How to manage your anxiety effectively
Are you feeling uneasy or nervous, even at times when you know you can relax? Many of us experience a continuous underlying level of anxiety that makes relaxing difficult. How can we release anxiety and create calmness in our lives?
Spend a moment practising relaxation right now. Even if you are whiling away a lazy afternoon reading, your thought processes are often interrupted by what you should be doing, what you have to do later or tomorrow, or some event that occurred in your past. Unless we have an extended period of time to relax (such as a holiday), many of us remain in a vigilant state whereby our mind is unwilling to completely let go of responsibilities and tasks.
Jane, a school teacher, shared this example. "Recently, I went on a holiday where I completely relaxed. When I came back to work I was ready to take on any challenges and felt confident about managing them. Three weeks into the term, a small issue arose which required some additional planning and organisation. I did what needed to be done to deal with the issue, but after a couple of days I realised I was feeling quite stressed and worried. I couldn’t re-create the level of relaxation I had experienced in my first three weeks of working. I found myself asking, ‘Why can’t I relax?’ and suddenly saw that, although I had done the required planning and organisation for this event, I was still worrying that it wouldn’t be enough. I was feeling anxious because I might let someone down or ask too much of others, or perhaps I wasn’t being reliable enough."
All these expectations Jane has of herself are familiar old feelings. She says, "These are the kinds of feelings I have whenever I attempt something new or others are depending on me. I feel anxious when I have these feelings."
Jane likes to think of herself as organised, responsible and reliable. She felt anxious because after this event she may not appear this way. Its her concerns about who she is in these situations that causes her anxiety, not the situation itself. She had done everything she needed to do to take care of the event, but she was worried something out of her control could occur and then she couldn’t call herself responsible, organised and reliable any more.
The above example shows that responses to situations in your life determine how you feel, and that your responses may cause an underlying level of anxiety. You relax while on holidays because the situations that arise at work and when managing life are not present. As soon as the events are present in your life again, you begin to feel anxious. If you can become more aware of the processes as Jane did, you are in a position to be able to manage your levels of anxiety.
To become aware of what is going on, you do need to stop in some way or another. Even when you feel so busy that you think stopping will waste time and set you back, you still need to take time to become aware of how you are coping or feeling. You can use whatever time is available to you (even if its only five minutes), remembering that stopping and doing something about your level of anxiety will assist you in completing your tasks.
Whenever you start to feel like you cannot relax and be focused on what you are doing, stop and be still. Take some deep breaths and try observing yourself. When you first try this, it may feel like nothing is happening. You may need to practise thinking about taking deep breaths, as opposed to focusing on the tasks you have to complete.
Then practise separating yourself from what you’re feeling. When you are rushing about in a worried state, your feelings are running or driving you. You don’t have to be your feelings. You don’t have to be worry and anxiety. You may feel these feelings, but if you see yourself as separate from them, they will no longer be running you. This allows you some space to be something else other than anxiety or worry. In this space you can be anything you choose; for example, a calm, relaxed person breathing deeply. So by stopping, even for a moment, you can create awareness, reduced anxiety and stop your feelings from running you.
It took Jane two minutes to see she wasn’t able to relax and to conclude this was because she was worried about her management of a forthcoming event. If you take just a few minutes each day to try to understand what you’re feeling and how this happened, you can become more aware of the processes that led you to feeling anxious. If you are feeling anxious or worried at home, it’s useful to make time to stop for longer. Try the following yoga exercise, which will help with your awareness.
Lie flat on the floor on your back, make sure you are warm and that you will not be disturbed. Lie with arms by your sides, palms facing upwards and legs and feet relaxed and flopped outwards. Close your eyes and take your mind inside your body. Notice how you feel physically as you lie on the floor. Theres no need to change anything; youre just observing yourself. Which parts of the back of your body are touching the floor and which arent? Do you feel straight or crooked? Is one shoulder or hip higher than the other? Is one side of your body more on the floor than the other? These types of observations will give you an idea of how you feel physically.
Next, start to watch your breath moving in and out of your body. Feel the breath as it moves past your nostrils, down through your wind passages and into your lungs. Notice which parts of your body move as you breathe. Feel your chest and ribs expand as you breathe in, and contract as you breathe out. Allow your belly to move with your breath, too, taking your awareness and focus lower in your body.
As you attempt these exercises, you may notice thoughts in your mind dragging your attention elsewhere. This is very common. All you need to do about this is bring your attention back to your breath and your body as soon as you notice your thoughts have gone somewhere else.
Each of these practices will allow you to separate yourself from your feelings and thoughts. Become an observer of what is going on in your body and mind. In this way, you can become very aware of how you feel and whats happening without making judgements about it. Perhaps there will be uncomfortable feelings, such as a sore or tight back, or an unsettled feeling that makes you want to get up. Just observe these feelings and thoughts and know you dont have to react to them.
Lying still in this way will help you become aware of how you’re feeling, and focusing on your breath will help you to feel calmer and more relaxed. You can do this whenever you feel it’s appropriate and you have some time. If at any time your back feels too uncomfortable lying flat, bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor.
The first thing to do is accept yourself. There is no benefit in noticing this sort of process and then beating yourself up for it. But you will find that understanding these processes will immediately make you feel less anxious. The awareness thats generated allows freedom because you see you are creating this state yourself, so you can choose what your reaction is. The feeling of anxiety is not about the external event; its about your reaction to it. You do have some control over the way you respond to outside events. As you become more aware of your response, you can decide whether you will continue to feel anxious or choose another response.
We all learn to deal with issues and events in our lives. When you get through a situation by reacting in a certain way, you tend to keep using that method because it has worked for you in the past. There may, however, be negative consequences of your actions. In the example earlier, Jane had managed the event as well as she could, but she didn’t want anything to go wrong because that might reflect badly on her (how she thought of herself or how others thought of her). She was unable to relax, even when she wasn’t at work. She was worrying about things she had no control over.
This caused Jane to feel anxious. This is the negative consequence of the way she managed events in her life. She can lessen the impact of this way of dealing with things by accepting it. She might say to herself, OK, I’m doing my responsibility thing again. She can then choose whether she will continue with that way of doing things, or whether she will do the best she can and accept that as enough. This allows her some freedom to relax. She doesn’t have to worry any more whether she is aware of what she is doing and she accepts this as the way she regularly reacts to situations. She can see that she acts this way to appear organised and reliable. If she has done all thats necessary and possible, she is organised and reliable.
Unforeseen or unmanaged events do not mean Jane is not organised and reliable, but she has chosen this meaning for them. If something she didn’t plan for happens, she thinks this means something about her. Really, an unforeseen event means nothing. It’s likely that everyone else involved in the event will see it as just a small problem to be overcome. It’s the meaning Jane is attaching to the unforeseen event that is causing her anxiety.
Each of us will attach meaning to events in this way. You may have already experienced a situation where what you thought was happening was not at all. Perhaps at work your boss has been uncommunicative at times and you have wondered whether you’ve done something wrong, but really it turns out your boss is having difficulties with his or her own manager. The meaning you attached to your boss’s behavior was you had done something wrong. After finding out what was really happening, you realised your boss’s behaviour had a different meaning.
We can observe ourselves attaching meaning to events. Watch what you think it means next time someone behaves in a particular way towards you. Remember that we are all continually interpreting what happens from our own point of view. You can check your interpretation by asking the other person involved what they meant. It may help to share your interpretation, starting off with something like, "When we spoke yesterday, I felt that what you meant was… Is this what you meant?" It’s not always an easy thing to do, but it can reduce a lot of the concerns that buzz around in your mind, causing anxiety.
Chunking is a technique thats often used for anxiety. It’s accomplished by breaking down tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. You can do the same in your life, or with work responsibilities. When planning for an event, viewing the event as a whole can leave you exhausted, thinking it’s too big to manage. Instead, manage each part of the event as it comes.
For many events, there are some things that cannot be dealt with until a certain time. Write down that issue in your diary for when it can be dealt with and attend to it then. Worrying about that issue does not help to get it done. Recording it for future reference allows you to put that issue aside and deal with those that can be achieved today. This not only helps you organise your event but also allows you to be present in the task at hand.
Set aside time limits for each task. Be present for the task at hand and do what’s required, then move on to the next issue once the allocated time is up. Spending unnecessary time does not ensure the event will be adequately managed. Deal with unforeseen issues when they arise. You don’t need to foresee every possible inconvenience. All you need to do is to be prepared to take action if something does arise. Worrying about what might happen does not make any difference to the event. Being prepared to take action if its required, without judging yourself about how well you did in covering all possibilities, will make a difference.
Finally, scheduling some regular relaxation time into your day will assist you in managing any event. You can take the time to be still and feel your breath for five minutes or over an hour. Either will make you feel more confident to deal with any eventuality that may arise. In addition, taking time to relax alleviates anxiety, which will benefit your health. The simplest method of relaxing is to stop and feel your breath moving in and out of your body. With regular breaks for reducing anxiety, even tasks that once seemed overwhelming will be easier to tackle.
When you have more time, start with the awareness exercise above and then move on to the following. Take a deep breath in and hold it for a moment to feel the breath in your body. At the same time, make fists with your hands, scrunch up your feet and your face and tighten the muscles in other parts of your body. Then, suddenly, release the breath and the tight body parts at the same time. Repeat this three times. Then as you breathe in, take one arm up and over onto the floor behind your head. As you breathe out, stretch through the fingertips on this hand, feeling your shoulder, chest and upper back move as you stretch. On the next breath in, bring your arm back by your side and take your other arm up onto the floor behind you. As you breathe out, stretch through the fingers on this arm.
Continue to swap your arms as you breathe in, and stretch one arm as you breathe out. After completing this around six times, stretch through your opposite heel at the same time as you stretch through your fingertips. Pull your toes back towards your face to stretch through your heel. Repeat this around eight times.
Then bring your knees up towards your chest and hold onto them, one hand on each knee. Leave your head on the floor and rock gently from side to side, feeling the muscles on either side of your spine being massaged on the floor. Rock about 10 times each side. Finally, rest in the centre, holding onto your knees. Allow your lower back to be soft and keep your chin tucked down slightly so the back of your neck is relaxed.
Finish by lying flat on the floor again. Close your eyes and see how different you feel. You may feel straighter, or as if you are more on the floor. Your body will feel softer and perhaps your mind will be a little calmer, too. Once again, observe the changes without judgement.
More advanced relaxation techniques can be learnt by attending regular classes in practices such as yoga, tai chi or meditation. During any of these, you will become much more aware of how you are feeling, both physically and emotionally. You will learn techniques for letting go of anxious thoughts and feelings, and for being present in each moment of your life. These types of skills allow you to recognise and let go of anxiety. They can be learnt during classes, but regular practice is the way to create a relaxing lifestyle. Make relaxation a part of your life, every day.