Techniques & Treatments to Cope with Anxiety
Some people can learn to handle anxiety by using basic techniques. People with anxiety disorders may need addition help through medication and/or therapy.
The following techniques prove useful for many situations related to anxiety, such as stress and anger. Since self-esteem affects and is affected by everything we do, these techniques also help to improve positive self-esteem.
Act “As If”
Acting “as if” we are not nervous may sound like some sort of strange technique. Yet, this technique has been well-grounded in psychological theory. Our bodies-minds-spirits are interconnected and have the ability to help (or hinder) each other. If we stand tall, walk confidently, speech with assurance, these body movements can help to alter the mind/spirit. Remember the 1950’s movie “The King and I” about Anna and the King of Siam? In one scene, Anna is afraid when her ship arrives in Siam and in response, stands up tall, holds her head high, and begins to whistle the song, “Whenever I feel afraid I hold my head erect and whistle a happy tune and no one ever knows I’m afraid…” In this scene, we get an idea of “acting-as-if” behavior.
Many times we become anxious because we don’t know how to respond to a difficult person. Our anxiety can also develop into anger. Learning even a few assertiveness techniques can help us stand up for ourselves more effectively, and more appropriately. Assertiveness training needs to include practice with tone of voice since the tone will carry the weight of the message, and either work for or against us.
Deep breathing helps the body to calm itself down. One simple exercise is to take three deep breaths in through the nose, hold each for a moment, and then exhale through the mouth. When we take in these deep breaths, we need to try to “stretch” the breathing. That is, when we think we have taken in all the air we can, we need to try to take in a little more. Chances are, we can. We do the same when exhaling. When we think we have exhaled all the air from our lungs, we need to try to exhale a little more. When we are anxious, we can exhale the air sharply, rather than slowly. This helps us to release tension.
When we are anxious, getting upset with ourselves over that fact only serves to exacerbate the anxiety. For example, if we have difficulty sleeping at night, we often find ourselves “stewing” over our inability to get to sleep. Using simple distractions can help to calm the anxiety. Turn on the TV and watch an old movie. Read a book. In reading a book, it helps to chose one that helps to make us sleepy. Other books that are helpful are motivational books that inspire and uplift us and give us hope that the future will be better.
Moderate exercise helps us calm our anxiety or relieve stress. All of us know that exercise helps the brain to release much needed serotonin which is the brain’s natural opiate. However, over doing exercising can stress our bodies and damage body parts over time.
Walking remains one of the safest and most effective and inexpensive ways to exercise. We do not need special equipment or need to pay dues to a health club, or to buy certain clothes other than decent walking shoes. Dancing is another method we can use. Dancing around the house or yard releases tension. If we have access to a pool, swimming is a great way to relieve stress and anxiety because it exercises all the body muscle groups.
Meditation is an age-old method of helping people to find inner peace and harmony. Meditation may be associated with prayer, or simply focusing on an object or thought.
Remember the old saying, “music soothes the savage beast” or the phrase “mood music”? When we are stressed, anxious, even angry, music can help to calm the “beast” in us. Music written in 4/4 time with 16 beats to the measure is rhythmic, hypnotic, and can help us relax. Examples of such music is Baroque or Gregorian chant.
What we eat affects us in our brains as well as our bodies. Too much fat makes us fat. There are some food groups that energize us such as fruits and vegetable, and other foods that help relax us such as complex carbohydrates. Processed sugar and alcohol may help us feel good for the moment but can interfere with our mood and increase tension, stress, anxiety, and anger. The “quick picker-uppers” tend to follow the principle: what goes up, comes down. Quickly.
Positive support systems
People affect our lives either positively or negatively. This brings to mind the Fifth Commandment. Our spirits can be killed by being around negative persons. Sometimes we need to do “housecleaning” and eliminate those who drag us down. Many times this is not so easy to do because the persons involved are spouses, or bosses. When this is the case, it becomes more necessary than ever to seek out others who are positive-minded and who can help offset the emotional distress created by being around negative, unsupportive people. We need to understand that being around negative people, regardless of the reason, limits growth and well-being.
Prayer is a powerful force. Prayer can take the form of a conversation with our Higher Power or God, or can be based on pre-written prayers, such as the Lord’s Prayer, or the Serenity Prayer. When we pray, we remind ourselves that we are not alone, and that there is another force beyond us that can assist us in improving our lives.
All of us need to take time to relax. What is relaxation for one person may be nerve-wracking for another. Some people relax by taking a long bath; others relax by taking a hike. Relaxation is a personal choice. The point is, all of us need to take a few moments. Women, especially, have trouble with this principle. The old adage, “you can’t sit down till the work is done” runs deeply in women’s veins, regardless of age or culture. We must retrain ourselves into allowing ourselves to take time for ourselves. This often means we need to ask for help. Asking for help may involve assertiveness techniques, or maybe all we have to do is ask.
Since self-esteem affects and is affected by everything we do, working to improve self-esteem is another way to improve ourselves. Many self-help books describe ways to increase self-esteem, and reading them in combination with taking some active means to improve self-esteem, such as attending workshops focusing on this topic, can help to raise self-esteem.
All our life events and messages are stored in our unconscious minds. Typically there is not a good communication between our conscious and unconscious minds. This may produce negative self talk and lack of harmony where we become like a charioteer with two unwieldy steeds, each going in their own direction. Hypnosis allows communication between the conscious and unconscious thus aligns our minds like an orchestra in tune so we can lessen our anxiety.
Remember the old sing-song rhythm from childhood: “sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me”? The message in the rhythm is incorrect. Calling ourselves names has a definite negative impact on us. We don’t like it when someone calls our children names, and yet we think nothing of doing the same to ourselves. There is another quote that states a reality about thinking that says “the mind doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what’s vividly and repeatedly imagined.” When we call ourselves names, the mind takes in those negative words as truth and reacts accordingly. We need not only to retrain ourselves from calling ourselves names, but also to refer to ourselves in positive ways.
A professor once said that cursory research suggested a relationship between smiling diminishing anxiety. Smiling may be connected to “acting-as-if” behavior. We can speculate that when we smile, we might be “faking” our brain into getting the message that everything is okay. Since our thoughts-emotions-behaviors are interconnected, when we change one, we alter the others as well: a smile lifts emotions, and thoughts start to shift. Perhaps a smile actually triggers the brain’s neurol nets in some way, or since a smile is a form of facial exercise, perhaps it helps needed brain chemicals to fire. Another speculation might be based on the fact that we cannot hold two different mood states at the exact same time. We might have different mood states close to one other, such as people report when they say they feel like they are on a roller coaster ride of emotions, but those emotions do not occur simultaneously.
The concept of visualization has been around for ages, and yet it sounds so easy, that many of us dismiss it as a viable technique. The basic idea of visualization simply is to picture ourselves as we want to be, and imagine that picture as vividly and completely as possible. Olympic athletes regularly use this technique to improve their performance.
Therapeutic Methods to Help Contain Anxiety
The explosion in the creation of pharmaceutical drugs over the past couple of decades has brought about a generation of “user-friendly” drugs. Often the combination of drugs and therapy provides the most effective treatment for anxiety disorders. Medication for anxiety disorders usually are antidepressants and benzodiazepines.
These medications interact with brain chemistry, helping to correctly balance brain chemicals. While these drugs have brought relief to scores of individuals who would otherwise suffer, a word of caution needs to be made. The tendency in this Country at this time seems to be moving in a direction of an over-reliance on drugs, often medicating people with minimum symptoms, and other times substituting drugs for much-need therapy. Sometimes all people need are medication; other times all they need is therapy. Many times a combination of the two is the most effective treatment. Each person is an individual and needs to be taken as the unique person s/he is. Individual needs and wishes must be taken into consideration.
Systematic Desensitization is a therapeutic method designed by Joseph Wolpe. This method helps people with extreme anxiety. Systematic Desensitization includes having the anxious person make a list of anxiety-provoking situations, and arrange that list in a hierarchically. The person is then taught relaxation techniques, and finally, the relaxation techniques are paired with situations on the list, beginning with whatever causes the least anxiety.
This method evolved under the skillful guidance of Aaron Beck and gained momentum in the 1980s. In brief, Cognitive Therapy’s underlying philosophy is that our thoughts affect our emotions, and our emotions in turn affect our behavior. Many of these thoughts happen automatically, hence are called Automatic Thoughts. Some of these automatic thoughts are quite accurate, while others are not. Yet the brain does not distinguish between correct thinking or dysfunctional thinking. Our emotions get triggered by those thoughts – however precise they may or may not be – and these thoughts soon escalate on their own. We develop behaviors based on our thoughts. For example, if we think someone doesn’t like us, we will behave coolly, or distant to that person. That person responds to the behavior s/he see us have, and we, in turn, react to that person’s reactions. A negative downward spiral can result.
In Cognitive Therapy, we learn to identify, challenge, and correct the distorted thoughts, replace them with more accurate ones, and to correct behavioral patterns that hinder us. As we progress, anxiety lessens, and behavior improves, and with it, so does people’s reactions to us.
EMDR had its genesis in the late 1980’s through the observations, method of practice, and scientific studies developed by Francine Shapiro. This recent therapy has, to date, helped scores of people experiencing certain anxiety problems. It also has been found to be effective in the treatment of a variety of other types of emotional disorders. EMDR integrates several features of major contemporary therapies in a skillful manner which often results in faster relief of symptoms for clients.
EMDR particularly is useful for persons suffering from PTSD. The trauma of the event is lodged in the neural-net system of the brain, and through EMDR the event lessens, even loses, its emotional impact.
Dr. Shapiro’s early research with EMDR focused on Viet Nam Vets suffering with PTSD for more than 30 years after the War. Although they had received psychological counseling, many still experienced symptoms, such as startle response. Dr. Shapiro helped them to alleviate their symptoms after a few sessions of EMDR. The positive results of this initial study encouraged many other research studies to test the effectiveness of EMDR. To date, EMDR has had more research studies done than any other method. The effectiveness of EMDR continues to amaze and to offer hope for many individuals.
Interestingly, since many of our anxieties have some type of trauma at the core of our beings, EMDR works particularly well with many of the anxiety disorders. For example, persons who have been victims of crime, or in an accident, or witnessed a crime or disaster often are traumatized. In addition, EMDR works well with other problems, such as persons suffering excess loss (by death, divorce, property), chemical dependency, and chronic pain.