You stand on a platform and watch your thoughts come and go like trains pulling into a station and leaving. Do not get on trains; just watch them pass.
Draw your anxiety, fear, or worry. Fill those feelings as if they were characters in a story. It helps you understand your feelings more fully and gain some objectivity, which ideally helps you be less overwhelmed when you are in the grip of your fear. We do the same for feelings of peace, security and joy: what do they look like? How do they speak? How do they move?
Sometimes leaning towards ourselves can be easy, as can spotting when we feel good. If in doubt, pour a little cold water on your face; remind yourself that you are safe at this time; and take a deep breath. Treat yourself to compassion and gentleness. Now is not the time for self-flagellation. The bunny in my arms didn’t calm down because I was yelling at him or forcing him to. Treat yourself as you would to that little bunny who is scared, insecure, and overwhelmed: Inhale, feel the sun on your face, be gentle, and make sure, “I’m safe at this point.”
Annie Armstrong Miyao is a Los Angeles psychotherapist, writer and mother of three.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if it contains advice from doctors and physicians. This article is not and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are those of the experts and do not necessarily represent the views of the goop.