Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue


12 Ways to Manage Anxiety

posted by Beyond Blue

anxiety woman, real simple.jpg

If your mind were a diesel engine, anxiety would be the leaded gas that was accidentally poured in and responsible for all the burps and stutters. Even more so than depression, I think, anxiety is the big disabler in my life, with a capital D, which is why I try to nip it in its early symptoms. That doesn’t always happen, of course, but here are some techniques I try:

1. Recognize the reptilian brain.

My therapist friend Elvira Aletta gives a brilliant neuro-psychology lesson in one of her posts where she explains the two parts of our brain: the primitive part containing the amygdala–which is responsible for generating and processing our fear and other primal emotions–and our frontal lobes: the neo-cortex or the newest part of our brain, which is sophisticated, educated, and is able to apply a bit of logic to the message of raw fear that our reptilian brain generates.

Why is this helpful? When I feel that knot in my stomach that comes with a message that I am unloved by the world, I try to envision a Harvard professor, or some intellectual creature whacking a reptile on the head with the a book, saying something like “Would you just evolve, you overly dramatic creature?”

2. Exaggerate your greatest fear.

I know this doesn’t seem like a good idea, but truly it works. I learned it from a fellow Beyond Blue reader who explained on a combox: “Tell your fear to someone else and make sure to be as dramatic as possible, with very descriptive words and emotions. Then, when you’ve told every detail you can think of, start over again. Tell the entire, dramatic story, again with very elaborate descriptions. By the third or fourth time, it becomes a bit silly.”

My friend Mike and I do this all the time. He will tell me how he is afraid he has diabetes, and that his leg will have to be amputated, and then he won’t be able to drive a car with one leg, and because of that his wife with leave him, and he will be a single, lonely old man with one leg. Funny stuff, right?

3. Distract yourself.

For the last two months I have been under the very clear direction of my doctor to “distract, don’t think.” My thinking–even though I thought I was doing the right thing by using cognitive-behavioral techniques–was making things worse. So she told me to stay away from the self-help books and to work on a word puzzle or watch a movie instead, and to surround myself with people as much as possible. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for cognitive-behavioral techniques and mindfulness. But when I reach a point of disabling anxiety, it’s more beneficial for me to try to get out of my head as much as possible.

4. Write twin letters.

Former Fresh Living blogger Holly Lebowitz Rossi offers a smart strategy for anxiety in her post about cold feet: “Compose a love letter to your object of feet-chill [or fear]. Celebrate all of the reasons you fell in love with him/her/it in the first place. List everything positive you can think of, and nothing negative. Now write a missive. Vent all of your worries about the situation, and try to make a case against moving forward. I’ll bet you can’t come up with a single true deal-breaker, but giving your worries some air will feel good.

5. Sweat.

I have found only one full-proof immediate solution to anxiety. And that is exercise.

Bike. Walk. Swim. Run. I don’t care what you do, as long as you get that ticker of yours working hard. You don’t have to be training for an Ironman to feel the antidepressant effect of exercise. Even picking the weeds and watering the flowers has been shown to boost moods. Aerobic exercise can be as effective at relieving mild and moderate depression as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac and Zoloft).

In his comprehensive book, “The Depression Cure,” clinical psychologist Stephen Ilardi writes: “Exercise changes the brain. It increases the activity level of important brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin…. Exercise also increases the brain’s production of a key growth hormone called BDNF. Because levels of this hormone plummet in depression, some parts of the brain start to shrink over time, and learning and memory are impaired. But exercise reverses this trend, protecting the brain in a way nothing else can.”

6. Watch the movie.

In his blog, “Psychotherapy and Mindfulness,” psychologist Elisha Goldstein explains that we can practice mindfulness and experience some relief from anxiety by procuring some distance from our thoughts, so that we learn to watch them as we would a movie (in my case, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”). That way, we can sit back with our bag of popcorn and be entertained. Most importantly, we must try to let go of judgments. That’s a tad hard for a Catholic girl that tends to think like the Vatican: dividing every thought, emotion, and behavior into two categories, which are “good” and “deserving of eternal damnation.”

7. Eat super mood foods.

Unfortunately, anxiety is usually the first clue that I should, once again, analyze my diet: to make sure I’m not drinking too much caffeine, not ingesting too much processed flour, and not bingeing on sweets. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve usually committed a misdemeanor in one of those areas. So I go back to power foods. What are they? Elizabeth Somer, author of “Food and Mood” and “Eating Your Way to Happiness” mentions these: nuts, soy, milk and yogurt, dark green leafies, dark orange vegetables, broth soups, legumes, citrus, wheat germ, tart cherries, and berries.

8. Return to the breath.

Here’s a confession: the only way I know how to meditate is by counting my breaths. I merely say “one” as I inhale and exhale, and then say “two” with my next breath. It’s like swimming laps. I can’t tune into all the chatter inside my brain because I don’t want to mess up my counting.

When I bring attention to my breathing–and remember to breathe from my diaphragm, not my chest–I am able to calm myself down a notch, or at least control my hysteria (so that I can wait five minutes before bursting into tears, which means I avoid the public cry session, which is preferred).

9. Break the day into minutes.

One cognitive adjustment that helps relieve anxiety is reminding myself that I don’t have to think about 2:45 pm when I pick up the kids from school and how I will be able to cope with the noise and chaos when I’m feeling this way, or about the boundary issue I have with a friend–whether or not I’m strong enough to continue putting myself first in that relationship. All I have to worry about is the very second before me. If I am successful at breaking my time down that way, I usually discover that everything is fine for the moment.

10. Use visual anchors.

My therapist looks up to the clouds. They calm her down in traffic or whenever she feels anxious. For me it’s the water. I don’t now if it’s because I’m a Pisces (fish), but the water has always calmed me down in the same way as Xanax, and since I don’t take the latter (as a recovering alcoholic, I try to stay away from sedatives), I need to rely on the former. So I just downloaded some “ocean waves” that I can listen to on my iPod when I feel that familiar knot in my stomach. I also have a medal of St. Therese that I grab when I become scared, a kind of blankie to make me feel safe in an anxious world.

11. Repeat a mantra

My mantras are very simple: “I am okay” or “I am enough.” But one Beyond Blue reader recites what she calls a “metta meditation.” She claims that it slowly changes the way she responds to things in her day. She says to herself:

May I be filled with loving kindness

May I be happy, and healthy

May I accept myself in the moment right as I am

May all sentient beings, be at peace, and free from suffering.

12. Laugh.

As I described in my post, “9 Ways Humor Can Heal,” flexing your funny bone does much more than relieving any crushing anxiety. It lowers your immune system, diminishes both physical and psychological pain, fights viruses and foreign cells, heals wounds, and builds community. You have no doubt experienced a moment when you were crippled by anxiety until someone made you laugh outloud, and in doing so anxiety lost its hold over you. Why not laugh all the time, then?

Click here to subscribe to Beyond Blue and click here to follow Therese on Twitter and click here to join Group Beyond Blue, a depression support group. Now stop clicking.



  • http://gracefuldancer.blogspot.com Nicole

    Thanks for the tips. I can relate to most of what you’re going through. Anxiety is my biggest hurdle right now.

  • Nicole

    Correction: My blog address is http://gracefuldancer23.blogspot.com
    Thanks for all you do Therese!

  • Elisabeth Davies, MC

    I think #5 exercise is effective for managing anxiety.
    I know that #9-staying in the present moment is necessary to keep the mind from jumping to the future, ruminating in the past,or enabling worry thoughts.
    I use #10-visual anchors, to steady the mind. Ocean waves are great, due to the soothing effect they can have on our senses.
    #11 mantras are great! specifically “I can handle everything that life presents to me, one moment at a time” or “I deal with life as it is presented to me-one moment at a time.”
    Thanks for posting, since over 45 million Americans suffer with anxiety, we can always benefit from effective strategies to manage it (=
    Elisabeth Davies, MC
    http://www.brightalternatives.com

  • Elizabeth

    And I’d like to add one more thing to your list…
    Read Beyond Blue and Watch YouTube videos where Therese demonstrates CBT tricks!

  • katy

    Friends seasons 1-3. watching that show gets me out of my head in moments of disabling anxiety and refocuses my attention to something else. or taking a nap helps. it’s like hitting the restart button on my brain.

  • Lisa

    Your #12 is a common way to help the anxiety overload at our house. I believe my favorite was helped by divine (and canine) intervention. My daughter’s anxiety was at about 75% one day with the typical teenage dominant symptom being large quantities of anger and verbal spears. I called her dog (that we are training as a psychiatric service dog) and my daughter said, “I don’t want you OR her in here.” I made her Belgian Shepherd climb onto her twin bed with my daughter, near the head of the bed. This caused numerous negative responses, again. I told my daughter to move over, which she refused to do. My response was to tell the dog to go ahead and sit on her head . . . which she promptly did! It took all of 5 seconds for her to burst into laughter. One of my favorite coping memories. :)

  • http://www.mediac2c.co.uk/ Donna

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  • Nancy R.

    I remember my therapist telling me to touch things to keep myself “in the present” I would walk around the room touching things like a blind person. It did help. My anxiety attacks would come in the middle of the night waking me from a dead sleep with a racing heart and a feeling of pure terror. It got so I was afraid of my bedroom, afraid of it getting dark and time to go to bed, afraid of winter because of the dark coming earlier. I was sleeping only in the car when someone else was driving me somewhere or a little on the couch. I did for some reason feel better in my son’s room and with my sister around. Some people made me feel more anxious and some made be calmer.

  • Larry Parker

    I would agree that anxiety is a much bigger issue for me than either depression or mania at this point in my disease, 15 years in.
    It’s tough because, even when you don’t have a full-blown panic attack per se (which I do probably two or three times a year), it’s an intense physical sensation. Your lungs are constricted. Your stomach is boiling. And you know no antacid or inhaler is going to help you.
    Breathing exercises do help. So do mantras. And playing with my dogs (both my older dachshund and my mutt puppy) helps too.
    But the biggest and quickest improvement I get by far is from … benzodiazapenes. (Sorry, Therese.) As that famous movie quote goes, sometimes a man’s just gotta accept his limitations.

  • Rosa

    Anexiety is a horrible thing. It happens to me when I fail to let myself be God conscious…Moreover, my heart really goes out to those who expect the world to love them…I am not sure if that type thought should be pegged as an illusion or a myth…for sure it will never happen

  • Jerry

    After rushing to the ER thinking I was having a heart attack, and being told everything was fine….instead of feeling foolish…I went to see my doctor…..long story, short version….I had got to the point that I was sleeping only 3 to 4 hours a night….hurt like I had been hit by a truck…felt like if someone said anything to me I would dissolve into tears, etc.
    I told my MD….I am so tired when I go to bed, but my mind is like in a spin cycle…I think about things that are pressing and then one minute later I’m thinking about the expiration date on a carton of milk in the fridge….I wish I could take my brain out and put it in a jar till morning and sleep…..surprisingly he didn’t seem to think I was NUTS…..
    He did prescribe some sleep aid, and I have felt much better…he also prescribe an anti-anexiety med…he told me that sleeping better might relieve some of the mind racing stuff, but if it didn’t…to try the anexiety meds….so far I haven’t taken any of them…
    I’m sure my life is alot like others…..both my parents( ages 80 & 84 ) are living, they reside 75 miles from me….I spend alot of time on the road taking them to the doctor, etc….my husband had a transplant a year ago and this is still a concern….so what can I say…..LIFE CAN BE TOUGH…..but ….LIFE IS GOOD !!!!
    I do try to stay positive and be thankful for all that God has blessed me with…..
    I find myself really looking into people’s faces when I’m out and wondering what their situations are….if nothing else…I’ve learned that a KIND word and a SMILE work wonders on most everyone.

  • cassa

    My pdoc has some of his phobia and PTSD patients use a variation on tip #2-tell the story of their traumatic incident in minute detail with almost exaggerated emotion. When feelings and emotions come, let them come and then go back to telling the story. When the story is done, tell it again, same level of exaggeration. Eventually the traumatic memory would lose the impact it previous held, much like repeating the same word over and over again makes it lose its meaning to the hearer.

  • Allison

    Thanks for listing the “distract yourself” technique. I’ve found that sometimes the only way to deal with the noise in my head is by drowning it out with an audio book or podcast. Sometimes, though, I feel guilty about it, since I’m escaping reality instead of “dealing” with my problems. However, most of what goes on in my head is circular, irrational, has no solution and just needs to be stopped!

  • http://stop-anxiety-and-panic.blogspot.com/2011/01/anxiety-and-panic-attack-cycle.html Jeff

    http://stop-anxiety-and-panic.blogspot.com
    I couldn’t agree more with what you said Therese.
    Drugs are indeed no way to heal.

  • Rhonda L. Morrison

    There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t experience some type of anxiety; i barely leave my house and have difficulty being around people, especially large groups of people. Then from there it leads to depression and mood swings….its a terrible way to live and sometimes i can’t stand my own self for not being able to manage it. The feeling of anxiety is not only overwhelming and overcoming, it is fearful.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jenna

    Rhonda,
    I am right there with you. I used to be a social butterfly. I used to work 3 jobs, hang out with friends, etc.
    Somehow I have become engulfed in anxiety. I barely leave the house. It’s getting so bad I don’t even open my mail because I can’t pay my bills (whether I have the money in the bank or not). I’ve been looking for support groups, but there are very few (if any) that help. It’s horrible and I cry a lot because I keep thinking I’m not giving my kids enough attention as I’m usually too caught up in what I need to do next and what will happen if I don’t. It’s a horrible cycle.
    Jeff & Therese,
    I find it contradictory to say you understand anxiety but say medication is no way to heal. I’m guessing neither of you have had severe anxiety. While, I will admit you cannot heal with medications, there are those of us who need them. Without them our minds can’t slow down long enough to be rational and learn proper coping techniques. To help a person with anxiety it is best to not judge and to accept their situation and give incremental support.
    I know this because as soon as I feel judged I “run” from whatever group or help I’m trying to get. My anxiety becomes worse and I feel even more alone and misunderstood.

    So, if anyone knows where there is a support group on-line I would love to know how I can get involved so I can get some advice and additional strategies for coping with “this” problem.

  • http://www.mediavolt.co.uk acting auditions

    These tips are very useful for myself and members. Its a big problem and anything like this which can help is great.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment B

    Great info for a guy like me i am currently struggling from an anxiety disorder and this is all very new to me..excellent review

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