Give yourself credit
Are you having anxious thoughts? Congratulations. You’re aware of your emotional state, and that awareness is the first step in reducing anxiety, says Edenfield.
“Remember to give yourself credit for being aware that you are having anxious thoughts, and probably body changes. This is truly a skill of mindfulness that must be learned, and is essential in making the next steps of intervening through strategies such as positive self-talk, cognitive reframing, or the use of mindfulness or relaxation strategies.”
Breath and question
To stay mindful, ask yourself simple questions while practicing breathing exercises, Edenfield suggests. “Sit in a comfortable place, close your eyes, and focus on how your breath feels coming in and out of your body. Now ask yourself silent questions while focusing on the breath.”
What is the temperature of the air as it enters your nose? How does your breath feel different as it leaves your body? How does the air feel as it fills your lungs?
Learn mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation, originally a Buddhist practice but now a mainstream therapy, is particularly effective in treating anxiety, says Teresa M. Edenfield, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Durham, N.C., who often uses it to treat anxiety patients. “The act of practicing mindful awareness allows one to experience the true essence of each moment as it really occurs, rather than what is expected or feared,” she says.
How to begin? You can start by simply “paying attention to the present moment, intentionally, with curiosity, and with an effort to attend non-judgmentally,” Edenfield says.
Take a ‘forest bath’
The Japanese call it Shinrin-yoku, literally “forest bath.” You and I know it as a walk in the woods. Japanese researchers measured body changes in people who walked for about 20 minutes in a beautiful forest, with the woodsy smells and the sounds of a running stream.
The forest bathers had lower stress hormone levels after their walk than they did after a comparable walk in an urban area.
Ever wonder why you feel so relaxed after a spell in the sauna or a steam room? Heating up your body reduces muscle tension and anxiety, research finds. Sensations of warmth may alter neural circuits that control mood, including those that affect the neurotransmitter serotonin. Warming up may be one of the ways that exercise—not to mention curling up by a fire with a cozy cup of tea—boosts mood.
As one group of researchers put it, “Whether lying on the beach in the midday sun on a Caribbean island, grabbing a few minutes in the sauna or spa after work, or sitting in a hot bath or Jacuzzi in the evening, we often associate feeling warm with a sense of relaxation and well-being.”
When you’re attacked by anxiety, it’s easy to get into a mind set known as “catastrophic thinking” or “catastrophizing.” Your mind goes to the bad terrible really horrible just unbearable things and what if they really do happen? “You think, ‘This could really ruin my life,’” says Dr. Ramsey.
Instead, take a few deep breaths, walk around the block, and consider the real probability that this problem will really spin out into catastrophe. How likely is it that you’ll lose your job, never talk to your sister again, go bankrupt?
Chances are a catastrophic outcome is a lot less likely than you think when you’re consumed with anxiety. “Very few events really change the trajectory of your life,” says Dr. Ramsey.
Stop starving yourself, advises Dr. Ramsey. “Many people with anxiety disorders skip breakfast. I recommend that people eat things like eggs, which are a satiating and filling protein, and are nature’s top source of choline. Low levels of choline are associated with increased anxiety.”