Anxiety is fear of a future negative outcome. Stress has to do with not wanting to be in the present that you find yourself in. We imagine that outcome over a range from slight discomfort to a major catastrophe.
Some amount of sympathetic nervous system activation (which causes stress and anxiety) is needed to keep us cautious and therefore keep us safe. But the anxious state is meant to be a short-term, action-inducing state. So when anxiety runs amok, our bodies suffer. There's a fascinating book called "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" that describes all the different body systems that are affected when stress hormones predominate in the body.
Stress and anxiety happen in the mind and the body. The mind has a random thought that we believe, and the body reacts with tension and often uncomfortable sensations in the gut or the chest. Tightness in the body often restricts breathing as well which can lead to a hold host of other sensations. All this discomfort creates a state of mind that is geared toward getting away from the discomfort at all costs, leading to smoking, drinking, overeating, yelling at your loved ones, etc. Too much anxiety can even lead to a crash, which then feels like depression.
So what's the solution? Love your anxiety (ok, I know that's not going to happen!). At the
very least, though, to change and anxious state we need to acknowledge and accept that it is happening. Anxiety is part of our self-protective capacity. It is an indicator of something that needs attention. It is a call to action.
What's your anxious feeling telling you? Maybe it's telling you you're overworked and need a break? Maybe it's telling you that you don't feel safe or fulfilled in your current relationship or career? Or maybe it is telling you that you have some work to do on your self-confidence or ability to set boundaries? In order to figure out what it is telling us, we need to pause and listen while recognizing that the emotions don't have to control us, we do have a choice about how to feel.
Some simple ways to work with an anxious mood in the moment:
- Allow it to be without judging it as "bad" or "wrong" or somehow a sign of your failure. The extra layer of "shoulding" just makes the anxiety worse.
- Be curious about what triggered the anxious state.
- Give your anxiety something to do. Anxiety often shows up in the body as a jittery feeling. This is excess energy in need of direction. So dance, shake, shimmy, walk, run, do some vigorous yoga. Get the energy out and then try to do something a bit more quieting.
- Notice the anxiety as body tension and let go of tension in the muscles. Tight shoulders? Let them drop. Tight jaw? Let it drop.
- Uncomfortable sensation in the belly? That might be just the result of the abdominal muscles tensing. You might take over the tension (tighten your ab muscles) and then stop tensing, allowing the muscles to let go.
- We humans seem to have a natural tendency to catastrophize. Maybe instead of catastrophising, ask yourself: "OK, it feels like everything could go wrong, and is there any way this could go right?"
- Pay attention to your exhales, even making them longer. Exhaling lowers your heartrate, which gets elevated during stress.
- Ask for help. Social interaction with a safe, supportive other is one of the ways that we humans calm down.
- Stay away from coffee - yep, coffee drinkers have been shown to have random spikes in their anxiety during the day.
- Look around your environment, recognizing that you're physically safe and that there aren't any threats in your immediate vicinity. You might notice and name 3 objects that you see, 2 sounds you hear, and one thing you feel with your sense of touch. or you might count all the objects you see of a certain color or shape. Anything that breaks up the circular or negative thought pattern that is making you anxious.