Understanding and Managing Anxiety: Tips for a Calmer Mind





It’s coming.
Again.
The walls are closing in on me. My heart races, pounding in my chest like a jackhammer. My stomach churns. Worries and “what-ifs” race through my mind. I feel like I’m swirling in a tornado of uncertainty. I want to escape, but there’s no way out and I’m trapped in a never-ending cycle of anxiety.

Sounds familiar?
Anxiety has become an all-too-familiar companion for many of us. It can be a formidable adversary, creeping into our lives when we least expect it and wreaking havoc on our mental well-being. But what is it? Where anxiety comes from? And —crucially— what can we do about it?

In short, anxiety is that unsettling feeling that creeps in when we face situations or tasks that seem overwhelming or beyond our control. It often originates from the sensation of inadequacy, the fear of not meeting expectations, and the dread of failure. These feelings hinder our ability to perform, which leads to failure under pressure, reinforcing our sense of inadequacy and further fuelling anxiety.

The good news is that this vicious circle can be broken. Thanks to the strategies listed bellow, I have been able to avoid anxiety attacks for more than a year. I have other problems, but anxiety is no longer one of them.

Anxiety Is Not the Problem

Before diving into strategies to combat anxiety, it’s crucial to understand one fundamental truth: anxiety itself is not the problem. It’s our relationship with anxiety that causes the bulk of our distress. The same holds for other emotional states like depression, fear, or the need to please others. It’s how we perceive, treat, and react to these emotions that can either amplify or mitigate their impact on our lives.

Anxiety is not the problem, the problem is your relationship with it.

Anxiety Is Like a Rain

To illustrate, let’s consider anxiety as a rain. When it rains, do you say, “I am the rain”? No, you acknowledge, “I am getting wet.” Much like the rain on a stormy day, anxiety can soak us to the bone, but it doesn’t define who we are. When anxiety envelops you, remind yourself, “I feel anxiety,” not “I am anxious.” This subtle shift recognizes anxiety as an external factor influencing you, rather than a part of your identity.

Step 1: Anxiety is like a rain. It’s an external factor, a temporary emotion that we experience.

Understanding that anxiety is an external, transient force, not a part of your identity, is the first step in effectively managing it. When the raindrops are falling around you, you might get wet, but you are not the rain. By making this mental shift, you separate yourself from the anxiety.

Acknowledgment: Don’t Deny What You Feel

Attempting to deny or suppress anxiety is akin to pretending the sun is shining when rain is pouring down. Denial won’t magically make you dry, and blaming yourself for feeling anxious won’t make it vanish. Instead, the second step toward managing anxiety is acknowledgment. In essence, acknowledgment is the equivalent of admitting, “It’s raining, and I am getting wet.” There’s no need to pretend the weather is different or blame yourself for getting wet. Rain happens. Likewise, anxiety happens, and it’s not your fault.

Step 2: Acknowledge the fact. Say to yourself, “I feel anxiety.” Recognize that it’s not your fault; anxiety happens.

In essence, admitting, “It’s raining, and I am getting wet.” enables you to deal with it effectively. When you find yourself caught in the downpour of anxiety, just as you would use an umbrella to shield yourself from rain, you can employ strategies to protect yourself from anxiety. The best thing you can do is to pause and take a deep breath. Or even better, take two.

Breathing Exercise: Your Mental Umbrella

Picture this: you find yourself caught in a torrential rainstorm without any protective gear. You’re drenched, uncomfortable, and eager to escape the relentless rain. Then, you remember that you have an umbrella stowed away in your bag. You open it, and immediately, you are shielded from the rain. A sigh of relief washes over you as you continue your journey, dry and protected.

In the realm of anxiety, the mental umbrella is the double inhale-exhale breathing exercise known as The Physiological Sigh. Scientifically proven to be effective, it calms the nervous system and provides a sense of relief, just like opening an umbrella in a storm.

Step 3: Open your umbrella: Use The Physiological Sigh — double inhale-exhale breathing exercise — to instantly relieve stress.

To add a layer of psychological impact, envision yourself opening an umbrella or wearing a protective poncho while repeating the sigh pattern 4-5 times. This visualization reinforces the idea of separating yourself from anxiety, just as an umbrella separates you from the rain.

This mental tool allows you to navigate through life’s metaphorical rainstorms with grace. When anxiety pours down on your mind, you can take a moment to pause and breathe deeply, opening your mental umbrella to shield yourself from the deluge. It’s a simple yet powerful technique that can make a significant difference in how you perceive and manage anxiety.

Seek Shelter: Ground Yourself in Reality

Anxiety might be raining on your mental parade, but you can always seek shelter in reality. Use the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique: To ground yourself in the present moment, identify:

5 things you can see
4 things you can touch
3 things you can hear
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste

This technique shifts your focus from anxiety to your immediate environment, providing a sense of control and stability.

Step 4: Seek shelter in reality. Use the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique

This practice is akin to grounding yourself in a storm by seeking refuge in a bus stop shelter. As the tempest rages outside, you find solace within the walls, knowing that it will pass. Similarly, when anxiety strikes, this technique becomes your mental shelter, a safe haven amidst the turmoil. It reminds you that reality is not defined by your anxiety; rather, you are capable of looking around and identifying the facts. Here you can weather the first onslaught of anxiety and prepare yourself for the rest of journey.

Get Going: It’s Just a Rain

Sometimes we need to get somewhere even when it’s raining. Sometimes we need to do something even when anxiety pours down on our minds. That’s okay. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. But it’s temporary. The image of anxiety as a rain allows you to see anxiety as a passing state. Rain is not forever. Nor is anxiety. For example, you can say to yourself, “Right now, I am feeling anxious because I’m worried about my presentation tomorrow. But, I am not my anxiety. I am a person experiencing a moment of anxiety. I can still get from A to B.”

Step 5: Get going. It’s just a bit of water. You’ll get a bit wet on the way. That’s OK. There is warm dry place waiting on the other side. You can dry up when you get there.

Don’t forget your poncho and get going. Realising that anxiety, although unpleasant, is a passing experience helps in detaching from it. So get moving, you can do it.

Make It Fun: Dance in the Rain

Do you remember the time when you were a carefree kid jumping in the rain-soaked streets, puddle to puddle? Your mum was drenched in anxiety. To her, it was a nightmare; she saw only the dirt and the mess. But to you, it was a world of exhilaration and fun. You revelled in splashing through the water, each jump a moment of pure joy. Little did you know that you were unwittingly practising a valuable lesson for managing anxiety. At that time the rain represented fun. But what if the feeling you label as anxiety is in fact an opportunity to have some fun? What if what you feel is not anxiety but excitement?
This concept is not just child’s play; it’s a powerful psychological tool. The physical sensations of anxiety and excitement are remarkably similar: increased heart rate, heightened senses, a surge of adrenaline. It’s our interpretation that colours them differently. By reframing anxiety as excitement, we can transform a potentially paralysing experience into an energizing one.

Take actors, for example. Stage fright is a common phenomenon, even among the most experienced performers. The butterflies in the stomach, the racing heart — these are signs of anxiety, right? But many actors have learned to interpret these signs differently. They see them as signals of excitement, an indication that they are about to do something exhilarating. This simple mental shift changes their entire approach to going on stage. Instead of being debilitated by fear, they are energized by anticipation.

Step 6: Anxiety and excitement have the same symptoms. It’s how you interpret them what makes the difference. Look for the fun and you will find it. Dance in the rain.

You can apply this same principle in your life. Facing a big presentation at work? Instead of telling yourself, “I’m so anxious,” try thinking, “I’m excited to share my ideas.” Nervous about a first date? Frame it as, “I’m thrilled about the possibility of meeting someone new.” This reframing doesn’t just alter your perception; it can also change your physiological response, making you more relaxed and focused.
Remember, the line between anxiety and excitement is thin and often a matter of perspective. Next time you feel those familiar signs of anxiety, ask yourself, “Is this an opportunity for excitement? For fun?” Embrace the energy and channel it into a positive experience. This shift in mindset can be a game-changer in how you handle anxiety-inducing situations.

Level Up: Upgrading Your Skills in Game of Life

Life often resembles a grand adventure, akin to a video game. When you start, you’re at level 0, possessing minimal skills and knowledge. Just as you wouldn’t expect a level 0 character to perform like a seasoned level 174 player, you shouldn’t place unrealistic expectations on yourself in various life situations.

Consider this: in the video game of life, each task or challenge presents an opportunity to ‘level up.’ This perspective not only lowers immediate expectations but also aligns your efforts with your current skill level. It encourages gradual learning and improvement while reducing the pressure and anxiety associated with unrealistic standards.

Step 7: Play to improve, not to be perfect. Enjoy the process and reward improvement. Did you manage to say three sentences instead of one word?
EXCELLENT! WELL DONE!
Now to the next level.

Looking for fun gives you energy. Focusing on small steps gives you confidence. Next three steps will take of the pressure.

Take Small Bites: Break Down Complexity

Anxiety often stems from viewing a task or situation as an overwhelming whole, akin to trying to devour an entire elephant in one sitting. Instead of being paralysed by the sheer magnitude of the endeavour, consider this wisdom: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Imagine yourself faced with the monumental task of consuming a massive elephant. It seems insurmountable. But then you realize that by breaking it down into smaller, manageable parts, it becomes achievable. You focus on one bite at a time, savouring the process rather than being overwhelmed by the enormity of the whole. This approach makes even the most intimidating tasks more digestible and less anxiety-inducing.

Step 8: Clarity and simplicity. If you don’t know what you should do next, you didn’t break the task enough. Each next step must be clear and self-explaining.

Climbing Mount Everest: Use Guide and Take Rest Periods

If you don’t know what to do, it’s probably because you see what’s in front of you as big as Mount Everest. There are two things you have to do to reach the top. Firstly, you cannot go up in one go. The higher you go, the less oxygen is in the air. Due to that, on the way up, you have to stop in acclimatisation camps where you do nothing at all. Your only task in those camps is to wait to get used to the altitude.

The second thing is having a Sherpa — a guide and a helper — whose sole task is to help you carry the weight and help you avoid dangerous spots. They know the terrain and understand the weather. When you are trying to conquer the mountain in front of you, helping hand and resting camps might make the main difference.

Step 9: Ask for help and take the rest. The slow and steady effort is better than random spikes of activity. Helping hand can steady you up when you stumble.

Note: If anxiety becomes overwhelming and disrupts your daily life, don’t hesitate to seek support from a therapist or counsellor. Professional help can provide you with additional strategies and support for managing anxiety.

Don’t Take it Personally: Decoding the Opinions of Others

Criticism from others can feel like a downpour on our parade, especially when grappling with anxiety. But here’s the truth: it’s not about you; it’s about your actions or processes. When confronted with criticism, distinguish between personal attacks and constructive feedback. Personal remarks often reveal more about the other person’s emotions than your actual performance.

Step 10: Detach from feedback. Personal critique is worthless. It says more about the person who said it than about you. Only feedback worth listening to is focused on actions and processes.

To manage criticism effectively, ignore comments attacking your character. Instead, focus on the information regarding your actions or processes. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this feedback? How can I improve?” Your self-worth isn’t tied to others’ opinions. People may have different perceptions of you, but what matters is your growth. Use criticism to enhance your performance, not to fuel anxiety about you. This shift empowers you to face criticism with resilience and positivity.

Get Weatherproof: Establish Habits for Resilience

Resilience is the bedrock of anxiety management. Resilient individuals not only endure stress but also prevent anxiety from gaining a foothold. Everything we talked about before was aimed at dealing with the anxiety in progress. In this section, we’ll explore various habits that can weatherproof your mind, bolstering your ability to navigate life’s challenges.

Step 11: Create habits for resilience. The more grounded you are in day-to-day situations, the less likely you are to experience anxiety.

I can say that thanks to different habits, I have been able to avoid anxiety attacks for more than a year. I have other problems, but anxiety is no longer one of them. Test different habits below and stick with those which fits with who you are and whom do you see yourself to become.

1. **Box Breathing:** This simple breathing technique involves inhaling for four seconds, holding for four seconds, exhaling for four seconds, and holding for four seconds. Box Breathing calms your nervous system and reduces stress and anxiety. A study found that it has better results than meditation at resolving long-term panic attacks, anxiety, and stress.

2. **Journaling:** Keeping a journal provides an outlet for your thoughts and emotions, helping you reflect on your experiences and understand your feelings better. This practice promotes emotional self-awareness, aiding in anxiety management.

3. **Maintaining a Routine:** Establishing a daily routine for essentials like sleep, nutrition, hydration, exercise, and exposure to sunlight brings stability to your life. A predictable routine can reduce anxiety by providing structure and security.

4. **Connect with Your Inner Circle:** Surround yourself with supportive friends, family, or mentors who offer mutual support. Sharing your thoughts and feelings while being there for them creates a support network that alleviates anxiety.

5. **Affirmations and Self-Compassion:** Practise positive self-affirmations and self-compassion. Remind yourself of your strengths and abilities, and be kind to yourself during challenging times.

6. **Grounding in Nature:** Spending time in nature, especially by walking barefoot on grass, sand, or soil, can have grounding and calming effects. Nature reconnects you with tranquillity, reducing anxiety.

Experiment with these habits and incorporate the ones that resonate most with you into your daily life. Building resilience takes time, but with consistent practice, you’ll fortify your mind against life’s storms.

So here you have it. 11 steps to break the cycle of anxiety. Just like the rain, anxiety might come, but with the right mindset and tools, we can prevent it from drenching our spirits.

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Image sources:

  • Infographic-Vicious Circle of Anxiety: © Tree of Life Quest