Updated: Jul 12, 2019
Anxiety is challenging. Many of us will face it in the extreme at some point. I happen to experience it nearly every day and have had to develop or find tools to manage it. It can be managed, and just like any other skill, it takes practice to get good at it, so here are the tools I use to regain my focus.
First, accept that this is where you are. It’s okay for you not to be okay right now. The biggest challenge we face is trying to stop ourselves from feeling difficult emotions. If you think about it, anxiety is an emotion like happiness is an emotion and I don’t see you trying to chase your happiness away. My point is that emotions will come and go. If happiness were so intense that it affected our lives you would probably see more self-help books titled “How to Stop Happiness in its Tracks” or End Your Happiness Suffering Now!” There’s no need for that, but for some reason we want our suffering to stop immediately when it comes to anxiety and depression. I’ve suffered from an anxiety disorder for most of my life and I’m just getting to where I am comfortable in my discomfort. It took time and a lot of practice to get her. My emotions are still present, but they don’t rule me like they used to and I don’t have to shoo them away like a pack of raccoons in my pantry.
Following are tools I used to help me get through my anxiety. If you don’t have an emotional emergency kit, now is a good time to start. This isn’t about getting rid of emotions or fixing them, it’s about allowing them, managing them, and reengaging with life. These are ways to get you back on track quick and get you back into your rational mind ASAP. Ready? Let’s go:
Emotional Emergency Tricks for Anxiety
1. Who you gonna call? No, not Ghostbusters! Think of a trusted individual you can feel safe talking to. This could be a therapist, a family member, a coach, a trusted friend. Have them on speed dial for when your emotional shit hits the fan. Seriously, keep their number close and make arrangements with them to talk when you need. The last thing you need is isolation, so get in touch with someone. Make yourself move. Force yourself to talk. Social connections are really powerful in shifting your mood.
2. Chew Gum! In a recent study found on PubMed, researchers found that chewing gum effective for short-term relief of anxiety. Whether you chew fast or slow is up to you, but it appears that faster chewing is more effective than slow for reducing anxiety. Another interesting thought is that we don’t eat as much when we face real danger, so by chewing you are showing your body that you are safe.
3. Stand up straight! Current research is demonstrating the link between posture and mood. An upright posture is linked to confidence and subsequently impacts mood. If you’re feeling afraid, try standing up tall and straight and see how quickly your emotions change.
4. Box breathing- There is an indelible link between the body and our emotions. Control the body and emotions will follow and vice versa. When it comes to breathing, you can use your breathing to get your emotions in check. Buddhists monks and Navy Seals know this little secret and you should too. Slow your breathing down. I like to breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, breathe out for eight seconds and hold for four. You may tweak it a bit, but by slowing your breathing you are showing your body it’s safe which causes your emotions to get back in line.
5. Shrink your goals to the smallest possible degree. I remember one day I decide to see how far I could run. Didn’t really have a clear goal other than to push myself. Well, I ended up running just a little over 17 miles that day. Shocked myself too because prior to that I had only run 3 to 5 miles. How did I do it? By setting tiny goals. On the trail that I ran there were power poles. I decided I would just make it to the next pole. They were spaced pretty evenly and not too far apart. By choosing to accomplish that little goal, I reached on goal after another, after another, and eventually ended around 17 miles. When anxiety is rampant, it’s hard to see the bigger picture, but you can set micro goals. Give it a shot. Shrink your goals to such a small size that it’s nearly impossible to fail. This will keep you going until you regain the big picture goals again.
6. Cut the alcohol and the caffeine for a few days- God knows I love whiskey, beer, and a Red Bull here and there… okay, every couple of hours, but when it comes to my anxiety, these have to be moderated. When these chemicals hit our body, the body goes to work breaking them down. In that process we can have withdrawal symptoms and sometimes those are worse than the emotions we are facing. I’m not saying you have to get rid of these completely, but cut back on them for a bit until the challenging emotions fade.
7. Cold shower-Fuck, I hate and love these at the same time. If you haven’t tried a cold shower you really are missing out. Now I don’t take the whole shower cold. I take a hot shower followed by 30 seconds of cold. I’ve gotten brain freezes from this, but I always come out feeling energized and clear. Cold showers cause stress on the body but they also help the body reduce inflammation and be better able to handle other stressers. This one tool will always be in my tool belt!
8. Muscle contraction and release—Okay, if you think about adrenaline, it serves a purpose. It is a chemical used to fire our muscles in a dangerous situation. Well, perceived threat, even if it’s not real, does the same thing, so if you get anxious and don’t burn off the adrenaline it will just take longer for your body to return to homeostasis, so help your parasympathetic nervous system out by getting into physical action. Contract your muscles, go for a walk, exercise, and cry. These are all ways to get your body back to homeostasis. Your parasympathetic nervous system is there to return you to balance, so give it a nudge!
9. Make encouraging comments to yourself! Have you ever had someone give you encouragement during a challenging time? Did it help? Maybe not always, but in most cases it’s reassuring and helps us push forward. Well, you can do this for yourself as well. Comments like “You can do this! You’ve got this! You can handle this!” are great ways to keep you taking the next step. Navy seals work in an intensely stressful work environment and even they know the power of positive self-talk. You can use this to keep yourself going when things seem impossible.
10. Carry a Totem! Have a reminder for why you are doing what you are doing. For me I wear a bracelet with my kid’s names on it. Carry some kind of totem or symbol for why you do what you do. It may not hold any magical power for you, but it will remind you of what you value and keep you going in the hard times.
11. Quitting is not an option. Okay, this is a big one. Let me be clear on this one. This doesn’t mean sticking with things that are bad for you. This isn’t about staying in a toxic situation, it is about staying committed to your goals. I mentioned Navy Seals a few times in this article because they are bad-asses when it comes to staying and performing in stressful situations. Never ring the bell! If you haven’t seen this video, watch it:
12. Get some sleep. It seems sleep and anxiety are related. For me, mornings are the worst. If I don’t get enough sleep, I will start my day off ridiculously anxious. Beyond that, there seems to be a connection between our sleep cycles and mental illness and research is finding that sleep is vital for our well-being. Granted, not everyone can get 8-hours of sleep a night, but you should make sleep a priority. During sleep our brain heals. I heard someone say that being awake is low level brain damage and that sleeping heals it. Makes so much sense to me! Shoot for 8 hours if you can, but get as much sleep as you can even if you have to nap throughout the day.
13. Watch what you eat. This is a tough one for most of us. When I’m anxious I don’t feel like eating, but I know I need to eat, so I force myself to eat, but then I have to be careful about what I eat. Greasy foods and sugary foods are not your friend when it comes to anxiety. For a few days, be picky about what you put in your body. You NEED to eat, and you need to put healthy foods in. Add in supplements like magnesium and vitamin D. Your brain and body are going through a lot, so you want to make sure your giving them the nutrients it needs. For some good ideas around this, read this article https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-strategies-to-ease-anxiety-201604139441
14. Return to your routine. If you don’t know about Barry McDonagh, and you have anxiety, your missing out on some killer tools for breaking out of this. One of the big takeaways from his work is the importance of re-engaging in your life and goals. Sometimes we manage the emotions or we distract ourselves but we fail to re-engage. That is a very important step in managing anxiety and something you will want to pick up as soon as possible.
15. Go Ahead and Distract Yourself! A few months back I picked up a Rubik’s cube, grabbed a manual on how to solve it, and went to work. It takes me about two minutes to solve the cube, but I can almost do it without thinking. Sometimes when things get stressful I’ll solve the cube. Distractions are great as long as you’re not using them to avoid what you have to face. Sometimes they are needed to just get through some of the anxiety and I highly recommend them. Watch a show on Netflix, read a book, play a video game, spin a fidget spinner. These are ways to take your mind off things temporarily. Remember, to re-engage though!
16. Medications as prescribed. Look, if you have medications, take them as prescribed. This is very important. Some people need a little assistance when it comes to managing emotions. There is nothing wrong with that at all! Medications have helped me in the past and if you need ‘em, and have a prescription, take them!
17. Be okay with not being okay. Sometimes I’ll buy a book because of the title and hope the rest of the book is as good. Not always the case, but headlines and titles can be valuable too. One of those books is It’s Okay Not to Be Okay: Moving Forward One Day at a Time. The message is simple—though in practice it may not be as easy—allow your anxiety to be present and move forward anyway. The truth is you are NOT fundamentally flawed, you are just facing a challenging situation and that is okay! You can handle this!
To summarize, you will face anxiety in your profession. Knowing how to manage it is crucial for your success and these 17 tools will help you in an emergency. You may not be able to do all of them on-the-spot, but each has its benefits. Remember, anxiety is an emotion like happiness. Let it be present and do its thing and it will move on. By having an emergency kit, you will be well-prepared to take on anxiety when it comes.
I hope this helps you in your battle for success!