Anxiety is tricky. It’s often unpredictable, unreasonable and it can present itself in many different ways. From a tight chest, to hyperventilating, to sweaty palms, to stomach aches, to shaking, anxiety is different for everyone. Anxiety happens when our bodies go into fight or flight mode, triggered by the Sympathetic Nervous System, and responds as if our lives were in immediate danger. Thankfully, there are several surefire ways to combat anxiety when it does strike. Some of the best tactics involve distraction, lowering the heart rate, and recognizing whatever is causing the anxiety. Here are my top five!
- Deep Breathing
I am a firm believer that breathing is underrated. Just because we do it automatically doesn’t mean we don’t still struggle with it sometimes, especially when we feel anxious. Taking a deep breath can completely reset your body, reminding your nervous system that your life is not in immediate danger as a result of your exam being tomorrow. My favorite technique is to take a 4:6 breath. Breathing out longer than you are breathing in is scientifically proven to release calming chemicals in the brain. Four seconds inhaling, six seconds exhaling: 10 seconds in total that can turn your day around completely. Try it out!
- Muscle Scan
While anxiety is psychological (happening in your brain), the majority of it often is felt in the physical body. I hold all of my stress in my shoulders and back, and when I am anxious my muscles are usually actively tightened without me even thinking about it. That’s when a muscle scan comes in super handy. Starting from my toes and ending at the very top of my head, I scan my entire body, intentionally releasing every muscle. Paying attention to the smallest muscles that you may not usually notice, like your jaw, face or hands, not only distracts you from whatever is the source of your anxiety, but it also tells your body that it is okay to relax completely.
Similar to doing a full body muscle scan, practicing grounding distracts you from the source of your anxiety and from the overwhelming physical sensations you are experiencing. Simple grounding works like this: you simply recognize the basic, current through things that you are experiencing through your five senses. For example, when I feel anxious while studying, I close my eyes, pause, and focus on my senses. I smell paper from my textbooks, I feel the denim in my jeans and the mesh chair beneath me, I taste the spearmint gum I am chewing, I hear the people talking in the hallway, and when I open my eyes I see my yellow bedspread. Suddenly, I’m not worried about all the studying I need to do in the next hour, I’m in the present moment, taking in my surroundings and recognizing the absence of any immediate danger.
Where do you consider your happy place? Maybe it’s in the woods, by a lake, on the beach, or just in a hammock somewhere. Wherever it is, close your eyes and imagine yourself there. It might feel kind of silly at first, but it is incredible how much our imagination can help us out. I often imagine this one spot in York Beach, Maine, where my family has gone every summer. During high tide, the waves crash over these small to medium sized rocks and as it recedes, it makes my favorite sound in the whole world. I imagine that sound and sync my breath with it. Even if I just do this for a few moments, it removes me from the anxiety-provoking situation I am in long enough for my nervous system to pause and realize that I am okay. After that I can return to the problem at hand and conquer it with a clear mind.
- What is True in this Moment?
This is one of my mom’s favorite techniques. Like I said, anxiety can often be irrational, so sometimes the best weapon against it is rationality itself. My heart might race when I think about getting a bad grade, but the world is not going to end. I can spend hours worrying about the future, but I am actively controlling what I can and the rest will work out however it will. I can panic about some rumor I heard through the grapevine, but I have no idea if there is any truth to it. By asking myself, “What is true in this moment?,” I can bring myself back to reality, back to the present moment, and reel in any doubts or fears that are clouding my mind and making me anxious.
Anxiety sucks. There is no arguing about that, but you are stronger than your anxiety! Now you have all the weapons you need to fight it. My last tip? Try your hardest to believe that you are enough and you can do this. It might seem hard at first, but practice always makes better.