Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. Women are 60% more likely to be affected by anxiety disorders than men. But anxiety isn’t choosy about who it affects – anyone can struggle with anxiety or anxious thoughts. It’s incredibly common, but it’s also incredibly isolating. Anxiety can make you feel like you’re alone in the world, when in reality, there are so many of us who are struggling with the same feelings of worry, apprehension, and fear.
Thich Nhat Hanh, an influential Vietnamese Buddhist monk and author, sums up the nature of anxiety so perfectly. He writes, “Anxiety, the illness of our time, comes primarily from our inability to dwell in the present moment.” In other words, anxiety keeps us trapped in the past and/or future, and we aren’t able to focus on the present. Today my daughter Britta is sharing 5 simple tips to help you control your anxious thoughts, so you can spend less time worrying and more time experiencing and enjoying the present! I’d like to personally thank Britta for being so candid about something many people struggle with….including me.
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5 Ways To Stop Anxiety And Start Enjoying The Present
1. Accept The Thoughts, But Don’t Buy In
If you frequently experience anxiety or anxious thoughts, it probably won’t go away overnight. A good first step toward managing your anxiety is to simply accept that you are having anxious thoughts, and that you’ll probably have them again in the future. And that’s okay! Experiencing anxiety doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.
Because the truth is – and pay attention, because this is important – you are not your anxiety, and your anxious thoughts are not necessarily a reflection of reality. So when anxious feelings come up, try to remind yourself that whatever you are thinking or feeling is okay. But instead of buying into those thoughts or getting caught up in them, try to simply listen to what they are telling you.
2. Shift Your Attention
It is remarkably easy to get swept away by anxiety. The fear and dread associated with anxious thoughts can trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response. When your body is suddenly flooded with adrenaline and other hormones, it can be hard to remember that there was no real threat in the first place!
In these situations, try to shift your attention to what is happening in the present moment. Where are you? Maybe you’re at work, at home, or in a coffee shop. Focus on what kind of things you see around you. Can you hear any interesting sounds, or are there any smells wafting around? Ground yourself in the present moment and your immediate surroundings. Remind yourself that there aren’t any immediate threats to your safety or wellbeing.
3. Find Words For The Feelings
After a lot of hard work in therapy, I learned that the panic attacks I was having were often triggered by simply feeling too many unnamed feelings at once. Negative feelings would stack up on top of one another, to the point where I felt completely overwhelmed. So I spent a lot of time (like a LOT of time) with my therapist working on my ability to identify specific emotions, and also to determine where those emotions were coming from.
It sounds almost too simple, but increasing my awareness of what I was feeling reduced my anxiety significantly. Now when I start to feel anxious, I know that I need to take a moment to figure out what I’m feeling. I can say to myself, “I am feeling hurt because of this reason,” and I’m able to trust that my reason is valid. Specific emotions like feeling hurt aren’t necessarily less painful to experience, but they are easier to deal with than a shapeless feeling of anxiety. As they say, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
4. Make Conscious Choices
In the moment you recognize that anxiety is starting to take over your thoughts, you have a choice – you can either buy into the anxiety, or you can do something else. (Something grounded in the present, ideally!) I hope you’ll forgive me for sharing a personal anecdote here, but I think it helps to demonstrate this choice in action.
I was going through a rough personal situation recently, and was having a hard time keeping my anxiety under control. So I grabbed a piece of paper and drew two columns, titled “Good Ways To Spend Time & Energy” and “Bad Ways To Spend Time & Energy.” In the Good column, I listed all of the activities and pastimes that make me feel happy, productive, or peaceful (like household chores, reading books, doing DIY projects, etc.). In the Bad column, I listed all of the things I do that make me anxious or sap my energy (like negative self-talk, constant worrying, or mindlessly scrolling through Facebook). Then I hung my finished list on my fridge.
After I made the list, I would look at it whenever I felt like I couldn’t stop ruminating on my own negative feelings. Then I would look at the Good column of the list, and find another activity that I could focus on instead. I started making conscious choices to focus on the present. The list didn’t solve my problems, but it did help me realize that I don’t have to be a slave to my thoughts and feelings.
5. Get Help
Breaking free from anxiety is made infinitely harder when your anxious thoughts keep you isolated. You don’t have to go it alone, and it’s always easier when you have someone on your side. In addition to practicing the skills I mentioned above, I highly recommend considering therapy. Many therapists have payment options that can help make it more affordable for those on a budget. There are even options for seeing therapists over video chat if you can’t see one in person!
Deciding to see a therapist was one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself. Before I started therapy, I was having severe panic attacks that were getting more frequent. I knew that I wanted them to stop, but I had zero skills and zero knowledge of how to make that happen. When I started seeing my therapist, she didn’t offer any magic cures or quick fixes. She simply helped me understand what I was feeling, and told me it was okay to feel that way. And now I’m working on being able to do that for myself. :-)
Whether your anxiety stems from being worried about the future, or being caught up in the past, it is probably keeping you from fully experiencing and enjoying the present moment. If you’re ready to start getting a handle on your anxiety and commit yourself to the present, the tips I listed above are a great place to start. And there are plenty of other helpful resources out there too! I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite resources about anxiety, with the hope that you might find them useful as well. :-)
- Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life – a book by Thich Nhat Hanh
- “The power of vulnerability” – a TEDx talk by Brené Brown
- What’s Up? – a mental health app for smartphones (for iPhone and Android)
- 7 Cups of Tea – an online emotional support service
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine – Call 800-950-6264 for anxiety information, support, referrals, and more.