Ongoing anxiety is one of the most horrible physical states I have experienced. It has robbed me of precious time and even made me hide from the world. I had to get control of it. Otherwise, I was on a one-way track to professional and social ruin.
As a teacher with an unchecked anxiety disorder, I found myself crying between classes and hiding trembling hands from my students. The ever-mounting demands of accountability brought on by the authorization of the No Child Left Behind Act stole more and more of the unstructured time that I needed for self-care during the school day.
Worse yet was facing coworkers, friends, and family who didn’t understand because persistent anxiety had never been a problem for them. Though well-intentioned, being told to “just breathe” or that things would be okay, didn’t help. Such “advice” often deepened the shame that came with calling out sick on a day I simply could not face my duties as an educator through the terror that comes with anticipating panic attacks.
So, I began researching and reading everything I could get my hands on, hoping I could find the silver bullet. Note: Nothing pisses me off more than searching “anxiety” in an online bookstore only to receive messages that I can overcome my disorder with quick-fixes and badassery.
Unless your anxiety is short-term and episodic, most of the search returns on “anxiety” simply won’t cut it. You have to go deeper and understand it from the inside out.
After consuming the majority of suggested reading from many websites, I learned that I had to change the way I was thinking entirely. Learning to alter your mindset on anxiety is a far more effective strategy than trying to eradicate it with the snake oil advice in quick-read books. The only thing I will say that you can do quickly to address persistent anxiety is to start being diligent about change NOW.
Typically, we avoid anxiety. We know the signs it is coming, and we reject them wholely. We can change our behaviors to avoid triggers or reject the feelings and consequences of it entirely, but there is a paradox here. When we reject anxiety and its symptoms, we could actually be making things worse. Anxiety often creates a feedback loop in our nervous system. Before you know it, you can become anxious about becoming anxious, thereby bleeding the anxiety into other areas of your life.
If you search “neurobiology and anxiety” on the internet, the rabbit hole you will find is immense. I am greatly simplifying the psychological and chemical processes for the purpose of this article. Still, you can certainly do the search to get more information if you so desire.
There are some strange facts about the science behind anxiety that could change the way you perceive it and help you identify ways to break the anxiety cycle. However, I know some of you need to get straight to the strategies for managing the symptoms. You can skip the science for now and go straight to the unique ways to manage anxiety. Still, I strongly suggest you come back to my discussion on brain science when you are ready.
Reality is Subjective
The part of your brain that drives the anxiety reaction cannot always tell real experiences from thoughts. Please read that sentence again. Let it sink in. Now allow me to explain.
First, our brain takes in stimuli. Sight and sound stimuli are processed through the thalamus, which breaks the inputs down and classifies them before sending the information on to the amygdala and specialized portions of the cortex. Olfactory (smell) and tactile stimuli bypass the thalamus altogether, going straight for the amygdala. This is why smells and physical sensations can trigger memories and feelings far stronger than the other senses.
The cortex, in turn, gives the incoming information meaning, making us conscious of what we are seeing and hearing. One region of the cortex, known as the prefrontal cortex, may be vital to turning off the anxiety response once a threat has passed.
Back to the amygdala, which is the emotional hub of the brain. Note that the amygdala receives sensory input before (or simultaneously with) the cortex. One of the amygdala’s primary roles is triggering the fear response known as “fight or flight,” so it makes sense that this is the case. Evolutionarily speaking, fast action without the need to process deeply has helped our species survive in the harsh environments we encountered.
What is important to note here is that the amygdala itself cannot discern real events from thoughts. If the cortex sends thought messages that our amygdala perceives as a threat, it can respond by dumping the hormones responsible for the fight or flight response into our nervous system.
Chemicals such as cortisone, the stress hormone, and adrenaline can thereby be released by a “mere” thought, even a subconscious one. It is theorized that dysfunctions in this process lead to many anxiety disorders.
The Chemistry of Anxiety Has a Ceiling
As mentioned prior, the amygdala triggers the release of chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline into our nervous system when it perceives a threat. Much like medications we take, these chemicals have a maximum effect on our bodies before they wear off. Medical professionals refer to this maximum effect as the ceiling.
Unlike much of the medications we take, our bodies create these chemicals. We have no conscious control over how much or how often our amygdala introduces the stress chemicals into our systems. So each of our stress responses is different, making it difficult for doctors to help us moderate this process with anxiety medication. It really is trial and error.
However, one empowering fact is that the chemicals can only do so much and do wear off over time for most of us when given the opportunity. There is power in knowing that the racing heartbeat, uncontrollable sweating, and trembling muscles are typically temporary.
You Can Retrain Your Brain
Many thought behaviors are learned. We have developed patterns over time, with repeated exposure and habits. Worrying is a learned thought behavior, for example, even if it is an unwanted one.
Metacognition, thinking about thinking concerning learning healthy and sustainable thought behaviors, is not something readily found in Kindergarten through 12th-grade curricula. Sure, we focus on growth mindsets and positive thinking, but direct instruction in how to avoid neurological disorders through conscious brain-training simply doesn’t happen unless someone sees a problem and intervenes.
Thankfully, there is a growing awareness of the importance of socio-emotional education that targets self-regulation, but most of my readers have likely missed that boat and must, therefore, self-teach.
To retrain your brain takes dedication because it is only through consistency and repetition that you can change the thought behaviors that have developed unchecked thus far.
Common Advice You Shouldn’t Ignore
- Be mindful of meeting your basic needs of sleep, nutrition, hydration, and exercise as consistently as possible.
- Consult a professional. Routine mental healthcare is as essential as general healthcare.
- Choose your support team carefully and make sure they truly understand anxiety in its many forms.
- Learn and practice self-calming strategies.
- Pay attention to patterns and triggers around your anxiety reactions and actively counter them with self-care.
Finally, The Unique Ways to Manage Anxiety Symptoms
Get Heavy or Tight
Occupational therapists, Special Education teachers, and pet owners have known these next two ideas for decades. Now the secret is out: Weighted blankets and compression shirts are research-evidenced for self-calming.
The first time I heard about weighted blankets, I was in my 2nd year of teaching within a small rural district in the middle of the Carolinas. A student with autism moved into town, bringing with him an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that included the use of a weighted blanket to deescalate anxiety whenever he was overstimulated. That ten-pound, dingy grey blanket worked like magic. I have used one for years now with great success.
Does your pet experience anxiety with storms, travel, or fireworks on the fourth of July? Thundervests have long been used to calm the anxiety of dogs. Guess what: compression shirts can do the same for you. You can buy specialized deep pressure shirts and vests, but in a pinch even a compression shirt sold in sporting goods can help. For best results, though, go for the real deal.
The science is simple: Much like deep touch pressure therapy, pressure on the body from the weighted blanket or compression shirt can calm arousal in your central nervous system and trigger the brain to release more serotonin. Seratonin is the “happy” chemical that increases feelings of calm and well-being.
Be aware that there can be risks associated with compression and weight for some people with preexisting conditions such as sleep apnea, asthma, and claustrophobia. Consult a medical professional before trying them if you have concerns.
This Very Moment
There is no power in the past nor the future. This exact moment, which passes the moment it is realized, is the only seat of choice and action. Mindfulness practices capitalize on this moment of power.
Try making it a habit to be fully present in the very moment you are in. Recognize that the past is comprised of memories and the future is made up of subject thought projections. Neither of them are real in this present moment.
Engage all of your senses to be present in the here-and-now. What do you see? Are there any physical sensations taking place, like the wind on your skin? Can you smell or taste anything.
After practice, you will have increasing control over the direction of your thoughts. This is more powerful when coupled with the labeling technique.
Start With Five Minutes (and Learn Labeling)
I was certain I would never be able to meditate. I gave up within a week every time I tried. Then I hit the worst patch of anxiety I had ever experienced and was willing to try just about anything. With the guidance of my therapist and a very user-friendly app, I began with just five minutes a day.
The first technique I learned was labeling. After three months, I was sitting for 20-minutes (a length of time I couldn’t have even imagined just months before), and the technique had effectively generalized into my normal thinking.
I implore you to commit to five minutes a day of meditation with labeling. That’s all…for now. It typically takes longer than five minutes to sift through your social media, make a cup of tea, or to get ready for bed.
Our thoughts can be like a persistent child, tugging at our sleeve and whining, when we attempt to meditate. The labeling technique is quite simple, though its mastery as a habit requires consistent practice.
- Assume your meditative position.
- Take some deep breaths, closing your eyes on the last breath.
- Allow your breathing to return to its normal rhythm.
- If you know how to do a quick mental body scan, do so now.
- Now focus on your breath. Sometimes, I find it easier to do this if I count the in-and-out movement as “1, 2, 1, 2.”
- As thoughts and feelings inevitably arise, silently label them as “thinking” without judging yourself and gently return to attending to the breath.
- When you are ready to end your meditation, allow a slow opening of your senses and open your eyes.
- Repeat at least once a day, increasing your time when you feel ready.
Labeling gave me the quiet space I needed in my mind to really make positive changes in my longterm anxiety management. Give it a chance.
Put Up Your Shield
Remember how your brain can interpret an idea as a reality? Try using a visualization strategy to shield yourself before entering an anxiety-inducing location or situation. Don’t dismiss this as new-age hocus pocus. Your mind is a powerful tool, and teaching it to shield can be an effective technique.
Read – Destroy – Write
There is a very specific reason the title of this section begins with the word “read” even though the first step in the process is to write. This is because the habit you will form after writing for the first time moves in this specific order: read, destroy, and write.
- Day One: write whatever comes to mind. Nobody will ever read this except you. What are you feeling? What are you worrying about? Whatever comes up, write it down in a stream of consciousness. Some people benefit from writing their thoughts in pictures or with bullet points. Whether it is pages long or just one sentence, get it out of your head and onto the paper.
- The next day, read what you wrote without judging yourself. (This is where the daily pattern of Read-Destroy-Write begins.)
- After reading it through once or twice, destroy it completely. I chose to burn mine, but shredding works just as well.
- Write again.
- Repeat steps 2-4 each day.
If you are in a situation where you do not feel secure in waiting until the next day to destroy your writings based on the sensitivity of what you wrote or the lack of privacy, you can adopt the pattern of Write-Read-Destroy each day. It is almost as effective.
Self-Guided Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
If you are a reader, you have probably been searching for a book that will help you deal with your anxiety. I have read many, and if you are willing to put the work in, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns is the way to go.
Make sure you buy a notebook to go with it, as it is an active read with written exercises. In my opinion, this book is the closest replacement for an actual therapist I have found. It is my go-to recommendation to anyone who needs a therapist but is unable to get one for whatever reason.
Some Holistic Supplements Aren’t Snake Oils
Let me start by saying that I am not a trained medical doctor. You should consult your physician and do research of your own before taking any medication, even holistic supplements and herbs.
Personally, I have used both kava kava (the tincture is best) and Levium for acute anxiety symptoms with significant success. Again, do your research first and talk with a medical professional if you have concerns, but don’t dismiss all supplements as snake oil.
Use Your Brain in New Ways
One of my favorite quotes comes from John Dewey (as in the Dewey Decimal System used by most libraries to catalog books), “Growth is the only moral end.” When you dedicate your mind to learning new skills or practicing some form of creativity, there is less mental space for anxiety-inducing thoughts to intrude upon.
Taking free self-paced classes, watching how-to videos on YouTube, or buying creative supplies to just get going are a great place to start.
Rituals and Routines
This is not a case for religious rituals, although those often work, too. I am talking about habitual patterns of behavior that result in positive outcomes.
Some key routines and rituals to consider trying:
- Morning Routine
- Bedtime Routine
- Cleaning Routines
- Meditation Rituals
- Prayer Rituals
- Gratitude Journaling
Invite More Anxiety to the Party
This one can be tricky, and if you are working with a mental health disorder, it should not be tried without the support of a trained medical professional.
What if I told you that it is possible in many cases that by accepting and leaning into anxiety, and even asking for it to do more of its tricks, can actually short circuit the anxiety loop and provide relief that may even reshape how your brain responds to anxiety on the regular?
The core of this strategy is acceptance and it capitalizes on the chemical ceiling I mentioned earlier in this article.
If you skipped to the strategies, consider going back to the section that discusses the brain science behind anxiety. The more you know, the more empowered you will be.
You may feel broken by anxiety right now, but as the aspiring American author, Jefferson Banks, once said, “A single broken mirror becomes a thousand new perspectives.”