Anxiety: The Manageable Emotion

by Michelle Voris, MSW, LCSW

Everyone gets anxious. You are not alone. Anxiety is often an irrational response to a situation. Sometimes we mistakenly judge emotional problems or concerns as weaknesses or flaws. Yet, anxiety is the stuff of famous actors and war heroes. The first step is to acknowledge that it’s okay to feel anxious sometimes.  Here are some ways to reduce or manage these unpleasant feelings when they arise:

  • Make yourself as comfortable as possible while the feeling passes Most anxiety will pass with time.  Fighting it will make it worse.  The key is to relax.  An anxious mind cannot exist in a relaxed body.  Take a slow deep breath, inhaling and exhaling through your nose.  Give yourself permission to relax.  No judgment. Take the time you need.
  • Pay attention to your breathing Slow and steady breathing: pucker your lips slightly, like you are blowing out a birthday candle, and let the natural pressure in your lungs force the air out. Bring your attention to your breath – slow and steady, controlled.  When you can control your breath, you control your mind and the body will follow.
  • Use calming self-talk What we say to ourselves when we are experiencing anxiety can cause us to feel more anxious.  (e.g., “I can’t do this.”, “This is too much for me to handle.”, “These feelings are too intense.”, “It will never go away.”)  These thoughts feed the severity of the anxiety. Stay calm.  Don’t panic.  Anxiety is along the same continuum as fear, so don’t allow fear and panic to take over.  It really is not the end of the world.  It is unpleasant, but it is manageable.  You CAN slow down.  You CAN relax.  You CAN handle it.  (e.g., “I CAN do this.”, “One step at a time.”)
  • Distract yourself It is difficult for the mind to focus on more than one thing at a time.  If you find something to focus on intently, your mind will not be able to maintain the anxiety for long.  Some examples:
    • Focus on the lecture during class
    • Do slow and steady breathing – listen to and feel your breath moving in and out of your body
    • Think of a favorite place and what you might be doing there
    • Focus on positive coping statements
    • Watch what someone else is doing
    • Do something physical like exercise or just walk
  • Relaxation techniques Relaxation is the body’s natural anxiety cure because relaxation techniques actually reverse the stress response.  Mayo Clinic offers the following techniques:
    • Autogenic relaxation. Autogenic means something that comes from within you. In this relaxation technique, you use both visual imagery and body awareness to reduce stress.  You repeat words or suggestions in your mind to help you relax and reduce muscle tension. You may imagine a peaceful place and then focus on controlled, relaxing breathing, slowing your heart rate.
    • Progressive muscle relaxation. In this technique you focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group.  This helps you focus on the difference between muscle tension and muscle relaxation.  You become more aware of physical sensations.  One method is to start by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes and progressively working your way up to your neck and head. Tense your muscles for at least five seconds and then relax for 30 seconds, and repeat.
    • Visualization.  In this relaxation technique, you form mental images to take a visual journey to a peaceful, calming place or situation.  Try to use as many senses as you can, including smell, sight, sound and touch. If you imagine relaxing at the ocean, for instance, think about such things as the smell of salt water, the sound of crashing waves and the warmth of the sun on your body.