According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 40 million adults between the ages of 18 and 54 have an anxiety disorder. While medications can be an effective line of treatment for some, abuse and addiction can often result from prescriptions such as benzodiazepines. In an age when holistic treatments are being considered as effective as medical ones, what can you do to reduce anxiety without the use of pharmacology?
Here are seven ways to crush your anxiety so you can actually enjoy life:
1. Focus on intention over fear.
Anxiety is often caused by focusing on what you are afraid will happen: "I won't be able to handle it" or "Things will go wrong." Instead, ask yourself, "What do I want to have take place?" Then set it as an intention. For example, "I would like to feel more comfortable when speaking in front of others" feels better than "I will totally mess up if I speak out."
2. Beware of labels.
Labels have a powerful way of affecting how we feel. The now-classic Zimbardo experiments are a great illustration of this phenomenon. During the study, college students were assigned to play the role of either a prison guard or a prisoner. And while each participant knew this label was just "play," both groups started adopting the roles so intensely that the researchers had to stop the study much earlier than planned.
How does this concept apply to you? Labeling yourself as "anxious" propels a sense of victimhood to anxiety. Sure, you may feel anxious (at least until you read tip No. 3, below), but that is different from imposing a global label upon yourself.
3. Reinterpret your feelings.
Rather than seeing what you are feeling as anxiety, view it as excitement. In psychology we call this anxious reappraisal, and it has been shown to be an extremely effective way to curtail anxiety.
Consider this: Think about a time when you fell head over heels in love with someone (maybe your first real crush) or you were really excited about an upcoming event (concert, wedding, vacation). How did your body feel? You may have experienced butterflies in your stomach, increased heart rate, trouble sleeping… And yet, aren't these similar symptoms to what you experience when you feel what you used to call anxiety? Eustress (positive stress) and distress (negative stress) have similar physical manifestations.
So the next time you notice physical sensations, reinterpret them to be excitement rather than anxiety—excitement to try something new, to share your ideas with someone, to overcome an obstacle.
4. Apply the "hot tub phenomenon."
This is a phrase I coined to describe the habituation experience that happens when you try something new and don't give up. Let me explain. Imagine putting your foot in a hot tub where the water is really hot. You may dip your toe in then immediately pull it out because it is so hot. But if you keep your foot in for a little while, it eventually starts to feel good. As time progresses, you put more of your body in until you're fully immersed in the hot tub, and it feels wonderful. I call this the hot tub phenomenon, in which your body starts to habituate to the warm water.
Well, the same thing happens with any other stressful situation. The more you expose yourself to it, the more you become used to it, and the more it becomes your norm. So get comfortable being uncomfortable, knowing eventually it will no longer be uncomfortable.
5. Focus on what is really happening now.
Anxiety is often caused by worrying about the future. Thoughts of "What if this happens" or "What if that doesn't happen" can prevail. "I won't be able to handle it." "It will be so often unbearable that I can't stand it." In psychology we call this fortunetelling—predicting the future negatively, and catastrophizing—making a mountain out of a molehill. One way to overcome this type of thinking is to focus on the present instead of the future. That is, be more mindful of the present.
Stop right now, and take a deep breath. Then ask yourself, "What is going on right now in front of me?" Focus on your breath; how your body feels; sights, sounds, smells and experiences they are happening right now. For example, if you're concerned about an upcoming meeting, stop and ask yourself what's going on right now. You're not actually at the meeting. You may be sitting in your office or at home or driving your car. Ask yourself: Right now, how safe am I? By bringing yourself to the present, you can help combat your anxiety. Research shows that mindfulness is a great way to treat anxiety as well as its cousin, depression.
6. Stop "should-ing" on yourself and reclaim your power to choose.
Stop for a moment and determine how often you use the word "should" as in "I should do X" or "I should be able to do Y" or "I shouldn't do Z." The word should is like a big judgmental finger wagging at you saying "You are not good enough" or "You messed up." It can cause disappointment, stress, and anxiety.
What if, instead of judging yourself, you give yourself a break? So instead of "I should be able to handle this," your focus is "I choose to be able to handle this."
7. Get out of the stress red-zone.
Stress goes on a continuum from zero (no stress at all) to 10 (the most stressed you've ever been). When you are at a 7 or higher, rational thinking tends to go out the window. This is when anxious thoughts can creep in and take over—you're even more susceptible to irrational thought when you're stressed. The key is to ask yourself, "How stressed out am I right now on a scale from 0 to 10?" Whenever you are at a 6 or higher, stop what you are doing and do something that is healthy and helpful to reduce your stress—take a deep breath, do jumping jacks, go outside for a walk, hug a loved one, listen to a song that energizes you, even for five minutes. This will not change your entire situation, but it can reduce your stress so that then you can take the other steps we talked about to help control your anxiety and see thoughts rationally again.