Everyone experiences anxiety. Anxiety is usually a short-term experience that is caused by the anticipation of a particular event. For example, it is normal to experience some anxiety if you are about to interview for a new job. The anticipation of the interview and the hope of getting the job can cause your heart to race, your muscles to tense, and your mind to worry about the possible questions that might be asked during the interview. For most people, this anxiety begins to dissipate once the interview is over. Some people manage their anxiety about the interview by practicing their responses to potential interview questions. Their anxiety, thus, motivates them to increase their preparation for the interview. It follows then that anxiety, in some circumstances, can help us prepare for the unknowns of the future.
However, not all anxiety is helpful. Sometimes anxiety can become overwhelming and completely disrupt our ability to focus on normal tasks. Anxiety, for example, can become so great that it becomes virtually impossible to concentrate during the job interview. As a result, you begin to worry that you are going to blow the job interview which leads to greater anxiety and makes it that much more difficult to concentrate. In this scenario, the more anxious you become, the more you worry, and the more you worry, the more anxious you become. This cycle is what I call the Anxiety Loop.
Understanding the Anxiety Loop
Think of your body as an engine. Whenever we perceive danger, our body revs up to deal with the source of the danger. For example, if you see a car speeding directly toward you, your body will begin to tense up as you prepare to get out of the way. The closer the car gets to you the more your muscles will constrict, your breathing will increase, and your body will prepare to respond to the threat. This automatic response is called the “fight or flight” syndrome and is designed to help us survive life and death danger. Once the danger passes, our bodies will begin to automatically relax as our adrenaline decreases. This “fight or flight” response is the same mechanism that is at work whenever you feel anxious. The difference between anxiety and fear is that there is no immediate danger, but your body is preparing as though there is. There is no car speeding toward you. You feel afraid but you don’t have anything to direct the fear toward. In fact, one definition of anxiety is that it is fear without a focal point.
Think of your thoughts as the fuel for the engine. Whenever we feel anxious our mind starts to look for sources of danger. Since there is no current “life and death” danger we are left to worry about potential dangers in the future. Unfortunately, the more we worry about the possible problems of the future, the more anxious we become. The feelings of fear thus become like an engine that is revving up. The more it revs up, the more fuel it needs. So, as we worry, we become more anxious, which makes us escalate our worries to worse-case scenarios.
Strategies to Decrease Anxiety
It follows then that the way to decrease anxiety is to relax your body (turn off the engine) and quiet your mind (quit giving the engine fuel). It sounds so simple, right? “Just relax and quit worrying.” If you have ever had anxiety, you know it isn’t that easy. Remember that anxiety activates the survival mechanisms of the body. Whenever we feel fear, we automatically look for warning signs of danger. So, our mind is on high alert. As a result, when we feel anxious, we feel compelled to worry. We often feel like if we don’t worry, something bad will happen and we won’t be prepared for it. Paradoxically, the more we worry about potential problems, the worse we feel.
Listed below are some steps you can begin to take that can help you begin the process of quieting the mind and body.
Get Back in the Moment
Anxiety is basically fear of something in the future based on something in the past. As a result, one of the first steps to decreasing anxiety is to get back “in the moment’. The more you are in the here and now, the less anxious you will be. One strategy to get back in the moment is to engage the senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. When you are focused completely on what you are experiencing, it forces the mind to be more in the present.
Engage Your Mind and Body
It is easier to break the Anxiety Loop if your mind and body are engaged in an activity. For example, it is hard to worry about your job while you are playing a strenuous game of tennis. The more the activity requires your full attention, the more it helps you break the cycle of anxiety and worry.
Use the Stop and Start Technique
If I tell you to stop thinking about money problems, you are actually more likely to think about money problems. Instead, when you are trying to stop the worries, focus on thinking about things that are not anxiety-provoking. For example, instead of worrying about something that is out of your control, focus your attention on things that you can control or engage in.
Ask Yourself: “Is This a Life or Death Issue?”
If the thing you are worried about is not a “life or death” issue, then it is more likely to be a quality of life issue. Focus on making decisions that improve the quality of your life and you will feel less anxious as a result.
Learn Deep Breathing Exercises
Deep breathing allows the body to get more oxygen which makes it easier for the body to relax. Taking 3 slow deep breaths from the diaphragm can be very helpful in getting both the mind and body to slow down.
Break the Cycle of the Anxiety Loop Early and Often
If you allow anxiety to build up, it becomes difficult to break the cycle of fear and worry. The earlier you stop the worries and the quicker you relax the body, the more control you tend to have over the feelings. Intervene early and intervene often in order to keep the Anxiety Loop from becoming a self-feeding cycle of fear and worry.
Therapy Can Help!
If you are having trouble getting control over your anxiety, therapy can help. Therapy can help you work through your fears and worries and help you develop the tools that you need to manage anxiety more effectively.
We Can Help!
MHThrive provides Individual Therapy, Couples and Marriage Counseling, and Family Therapy at our locations in Katy, The Woodlands, and the Clear Lake area of Houston, Texas. We also provide telehealth therapy for anyone who resides within the State of Texas. To schedule an appointment with one of the MHThrive therapists, contact us at 713-477-0333 or visit www.mhthrive.com to learn more.
If you or someone you know is experiencing any mental health or substance abuse issues, New Dimensions can help. Our team of experienced therapists and psychiatrists can help you overcome these challenges and help you develop the skills you need to thrive. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.
Online Treatment Programs provides Teletherapy Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient Programs allowing participants to receive intensive therapy with our licensed therapists and psychiatrists without having to leave home. If you or someone you know is struggling to overcome depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, trauma, panic attacks, PTSD, alcoholism, drug abuse, or other mental health or addiction issues, we can help. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our teletherapy programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.