As a therapist for over 30 years, I can confirm that we all feel a need to reduce anxiety at some point in our lives. It’s that sense of dread, panic or being trapped accompanied by physical symptoms of sweating, rapid heart beat, faster breathing, and fatigue. When you have an anxiety attack, you may feel a temporary need to escape the situation. Most anxiety lasts only a few minutes, but can seem much longer due to its intensity. Anxiety often re-occurs in similar situations resulting in avoidance behaviors in an attempt to control it.
Some people have situational anxiety and others may have anxiety for no apparent reason–free floating anxiety. Some may have anxiety attacks and others may feel less intense anxiety more often. But, we all have a need to manage it in some way. In discussing anxiety reduction, I will present different categories or approaches to management starting with the least invasive first.
STRESS REDUCTION TECHNIQUES:
Diaphragm Breathing: Find a comfortable and quite place to sit. Just take a slow deep breath filling your lungs completely until you see your stomach rise. Upon each exhale, visualize the tension slowly leaving your body. Drop your shoulders and let your muscles feel like they are hanging on your bones. About 10 minutes of this should get you ready for the next exercise.
Progressive Relaxation: While your are still sitting in a comfortable place, you begin to tense a muscle group for 5 to 10 seconds followed by relaxation. Start with your forehead and work down your body to your feet. You move from head to arms, chest, legs and feet. Do not tense too hard or long as the tension sometimes remains.
Transcendental Meditation: After the two above exercise, you can now begin your meditation. I’ve always preferred to sit in a yoga position, but a comfortable chair is just as good. Close your eyes for 15 to 20 minutes in a quite place. I allow my mind to wander for this time rather than self direct. I find the mind wanders to those areas of life that are of concern. I then view them in an anxiety free light which often gives me insights in understanding or resolving it.
Biofeedback: After the above, you can now begin your biofeedback. This is simply the body giving the mind feedback about how they interact. You can start with a finger thermometer that shows how warming your finger results in dilating your arteries. This reduces the physical and vascular effect of anxiety. Using biofeedback to monitor and control muscle tension is a better option, but you would need to get some equipment. I was a biofeedback therapist, so I know you can make appointments with an expert and learn the techniques in as little as 5 to 10 sessions.
Stretching: There are routine warm-up stretches that prepare the body for exercise. But, there is Yoga and Tai Chi as well. Yoga involves specific body postures and includes breath control and focusing of the mind. Tai Chi involves slow movements to increase vascular circulation. If you reside near a Chinese community, you may see this form of martial art practiced in public parks. It mostly involves stretching and slow circular movements. This can be used as a warm up for more active exercise.
Anaerobic: This is simply the use of muscles with faster motion. Many sports and weight lifting are start and stop activities. Besides stress reduction, you increase your muscular strength, coordination and flexibility.
Aerobic: This is continual exercises improving the body’s use of oxygen. This includes walking, running, cycling, swimming, rowing, etc. Besides stress reduction, you will increase your stamina, strengthen your heart and arteries, burn calories, increase your mood and even extend your longevity. Of the three, aerobic exercise appears to have the most physical and mental benefits if done for at least 20 minutes three time or more a week.
Anti-anxiety Foods: Whole grains have magnesium and serotonin which calm neurotransmitters in the brain. Chamomile tea ingredients have an effect similar to Valium on your brain. Other foods that have been identified are almonds(balances mood), acai and blueberries(both high in antioxidants that relieve stress), and seaweed(tryptophan). This also means avoidance of foods that led to anxiety like caffeine, sugar, glycemic or white carbs, and fried foods.
Guided Imagery: This is using your imagination to guide your life. This involves closing your eyes sitting or reclined and revisiting a relaxing situation. You try to use all your senses. When you visit your favorite beach, you see, smell, feel, and taste it. You can feel the breeze and taste the salt in your mouth. Relaxing images often improves mood in only a few minutes.
Creative Visualizations: There is an excellent book called “Creative Visualization” by Shakti Gawain suggesting you set your mind before you get out of bed. That is, once awake, just lie there and picture how your day will unfold. Picture your interview success(or other task) and how relaxed and cheerful your will be. It’s a form of mental rehearsal like athletes do before a game.
Affirmations: This is the process of repeating positive phrases about yourself to change your outlook. When repeated daily, these positive phrases become a self fulfilling prophecy and can change your behavior. If you repeat how calm and relaxed you are on a daily basis, you slowly convince yourself until you are that person.
UNDERSTAND THE CAUSE:
Specific: Certain situations can trigger anxiety in some people. After my rear end car accident, I felt anxious when tailgated for a couple of years. Since I understood the cause, I was able to plan a resolution. So, I would start my deep breathing techniques when tailgated and sometimes turned up the radio to distract me. I finally got over it after using these techniques.
Non-Specific: Some people I know are just anxious people. They over-react in anxious ways to various minor or routine stresses. This is sometime called free floating anxiety when a specific cause is not apparent. In this case, you understand this is part of your character. So, you just program stress reduction into your daily routine–taking time before and after work everyday.
Talk Therapy: If you practice all the above techniques on a daily basis and your anxiety is still causing you distress, you may consider counseling. This will most likely go deeper into the cause and provide an expert opinion as to the treatment. This treatment may focus on coping skills, self-esteem exercises or prior traumas. In my practice, I noticed that anxiety and depression often go hand and hand. If this is your experience and it interferes with your life, it may be important for you to try counseling.
Behavior Therapy: Cognitive Behavior Therapy involves talk therapy with a specialist. This system involves changing the old thinking patterns and habits that contribute to your anxiety. We replace self-defeating thoughts with positive affirmations. You practice following your thoughts with positive behavior change until new habits develop. This may involve stress reduction techniques as well and can be attended in a group rather than individual sessions.
Medications: If you are in therapy, your therapist may refer you to a Psychiatrist for a medication evaluation if indicated. This is not the place to start as this is often a treatment of last resort. There are many medications available for anxiety and depression that the doctor will evaluate you for, so I won’t go into detail here as this is always individual.
In conclusion, these anxiety reduction techniques are presented in progressive order so you can start at the top and work your way down. The more techniques you use, the stronger the effect. It also takes a few weeks of practice to get maximum benefit. Many of these techniques can be incorporated into your daily routine, like meditation and exercise, and will result in healthy improvements in different areas. L. Johnson www.creativeretirementforwomen.com