My wife Tracy Bradford has written this guest post. If anxiety is regularly in your life, here are some practical strategies for dealing with it!
Tracy’s Top 10 Tips for Dealing with Anxiety, Especially During the Holidays
Anxiety is a very real and overwhelming experience, and for many people who suffer from anxiety, episodes can increase during the holiday season. Before we kick off the 2019 celebrations, it’s a good idea to review and even practice these tips to release anxiety. That way, if anxiety starts to overwhelm you, you’ll already know what is especially soothing for you.
The first thing you want to address are the PHYSICAL MANIFESTATIONS of anxiety which can include a racing heart, stomach issues (nausea, cramps, vomiting), headache, and insomnia.
- Breathe, deeply. Find something pleasant to look at and inhale slowly, counting to 5, 7, even 10, then slowly exhale. While you are breathing, keep your mind focused on the pleasant thing you are looking at. Think about the shape, color, texture, position, etc.
- Move, slowly. Start with holding your arms above your head as you slowly inhale and exhale. After a few rounds of that, loosely swing your arms from your shoulder joints, like you are slowly shaking off excess water after a swim. Keep breathing slowly.
- Walk slowly, breathing deeply. As you walk describe what you see to yourself. Get as detailed as you can. If your mind starts to wander to stressful circumstances, describe your setting out loud. It may help to continue to move your arms as you walk.
- Find an object with a soothing texture and rub your hand rhythmically back and forth over it while breathing slowly.
- Once your breathing and heart rate normalize, sit down and begin flexing various muscles throughout your body. Start with an extremity like toes or fingers. In tangent with your deep breathing, squeeze or flex your muscle groups working from the extremities, to your torso, to your neck and face. Then, go in the reverse order: head, face, neck, torso, extremities. As you release each muscle group, imagine that the anxiety you are experiencing is rolling away, just like when you wring out a rag that is wet and the water is squeezed out of the rag.
Hopefully the physical symptoms are lessening now, so it’s time to address what’s happening in your mind, or the MENTAL SYMPTOMS you may be experiencing.
Anxiety gets out of control when our mind fixes on possible outcomes that are beyond our control—the what-ifs of difficult circumstances. Anxiety is present when normal nervousness (like before an interview or a test) turns into worry and then fear and then an increasing spiral of nervousness, worry, and fear. It’s like a recording is stuck on a few certain words in your mind, and it is not advancing.
- The first way to deal with this increasing angst is to force your mind to think about something that is right in front of you. Pick any neutral object and make your mind think about every aspect of it. You many need to say these things out loud to yourself as a way of helping your brain switch from the “stuck recording” to this new subject. Pretend you are with someone who is blind-folded and you need to get them to guess the object from your clues. Describe its shape, size, color, position, function, creative uses, etc. Repeat this for several objects if needed. This step helps your mind focus on the present. Some people refer to this as mindfulness.
- Once you’ve been able to switch your mind to a neutral object, proceed to something specific and pleasant that you like to think about. This can be a favorite childhood memory, a hobby that you really enjoy, a favorite scene from a movie or book, the smile of your children or your spouse, etc. Allow yourself to think about it in a way that makes it seem like you are experiencing it right now—think about the sounds and scents, the textures you might feel, the motions that might be involved (like shooting the ball into the basket if you are imagining basketball), etc. This step gives your mind a rest from the stressful thoughts it was stuck on and replaces those with something pleasant.
- Next, it’s time to repeat a mantra that is meaningful to you. For many, it is a Bible verse or inspirational quote that they have memorized. For others, it is a hope-filled statement about life. Acknowledging that you can choose your own actions and that the future is uncertain but is rarely as bad as it is imagined are helpful concepts here. It’s also helpful to identify a strong mantra for yourself before you are facing overwhelming anxiety. I often encourage people to write helpful phrases on index cards and keep them handy.
- Hopefully the unhelpful, negative recording is no longer stuck in your mind. Now is a good time to address the issues that caused the anxiety. Call a counselor, clergy member, or a wise friend and talk things over with them. Write a list of what is true and what is speculation (the what ifs). Write out what you can control and what you can’t control. Be thankful for the choices you CAN make. Recognize that overthinking the future or decisions which are not yours to make is self-defeating. Switch your mental energy to something that is within your control (your own actions, attitudes, efforts, emotions, etc), and give those lots of your attention, more than the issues that you have no control over. This is something you WILL benefit from.
- Finally, find many good thoughts, activities, and “input” to fill your mind. Give your mind a different “recording” to focus on: music, laughing with friends, reading a funny book, learning a new skill, writing and updating a gratitude list, cultivating a new hobby, getting counseling, serving others by volunteering, and memorizing life-giving content (like a Bible verse or poetry) are all ways to help your mind refocus on matters that help you thrive. Be sure to also limit or (temporarily) turn off social media, which many studies show can increase mental health issues.
If left unchecked, anxiety may turn into a panic attack, with much more intense physical symptoms and much stronger manifestations of fear. (If that happens, get to the ER to make sure nothing physical needs to be addressed.) Unchecked anxiety can also lead to depression that will increase until it is addressed by a professional. There are huge dividends to addressing anxiety as soon as you are aware of it. The sooner you can address it, the less it will feel like it is controlling you, and the more you can keep other mental health issues at bay.
If you regularly experience anxiety, depression, and/or panic attacks, remember that you are not alone. There are many other people who are also facing these issues. Please seek professional help soon from either a medical doctor or a professional counselor or both.
The holidays are also a good time to remember that many people around us are possibly dealing with their own mental health issues in addition to other difficult life circumstances. Practicing kindness, patience, and grace with others and yourself will make everyone’s holiday more memorable.
Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!