Anxiety sucks. Unfortunately, I’ve been dealing with anxiety for a long time, mostly surrounding worry and fear of the unknown (also claustrophobic). This indicates excessiveness and a tendency to live in the future, pretty standard for my INFJ personality type. Fortunately, there are plenty of easy, free tools at our disposal to help us cope.
Anxiety can also come in the form of panic, different phobias, social anxiety, PTSD, OCD or any other form of anxiety that falls somewhere in between, like separation anxiety.
How do you know if you have anxiety? Usually, you’ll start to recognize the symptoms happening at specific times, or in certain situations. These are called triggers, and if you haven’t found yours yet, start jotting down when your symptoms occur and the environment or situation surrounding those symptoms. This will start to highlight an anxiety pattern, which you can then address more effectively.
Here are some of the more common anxiety symptoms.
General Anxiety Symptoms
- Irritability; moodiness
- A feeling of impending doom or danger
- Lack of focus or concentration
- Feeling of overwhelm
- Excessive worry; intrusive thoughts
- Difficulty relaxing
- Feeling emotionally out of control
- Viewing problems unrealistically
- Chills or warmth in the chest; sweating
- Shortness of breath
- Nervous, trembling; easily startled
- Sleeplessness; restlessness
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Chronic muscle tension; headaches
- Fatigue; tired
- Heart palpitations
This is an incomplete list, because we will all express our anxiety in slightly different ways. My heart races, but yours may not. You might, instead, get a stomachache ache or lose your appetite.
I differentiate between anxiety and anxiety attacks. Anxiety is what leads up to an anxiety attack. Once anxiety sets in, I can feel it build, and if I can’t back it off with my “tools”, then it will continue building until it reaches attack mode, and I can pinpoint the exact moment it starts.
Heat will rise from my chest and warm my body, I feel like I can’t get enough air, my heart starts racing, and my insides start to feel shaky and nervous. At that point, I am in the midst of a full-on attack, and find it extremely difficult to pull out of it once I’m in the midst of it. My best bet is to always try and stop the attack from happening in the first place. This is where good tools come into play.
The Big Box of Anxiety Tools
Chances are, you already have a few tools to help you cope with your anxiety, since we’re built for adaptability. We adapt to our health issues, our anxiety, our difficulties. We find a way to make it work for us, but what we really need is to be consistent with our use of those tools, so that we can actually reduce our anxiety, and begin to enjoy our lives.
You’re here because you may need help, and my only qualification to help is that I can relate to you. It’s taken a long time for me to figure out how to get my worries and fears under control, but it’s not a perfect system. It’s very easy to fall into old patterns.
Worry, specifically, is a learned behavior; a habit. I learned this about myself through one very specific therapy session. More than 20 years ago, someone I love repeatedly put themselves in danger, sometimes situations of life or death. This went on for years, and I incessantly worried if they would make it home alive. This was the beginning of my worry anxiety. Then I became a mother, and the incessant worrying (smothering) about my kids set in, perpetuating the habit.
“Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.”-Swedish Proverb
I hadn’t realized this until someone else pointed it out to me, and it made sense, because I wasn’t always like this. You may look to your past to identify a trauma that changed things for you, but it’s not something to blame. It’s something to understand, because when we understand ourselves better, change can happen.
Mental Tools for Anxiety
Anything with a star next to it is a tool that works especially well for me.
Ah, acceptance…my nemesis. My grandma always knew I wasn’t good at accepting my circumstances. She was a wise woman.
I think the first thing we have to do is be honest with ourselves. For anyone who worries excessively, you may be worrying about something that could happen, but will likely never happen, and more importantly, something you may have zero control over.
So, ask yourself if it is within your control. If it’s not (and it most likely isn’t), then let it go, because life is going to happen, and it will probably be fine.
Second, we have to accept the uncertainty that comes along with that truth. Not knowing the outcome of something can be scary. We all want to know that everything will be ok, but we have to learn to trust that it will.
When I start to worry about my adult kids, I stop myself and remember how smart they are, and that I raised them to make intelligent choices.
The most important thing to remember is that worry lives in the future and peace and happiness lives in the present. Try going for a walk and focusing on the breeze through the trees, the flavor you experience in a bite of food, or the subtle sounds in a piece of music. The “now” is all around you. You just have to acknowledge it.
Reframing your thoughts takes negativity and flips it on it’s *ss, basically changing your perspective of any given situation that causes you anxiety or depression. Reframing is, essentially, challenging a limited or negative core belief.
The basic action formula is:
- Reality Check – Get honest and accurate about the situation. When we’re in a dark place, we naturally paint things with a dark brush.
- Identify Your Power – I tend to view myself as powerless in certain situations, so I need to stop and remember I’m strong. I do that by looking back and seeing all I’ve been through, realizing I can cope.
- Reframing – This is the hard part. Challenge your belief and reframe it in a positive way. Look for the silver lining, view a problem as an opportunity, or realize that a weakness is also your strength.
“We can complain that roses have thorns, or rejoice that thorns have roses.”-A. Karr
There’s a lot more to this type of cognitive therapy, but you get the gist. Feel free to bring in a professional to help, or pick up a good book on the subject. Many people can do this at home, on their own.
This anxiety tool has also been invaluable to me. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “happy place” or “safe space”. Essentially, you are creating and installing a positive picture in your mind that makes you feel good. You can also use a good memory, but the details are vital for this to work.
First, I would like to say that if you choose a place, please be sure that nothing negative is associated with it. You need a memory or picture that is free of negativity.
For me, this is the Oregon Coast. My mother took me and my sister there, as kids. When I grew up, I took my kids there too. I’ve never had a bad experience there, and it’s easy to come up with the details because I’ve been there so many times. I can taste the salty air, see the kites, and feel the sand between my toes. I can recall a soft, squishy sea cucumber huddled in a crevice of Haystack Rock.
So, take your happy place and run with it, down to the tiniest of details (all the senses) and practice pulling it to the front of your brain when you find yourself getting upset, worried, or feeling a bit anxious. Pair it with deep breathing and it will calm you down within a few minutes. This is one of my “go to” anxiety tools!
Physical Tools for Anxiety
Deep breathing is vital to both your mental and physical health. If you don’t believe me, try it. Right now, take a big, deep breath and blow it out slowly. How do you feel?
There are many ways to use deep breathing to your advantage. There is the 4-7-8 method that Dr. Weil came up with in one of his books. You exhale with a swoosh for a count of 4, inhale through your nose and hold it for a count of 7, then exhale in a count of 8.
My doctor explained that the reason this works is because inhaling for any count and then exhaling longer activates your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). Belly breathing, or yoga breathing, also accomplishes this. It reduces the “flight or fight” response, and is especially helpful for those with high stress or adrenal fatigue.
Deep breathing improves your heart rate variability (HRV) significantly. This is what Heart Math is based on (no affiliation), which has proven useful for me. Heart Math is, essentially, guided breathing. It uses a sensor and visual (Inner Balance app) to guide you through it. It’s a small investment, but has been a great practice in healing for me, and I highly recommend it. Please use the link above to read more about the studies associated with it’s use – I think you’ll find it fascinating!
Meditation is another way to use breathing to your benefit, and bring yourself into the moment. Meditation can be self-guided or guided. There are several apps for guided mediation (I ❤️ Headspace), which is how I do it, but it’s amazing how quickly it can move you out of panic or worry.
When your mind floats away, and it will, just bring your focus back to the breath and body. And, if you can’t meditate for 5 minutes, start with 3. Any amount of meditation is helpful. Try and make it a habit.
Exercise can be a powerful tool in relieving anxiety, negativity, and even depression. It’s not only a distraction from your worries and fears, but it also releases feel-good endorphins and neurotransmitters, like serotonin, that can improve mood.
Cardio can burn off nervous energy, but yoga is excellent for releasing tension in the body, and it’s an exercise in strength and focus that anyone can do. Many yoga classes incorporate a bit of meditation, so you get the best of both worlds. And, if you want to add heat, consider hot yoga or a sauna before or after your workout to help your entire body relax.
I learned a yoga and therapy technique years ago, where I laid down and tightened parts of my body, like my shoulders, for several seconds, released them, then moved on to another area. This is a great way to identify tension, and let it go instantly. Tight muscles can be a direct result of anxiety tension.
”Forest bathing” is a phrase used to describe getting outside and closer to Mother Nature, who is an awesome mood booster. You can double your chances of feeling better by combining this with exercise, like a walk, run, or hike.
Not only are changes taking place in the brain when you exercise, but any physical activity you do forces your brain to refocus – it can’t be in two places at once. This works to your advantage, and proves that sitting in your anxiety is not a good idea, because that is where you will stay.
If you can’t get out of the house to exercise, dance to your favorite tunes, put on your headphones and deep clean, or do some yoga online.
As you’ve likely heard a million times, sleep is crucial to your overall health. Your entire body detoxes during sleep, including your brain. Sleep is your natural rest and restore mode, and you need it to work at an optimum level.
Unfortunately, many people, especially those with anxiety, struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep. I am one of those people. I’ve written a post for people with sleep issues here, that outlines some important changes you can make to help yourself get to sleep and stay asleep.
…but not the kind you’re thinking. I’m talking about Pet Therapy, and please don’t roll your eyes because it’s been clinically shown to lower anxiety, increase comfort, and release hormones that elevate mood.
If you’re an introverted or highly sensitive person, chances are you already love animals and have one or two. I have three – two dogs and a naturally introverted kitty. 🙂 I can personally attest that they help calm me down when I’m anxious or upset by just cuddling up to me while I pet them.
Most pets can act as therapy animals, since they’re already living with you and you’ve bonded. Don’t have a pet? Get one! It doesn’t matter if it’s a dog, bird, cat, horse, or bunny, as long as you connect with them.
I’m not going to go into this one too much, because we all can be eating healthier. In general, focus on organic fruits and veggies, raw organic nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains, healthy fats, herbs (fresh or as tea), and pastured grass-fed organic meats. And avoid the things you know are bad for you, like alcohol, GMOs, additives and preservatives, sugar, and caffeine.
There are a wealth of supplements available for anxiety, but please do your research before popping any pills. There are plenty of health issues that can cause anxiety, and that’s why I had a nutritional profile done that showed several deficiencies. B vitamins are especially vital for the nervous system, but the dosage, if needed, should be guided by your health professional.
Some of the more popular herbs and supplements for anxiety include green tea (L-theanine), chamomile, GABA, lavender, passionflower, fish oil (high-quality omega 3s) and some adaptogenic herbs like holy basil, ashwaganda, rhodiola, etc.
Aromatherapy is another powerful way to combat anxiety, uplift mood, and even lull you to sleep. I love the mood-lifting essential oils in a diffuser during the day. My favorites are orange, peppermint, bergamot, ylang ylang, and roman chamomile.
At night, I sometimes diffuse sleep blends (doTerra Serenity is a fave) an hour or two before bedtime. Vetiver, bergamot, frankincense, and chamomile are all great for better sleep – both balancing and relaxing.
Please be sure that you enjoy the scent of the chosen essential oil or blend, because it won’t help if you don’t like it. Essential oils are very concentrated, so find a reputable company, learn how to dilute them, and use them safely.
This is an obvious one, but sometimes it’s difficult to pull yourself out of what you’re feeling to even consider laughter. If something’s truly funny, though, you will find yourself laughing through your tears.
This is, technically, a form of distraction, which won’t reduce your anxiety over time, but may help in an anxiety “triage” situation. The same can be said for a good book, your favorite music, or physical activity, so go watch baby and animal videos on Youtube, stream a comedy special, read through funny quotes, or find a silly movie. Trust me, it helps.
Talking it out, whether with a professional or a friend, has been scientifically proven to help when we’re struggling with anxiety and overwhelm. Just saying how you feel out loud can make everything seem so much lighter.
I know it’s especially hard to reach out or ask for help if you are an introverted personality type. It took me several years of thinking about it before I finally committed to the decision, recently.
INFJs are notorious for keeping everything to themselves, but I lucked out with a really cool therapist I trusted almost immediately. We’ve made a lot of insightful connections, which helps me get out all the negative feelings and understand myself better.
Hint: you can always do talk therapy online with a qualified therapist.
If you do choose professional help, be sure to shop around. It’s ok to bounce from one therapist to another until you find one you click with.
This is a new tool for me, but I only use it when I’ve gone into a major anxiety attack. My husband knows my tools for anxiety, so when I feel like my emotions have gotten away from me, he helps by guiding me through one of my mental or physical exercises, like breathing or visualization. The visualization works really well because he has been to my “happy place”, so he can help recall the details.
Your friends and family care about you, so consider talking to them about your best tools for calming down in the midst of a anxiety attack and how they can help guide you through it. This works best with someone you live with like a partner or spouse, but if you live with a roommate, talk to them about it. You’d be surprised how eager they are to help.
Use What Works
What works for my anxiety is not necessarily going to be what works for yours. The reason I put so many anxiety tools in one place is because I didn’t know about many of these when my anxiety started getting the best of me, and I wish I had.
Runners up: daily self care, connect with other people, do your best (within reason), distract yourself (music, cleaning, books, etc), and drink tea 🙂
One thing to note is that it’s not healthy to overwhelm yourself by trying to implement all of these at once. Pick one thing from the list that you think might work and stick with it for awhile (at least a few weeks). If you don’t find it helpful, start with the next one, and go from there.
If you found an anxiety tool or remedy that works for you, please share it in the comments, so we can all benefit! Would love to hear from you.
I’m not a health, nutrition, fitness, or medical professional. Please research and talk with your physician before making any changes to your lifestyle or health regimen.