Isabel Nappa, LSW, MSW
Have you ever been unable to sleep because your mind just wouldn’t SHUT UP? How about when you step on the L train on your way home from work, only to find that there’s only two inches of space for you to occupy? Suddenly you’re thoughts fill with, what ifs. What if the train breaks down and I’m stuck here? What if someone falls on me and I break my arm? Or maybe you struggle with social anxiety; consumed by the possible judgements of others. You go to your work Happy Hour only to find that your anxiety brain keeps you isolated in the corner because all you can think about is how everyone at the office probably thinks you are weird and unapproachable.
Anxiety can often feel out of our control. It can feel like an invisible wall that we can’t seem to climb over no matter how hard we try. The truth is, anxiety is actually very common. In fact, anxiety disorders are considered the most common of mental disorders and affect around 30% of adults at some point in their lives (NIMH Statistics, 2022). The good news is this. Anxiety is just an emotion like any other. It can often feel unpredictable but its not impossible to overcome. And you don’t have to be a mental health professional to know how to help yourself or a loved one!
The most common therapy used to treat anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. CBT, developed by Dr. Aaron T. Beck in the 1960s, teaches us that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all connected. Take the train scenario for example. In the moment, you may be thinking about all the What Ifs and worst case scenarios. If we take a look at the feeling we are experiencing, stress and fear are the most likely. Now think about the physical symptoms you might experience.
Maybe you breath gets more shallow, maybe you start to feel light headed, or maybe you start to cry as the thoughts spiral more and more. Suddenly, your anxiety brain takes control and you can’t see a way out! The good news is, there are many tools to help us in those moments so they don’t seem so overwhelming.
So, what can I do?
Ground Yourself: The best thing you can do when anxiety develops into a physical or bodily response, is to practice grounding. Try to focus on a way to breathe in a steady rhythm.
In a recent study, neuroscientists found that the song Weightless by Marconi Union, provided anxiety relief for people experiencing symptoms of panic. Another great technique is, Box Breathing, a tool actually used by Navy Seals during times of stress! When we begin to focus on our breathing in a rhythm, our heart rate becomes more regulated and those physical symptoms begin to calm. Our mind becomes clearer and we feel more in control. This is why exercises such as yoga and meditation have been scientifically proven to aid in symptoms of anxiety or stress.
Put Your Thoughts on Trial: Using the Happy Hour example, think about putting your thoughts on trial in a courtroom. Your anxious brain may be telling you that others think you are weird or antisocial, but is there any evidence to support that your thought is actually true? Think about evidence against that thought. For example, several people have come up to you at work before without you prompting the interaction. Or, you were invited to the happy hour so they must enjoy your company to some degree! Remember, thoughts can be overwhelming but that doesn’t make them true. You have the power to challenge your thoughts like a lawyer and determine what the verdict will be.
Weight Out the Probability: Sometimes the thoughts just won’t stop. You’re in bed trying to go to sleep but your brain wants to keep you up with worry and stress. You might be thinking, I’m really nervous about my math test tomorrow. Your mind begins to sprial and think, What if I fail and don’t graduate? I’ll never get a job or go to college! I’ll be a complete failure!! One thing you can do in this scenario is weigh out the probability that your worst fear will happen.
Have you ever failed a math test before? What’s the likelihood that you will actually fail if you’ve been studying and preparing? If you do fail, how will you handle the outcome? Will failing the math test bring you the same amount of dissappointment in a 1 week? How about a month? Or even a year? Try to plan for how you will handle the worst outcome so you can ground yourself in your capabilities and resilience.
To Sum it Up
The goal of all of this is of course that these tools will help you to feel more in control of your brain, your thoughts and, overall, your life! Just remember, in life everything takes practice so give yourself time and grace to learn what helps you and soon you’ll feel more capable and confident to tackle anxiety as it comes 🙂