Seven Ways to Reduce Anxiety (on your own!)

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A lot of my patients suffer from various types of mood disorders, though I’d say that anxiety is slightly more common than depression.  While sometimes neurotransmitter balancing is the best way to approach this, and there are certainly plenty of lifestyle changes, hormone balancing, medication issues and a number of other factors to consider, quite often some very simple techniques can make a very big difference.  Here’s a few of my favorites.  I do my best to practice these myself when I get stressed!

  1. Pay attention to what you are thinking about.  Sometimes it’s hard to remember that you are always thinking, because it goes on without your notice.  It’s like being aware of the fact that you’re breathing.  For that reason, it’s easy to forget that you get to choose what you think about!  Thoughts have a physical structure (they look like trees in your brain), and they can trigger emotions, which set off a cascade of hormones that cause physiologic changes in your body.  Thoughts that trigger fear, anger, and anxiety set off a cascade of stress hormones, which can set you up for high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and a number of other potentially serious conditions.  So the trick is, when you catch yourself thinking something that makes you feel anxious, consciously choose to reject that thought, and replace it with something positive.  The more you tell yourself the positive “rewrite” of a negative thought, the easier it will become to believe it.
  2. Create a list of your priorities in life.  This can really help with the tendency to become frantic and overwhelmed.  More often than not, we allow ourselves to become frantic over something that is someone else’s priority, and not ours.  If your priorities aren’t immediately obvious to you, it can help to ask yourself, “At the end of my life, what is it that I want people to say about me?  What do I hope to accomplish?”  When you answer these questions honestly, you may discover that your biggest sources of stress are not actually at the top of your priority list.
  3. Spend a little time every day listing the things for which you are grateful.  These can be the big things (your family, your relationships, your job) or little things (you got a few minutes to yourself at lunch yesterday so that you could collect your thoughts, you spent some time with a dear friend), etc.  People have a tendency to be very problem-focused, and as soon as one problem is solved, instead of being grateful for the solution, we forget it was ever an issue in the first place, and just move on to the next problem!  It’s very hard to remain peaceful in this mindset, and it’s also very difficult to trust that our current problems will work out if we forget all the others that have worked out already.
  4. Disengage from your sources of stress.  This isn’t always possible, but when you have the option, stop and take a break.  Go for a walk.  Call a friend.  Take a long lunch.  Pray.  Journal.  Often we don’t do this for fear that if we don’t plow right on through, we won’t get everything done, but this is an illusion.  In reality, we become much more creative and productive (not to mention happier) when we can lower our stress hormones.  Taking a break is often the most productive thing you can do!
  5. Stop blaming other people.  It’s a cliche, but it’s true: you can’t change other people; you can only change yourself.  It certainly may be the case that other people are contributing substantially to your problems, but if you persist in thinking of all the ways the other person needs to change, you keep yourself in a state of powerlessness, because you can’t change them.  It’s our job to take responsibility for our own happiness; no one can do it for us.  So how can you react to an adverse circumstance differently?
  6. Take some time for yourself every day.  Your responsibilities, demands, and work will always expand to fill whatever time you allot them.  This means that if you think you’re going to wait until everything is done before you take time for you, it’ll never happen!  Try scheduling “you” time like an appointment, and guard it just as jealously.  Wake up an hour earlier than everyone else in your house.  On your way home at the end of the day, pull over and rest.  Stay up an hour later than everyone else.  If you carve out time to do the things that help you to recharge, then you won’t feel so much as if your life is not your own.
  7. Pay attention to your feelings (don’t suppress them).  We tend to think that “good” emotions (joy, peace, love, etc) are good, and “bad” emotions (anger, sadness, grief, fear) are bad.  This is true in terms of subjective experience of course, but it is not absolutely true; all emotions have a purpose that can lead to our ultimate health and well-being, if we listen to what they are trying to tell us.  It may be that you are angry because someone in your life is taking advantage of you; the anger is telling you that it’s time to draw your boundary and separate yourself from a harmful situation.  It may be that you are fearful because your thinking is going awry, and you need to be more vigilant about the thoughts you allow into your head.  Sadness and grief are normal and appropriate responses to painful circumstances, and they are part of the process of letting go and moving forward.  We cannot pave the way for the “good” emotions to come without going through the process of grieving the loss of something precious to us.  Problems with negative emotions come in when we start to tell ourselves lies, like it will always be this way.  Instead, try to see negative emotions as red flags that something is amiss and needs to be dealt with or changed, but remember that they do not have to stick around once the reason for their presence has been addressed – unless you let them.
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