Taking the Control Back- 5 Steps in Managing Anxiety

More and more people today are noticing that they may have some anxiety and how that’s impacting their lives. I’ve gathered my top interventions for dealing with anxious symptoms and how to make sure that it no longer interferes with your life. Before we get into my tips, it helps to understand what anxiety even is and what it’s purpose is in our bodies.

What is it?

Anxiety can be thought of the as the “alarm system” of our body. It is triggered by this tiny part in our brain called the amygdala. This area is responsible for the “fight, flight or freeze” response that is hardwired in all of us. It’s the crucial piece our ancestors needed in order to sense something dangerous (like a bear) and have instantaneous body reactions occur to help them survive. When the amygdala encounters danger, it sends a message through our entire body system to react to the danger by fighting, fleeing or freezing. This is done through a rush of hormones that cause changes in your heartbeat, perspiration, breathing, eyesight, blood flow, digestion, etc in preparation for any one of these responses. This amazing system is what helped keep humans alive when confronted with danger for generation after generation.

Today we rarely encounter these types of dangers. But that amazing “alarm system” is still there to do it’s job. At some point, we all get some anxiety reactions for things like public speaking, performing in front of an audience, etc. The little rush of hormones we receive is a good thing and helps us to perform our best. However, sometimes, this system may start to get triggered for things that are in fact not dangerous at all, and it still sends a reaction in your body as it its preparing you for a fight, flight or freeze. Your brain may start to set off the alarm system just because it perceives the non-danger to be dangerous. The more the system gets triggered by events in your life that you tell your brain are dangerous, the easier and easier it becomes for your brain to default to this response. This leads to anxiety that is no longer useful but rather begins to interfere with your life.

Suddenly you may find yourself avoiding things that make you nervous or worried. Your eating patterns may change, you sleep differently, your mind races with thoughts and worries and you feel “on edge” more than you would like to. You notice your anxiety growing, taking over other areas of your life, and eventually it becomes a monster in your life you can’t seem to get rid of. You try to give in to its demands by making decisions to please it but nothing really pleases it. You may eventually start to experience panic attacks which is an overload of those same hormones in your system.

Perhaps what you’ve read so far seems familiar to you. What can you do about it? Some days it may seem impossible to overcome it or go back to a life before anxiety got a grip on it. Yet anxiety can be overcome. These steps will help you to square off against anxiety and begin to take control of your life again.

1. Externalize It

First and foremost, you have to think of anxiety as something outside of you. Anxiety is not a part of you or a description of who you are. You are not anxious. Rather anxiety has come to you. It shows up when you do not want it to be there, it asks you to do or not do certain things, it takes a hold of your life, and it has caused you pain. When you begin to see it as an outside entity, it begins to lose its power while you begin to regain yours. Some people like to give their anxiety a name that resonates with them like “the monster, worry, bad guy, etc”.

2. Find the Root

When did you first notice anxiety entered into your life? Did some event happen? What do you remember about your childhood and what messages did you received about real or perceived dangers in the world? These are messages that your parents displayed in the home through their words, actions or interactions with you and others. Anxious parents are 60-70% more likely to pass on their anxiety to their children.

If some type of traumatic event occurred in your life such as witnessing domestic violence as a child, being abused in some way, experiencing a life-threatening situation (being robbed, a car accident, etc), or other types of trauma events, then the trauma has to be treated in order for the anxiety to begin to lose its power. Many therapists are trained in trauma specific treatments that are highly effective for adults. If you do not address the root cause of anxiety, it will continue to rear it’s ugly head in your life.

3. Do It Anyway!

The thing about anxiety is that it is very predictable. It only wants comfort and control. No matter what. So if you are doing something that doesn’t give anxiety those two things, anxiety will fight you on it. Sometimes putting up quite the fight. But the second you give in to anxiety by doing whatever it is that will give it comfort and certainty, it’s won. However, it’s not satisfied at this win or the next. In fact, its never quite satisfied. It will push you to give in again and again and again. Until your life looks nothing like the way you want it to look.

You start avoiding things like social situations or finishing that important project. But the more you avoid, the stronger the anxiety gets. If you accommodate anxiety, it will only become cemented. So when you need or want to do something and anxiety starts to get in the way, do it anyway. Show anxiety that it will not win and that YOU are in control. This takes some pushing back on your part and doing something that you are not used to, but it is exactly what needs to happen for anxiety to start to get the message that it will not continue to rule your life. Tolerate the discomfort. Tolerate the uncertainty. You will come out of it on the other side.

4. Separate Good vs. Bad Worry

We all need our alarm system to be there for us and work when we need it the most. You are not trying to get rid of this incredibly powerful system that has served us well since the being of humankind. Worry pushes us to do things we need to get done, perform well on tests/performances, and plan for the future. But we don’t need it to alter our lives in a negative way, debilitate us, riddle us, and weigh us down with fear. That serves no purpose.

Begin to distinguish when worry is good and positive and when it is bad and negative. We are not trying to get rid of anxiety showing up in our lives because we need it at times. We are however not allowing it to take over our lives and wreak havoc.

5. Acknowledge Anxiety

There will be times when anxiety or the alarm system gets triggered. Acknowledge this occurrence. Tell your alarm system that in fact, nothing bad or dangerous is happening. It will start to listen. The more you tell your alarm system that there’s no danger, the more it will learn on it’s own not to sound the alarm. You can say things like “I know you just want to do your job but nothing is dangerous right now and I don’t need you”. Simple yet effective.

Winning the Fight

Confronting anxiety and going head to head against it is not easy. Its not very comfortable at times. You will want to give in and go back to the status quo at some point. Deciding to manage something in your life that has become unmanageable is tough. And it is also incredibly rewarding. You will gain confidence and strength you didn’t know you have. And it will help bring more peace and positivity in other areas of your life. But it is a very personal decision. When you are ready, take the reigns and do what you believe is in your best interest.person-woman-hand-rainy