Racing thoughts, pounding heartbeat, heaviness in my chest, the all-consuming, sometimes debilitating sense of fear—just some of the unnerving ways anxiety shows up like an unannounced, unwelcome guest. If you’re one of the 40 million adults in the U.S. who experience anxiety like me, said symptoms are hard to shake off. While it may be comforting to know we’re in good company, having a handful of coping mechanisms at the ready to work through bouts of anxiety can make all the difference. Because–let’s be real– sometimes no amount of logic will cut it. I turned to Alana Warlop, a psychotherapist and life coach, to get the lowdown on her anxiety tips for reclaiming your calmness when it strikes. We got this.
What is anxiety exactly?
Sure, I could try to pinpoint the all-too-familiar ways that anxiety manifests itself for me, but it looks different for everyone. For some, it’s constant, and for others, it’s triggered by a stressful situation (looking at you, health scare) or creeps up out of nowhere when everything was coming up roses. Putting into words what anxiety really is can help us identify and take control of it, no matter the person. “[Anxiety is] a crafty way of distracting your attention and holding the energy of your awareness hostage in a never-ending search for a ‘solution’ that alleviates the discomfort that you are experiencing,” explained Warlop. “We perseverate in hopes that we can find a logical reason why we feel hurt, depressed, judged, shamed, guilty, blamed, or self-critical. And, if we know why, then we think the reasoning will justify our feelings and they will settle.” Warlop warned that that approach rarely works, and if it does, it’s only for the short-term.
But why doesn’t reasoning work, you ask? “Anxiety is a product of stuck, stale, or stagnant emotional energy and incomplete trauma patterns pent up in the nervous system,” Warlop elaborated. “Emotions and traumas that are unresolved stay stuck in our bodies and build in their power to hijack the limbic and nervous systems, which control our behavior above and beyond any logic you could ever muster.” Long story short, at the root of it, anxiety is the mind’s natural defense against having to feel or experience something painful. While you should always talk to your doctor or therapist if experiencing anxiety, Warlop lets us in on some hacks you can try to not only manage anxiety but to heal from it so it doesn’t get in the way of living your best lives.
Tips to help during moments of anxiety:
Bring awareness to your breath
There is no shortage of “take a deep breath” memes floating on the world wide web, but it’s for good reason. The practice has become the go-to method in times of stress, and Warlop emphasized that it’s one of the best things you can do when experiencing anxiety. “Feel the breath move in and out of the body so that the attention from the mind goes into the body,” she instructed. “Let the body know that it is safe to experience all that is there and then ask, ‘What am I afraid to feel?'”
Warlop also suggested moving your attention to the heart: “Imagine breathing a beautiful, warm, golden energy into the heart space with every breath. Let this light grow in size and calming power inside you. This will also move you forward into soothing yourself, instead of wasting energy searching for a solution to an unanswerable (and, most of the time, made up) problem or insecurity.”
Feel your feelings
Having feelings is as natural and involuntary as breathing, but Warlop clarified that feeling is simply a physical sensation and anything beyond that are stories and perceptions that we attach to the feeling. “We are conditioned to think about our feelings instead of actually feeling them, so many people I work with have no idea that they don’t actually know how to feel feelings without telling stories and attaching meaning to them,” she stated. On the other hand, shifting your focus from what’s going on outside of you to your internal experience of your senses, energy, and emotions (AKA “felt sense”) will bring your awareness to the present moment. The result? There is nothing that you cannot truly feel, and allowing yourself to really feel everything that comes along with anxiety will help kick it to the curb.
Don’t judge your thoughts
I’m no stranger to thoughts taking over my mind and spiraling further into an anxious episode. You know, like “What if things don’t work out,” “Nobody likes me,” or “I’m not good enough.” Warlop advised giving myself space to be curious about those beliefs and distracting myself from them, rather than reacting to them: “Carry around an essential oil you love to smell when you can start to feel yourself going in the direction of repetitive and worrisome thoughts. Brush your fingertips along the skin of your arm or face, and focus on the pleasant sensation. Put on calming music and focus on the sound frequencies.” In other words, tap into all of your senses—sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing—to instantly bring you back to the present moment.
Take care of your basic needs every day
PSA: Anxiety is the body’s way of letting you know that it is in distress and needs more care. Call it self-care or creating a solid, foolproof routine, but prioritizing basic health and wellness habits is Warlop’s non-negotiable. If you’re not catching enough Zzzs, I’ve got (bad) news for you: Lack of sleep makes the list of top culprits of anxiety. Warlop suggested forgoing your daily nightcap or the next episode in your Netflix cue and letting your body reset. “7-9 hours of sleep, good nutrition, nature time, and working out are essential in shifting the inner landscape,” she stressed. “And for added bonus points, try meditation. Consistent meditation is a game-changer in resetting your nervous and limbic systems.”
These tips are not meant to serve as treatment for anxiety disorder. If you are struggling with anxiety, please reach out to your doctor, a therapist, or another trusted professional for support.
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