What is Anxiety?
The future can be unpredictable, so it’s normal to worry about unexpected problems and whether you’re prepared to manage them. You might think about your day-to-day or long-term responsibilities and wonder, “What do I need to know?” “How should I get ready?” or “What will happen if I don’t plan ahead?”
If so, it means you’re mentally gearing up for situations that matter to you. And that’s great if you respond by actively removing potential obstacles to success.
But when worrying escalates, intense anxiety can develop. Anxiety is characterized by excessive and unrealistic concerns about the future, emotional and physical tension, and patterns of avoidance–avoiding people, responsibilities, or harmless situations.
If anxiety makes it too difficult to function in your relationships or keep up with your obligations at home, work, or school, it’s important to develop an anxiety reduction plan.
In cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), attention is given to cognitive, behavioral, and somatic or physical aspects of anxiety. Thus, efforts to control anxiety should specifically target a) fearful beliefs, b) avoidance behaviors, and c) tension in the body. Let’s consider each in greater detail.
These include thinking a situation is more challenging than it is, imagining that the future is unpredictable and uncontrollable, and believing you don’t have the ability to cope with stressful situations. These beliefs can be tough to recognize when the emotional part of anxiety is intense, but with practice, they can be noticed and changed.
By avoiding situations that lead to anxiety, we might feel better, at least for the time being. But what about the next time we’re around people or situations that trigger anxiety? Chances are, we’ll try to avoid those, too.
This explains how patterns of avoidance develop, and why they’re so difficult to break. Avoidance should be gradually replaced with behaviors that improve functioning in challenging situations. It’s important not to rush this process, because setbacks can damage confidence, and low confidence is a contributor to anxiety.
Tension in the body
When anxiety hits, muscles become tense, breathing becomes shallow, and heart rate increases. These reactions are similar to those we might have to physical threats, like falling off a roof or getting chased by an angry dog. This is a normal part of the fear response, and it’s adaptive if we need to defend ourselves or run away from danger.
But serious anxiety occurs when we interpret psychological situations as threats. When this happens repeatedly, and for a long time, chronic tension can replace relaxation as the typical state of the body. This is why physical relaxation training is such an important part of anxiety management.
Top 10 Ways to Reduce Anxiety
The following suggestions can be used to address fearful beliefs, avoidance behaviors, and tension in the body. The effectiveness of each will depend on the type of anxiety you experience and severity of current problems.
- If your worrying includes “What if…?” questions, answer them in writing by listing actionable behaviors and thoughts that would make a situation easier to manage.
- Write down your thoughts for later instead of repeating them in your mind. For example, if you worry too much to fall asleep, jot down your concerns on a notepad by the bed. You can always revisit them when you’re ready to be productive.
- Trying not to worry or telling yourself everything will be OK can have the unintended effect of causing you to worry more. When worrying becomes excessive, or if specific concerns are difficult to control, ask yourself a series of questions to evaluate the likelihood that your predictions will come true and how you’d cope if they do. Some examples: “How likely is it that this (bad thing) will happen?” “If it happens, what’s the worst outcome? The best outcome? The most likely outcome?” “What can I do to prevent this (bad thing) from happening?” “What can I do to cope?”
- Learning to tolerate uncertainty is an important part of managing anxiety. No matter how much you prepare for the future, there will be unpredictable and uncontrollable events. The more you can accept this inevitablity, the easier it will be to cope with surprises.
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- Repeated exposure to a feared situation is one of the best ways to reduce avoidance behaviors. If you experience social anxiety around unfamiliar people, for example, give yourself more opportunities to meet new people and become comfortable with the process. Say hello to people you don’t know, chat with someone in the grocery checkout line, attend a party, take a class, or join a club. This exposure process will be uncomfortable at first, but with time and persistence, anxiety will decline.
- Keep track of your progress. Record keeping makes it easier to monitor the effectiveness of your anxiety reduction strategies. You’ll know what works and what doesn’t if you monitor anxiety triggers, beliefs, behaviors, anxiety reduction strategies, and changes in symptoms. Use a spreadsheet, notebook, or a smartphone app.
- Progressive muscle relaxation exercises can help you to get reacquainted with physical relaxation, and it’s helpful to know how to relax your body when muscular tension due to anxiety becomes a problem.
- Diaphragmatic breathing is another physical strategy that can be used to relax in stressful situations. Attempt to breathe into the belly while keeping your shoulders down and relaxed. Let your abdomen, rather than your chest, expand as you inhale.
- Exercise, especially aerobic exercise or “cardio,” performed for over 20 minutes can reduce trait anxiety. But be patient–it can take a few months to see a meaningful effect.
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- Pick up an excellent evidence-based self-help book like The Anxiety and Coping Workbook or work with a psychologist who practices cognitive behavior (CBT), which is particularly effective for treating anxiety disorders.
An earlier version of this article appeared at Chico Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy.