Practice #1: Education
Learn about mindfulness and begin to practice it.
Mindfulness is a type of awareness. In mindfulness practices, such as meditation and breathing exercises, you will be guided to observe your own thoughts and emotions, experiences without control, judgment and hopefully with curiosity. Mindfulness is not just a pop-psychology fad. Researchers have studied it and verified that it is a very effective way to treat maladies like anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. The internet is replete with information, guided practices on YouTube, podcasts, TED Talks, etc. on mindfulness.
Practice #2: Recognize your catastrophe story.
Most anxiety and worry are rooted in what cognitive-behavioral therapists refer to as ‘cognitive distortions.’ Basically, these are beliefs that are not rational. Possibly the most common cognitive distortion people with generalized anxiety disorder experience is the "catastrophe story,” in which a worrier rehearses and anticipates a worse-case scenario. This is a cognitive distortion because it over-inflates an undesirable circumstance into a catastrophe. Language and inner-dialogue is important here. Often language like, “I can’t stand it when _____” is used.
The way to begin to uncover your catastrophe story is to reflect on the content of your worry, and the language you are using. What are you worried about? If you are worried about being late for an appointment you may ask yourself, what is the worse-case scenario if I am late? Will it really be so bad? Or if you are worried about public speaking you may ask yourself, if I am anxious and don’t perform well will anyone remember or care in a week from now? A therapist may go more in depth as they help you uncover your catastrophe story.
Practice #3: Mindfully tune in to your experience of anxiety and worry in your thoughts.
One basic principle I teach is ‘Don’t believe everything that you think.’ Start off by simply noticing the thoughts you have when you feel anxious. Begin to recognize that your mind produces thoughts spontaneously. Everyone has crazy, extreme thoughts. Don't be alarmed. Decide for yourself what thoughts are helpful. You may practice letting your thoughts ‘be’ without trying to control them and without being frustrated with yourself. Trying to control unwanted thoughts often uses up energy that could be spent doing something productive.
Practice #4: Give your anxious thoughts a name.
This is also known as ‘labeling.’ This can be done verbally, in your head, or with a journal. Journaling is a simple, yet powerful, psychological technique to begin to exercise mastery over something. Using humor is effective here. You may write something like, “every time my in-laws comes into town I start having my 'the sky is falling' thoughts."
Practice #5: Recognize your personal anxiety themes.
This practice naturally flows out of ‘labeling’ and journaling. As you reflect on or write about your worry you will begin to notice themes. You may notice your anxiety is related to fear of failure at your job, fear of what people think about you, rejection, or perhaps the safety of your family. Recognizing triggers and themes will help you disentangle yourself from your anxious thoughts.
Practice #6: Tune in to your experience of anxiety in your body.
Often people with anxiety experience a particular area of tension, for instance, in the chest, jaw, or shoulders. You will find in anxiety provoking situations that anxiety resides in your body and builds up before you are fully aware of it. This is your body gearing up to face danger. The implication is, “I am not safe.” When you notice anxiety building up notice where the anxiety is in your body. Then, deliberately relax your body. Let the tension out with a few deep breaths. You may also choose to speak the truth to your anxious mind and body. With a hand on your chest you may quietly state to yourself, “I am safe. I am okay. This is not the end of the world.”
Practice #7: Practice relaxation techniques and deep breathing.
Another well-researched self-help practice is relaxation and deep breathing. With these practices you can actually override the signals coming from your brain telling your body to get ready for danger. These are practices that can be used in response to anxious feelings, but should also be practiced preemptively, when you are not anxious. It is important to note that relaxation techniques are deliberate practices that take effort and some self-discipline. They are not the same thing as watching TV or sitting on the porch drinking iced tea. I recommend you find an online tutor to help guide you in relaxation and breathing techniques here for ‘diaphramatic breathing’ or here for ‘progressive relaxation.’
Brian Abbott, LMSW, LMAC
Resolve Counseling & Wellness
Prairie Village, KS
For more information on the difference between clinical anxiety and normal worrying, as well as techniques, check out the following articles:
3 Differences Between Clinical Anxiety and Normal Worry
How to Become Your Own Scientist