Most of us get anxious. And much of our anxiety is caused by our efforts to control the uncontrollable. There are three useful strategies that can help to minimize these feelings.
- First, remain focused on the present, even if it is unpleasant or painful.
- Second, become adept at distinguishing between fears and facts.
- Third, learn abdominal breathing and become aware of holding your breath - an involuntary response to fear.
Most of us dislike the experience of uncertainty. And since few if any of us have the gift of omniscience many important aspects of our future are, by definition, uncertain. Those of us who find life's intrinsic uncertainty intolerable tend to struggle against that feeling by deciding that we know the truth about our future.
But we don't.
Furthermore, we often try to eliminate the discomfort we feel while uncertain by deciding, irrationally, that the future will hold that which we fear the most. And so we experience our fear about the future as a fact. This attempt to control the uncontrollable makes a misery of our present. It is possible to learn the skills necessary to tolerate uncertainty, and also to gain confidence in your ability to handle future adversity when it occurs. If it occurs.
Here's a good example. Linda is 37 years old and fears that she will never marry and have the family for which she yearns. In reality, she doesn't know what her future holds. But, in order to end her uncertainty, she decides that she will always be alone, and so she's sad and anxious... now.
Fears are events that may occur but aren't happening now. Even a painful and difficult present is preferable to ongoing anxiety, because it will pass. Facts are events that have already occurred or are occurring now, which means that you've either already survived the event or are currently handling it. Confusing fears with facts is a major cause of anxiety.
There is nothing more important to minimizing anxiety than breathing fully and deeply. Think about the last time you were rushing somewhere, turned the corner of a building and almost collided with someone. Or the time you were driving your car and nearly had an accident. In those shocking or scary situations we gasp involuntarily, and then, if we're really scared, we momentarily stop breathing. This is our involuntary reaction to danger.
If we are chronically anxious, we are holding our breath much of the time, and even when we are breathing we tend to take very shallow breaths. This means that our breath goes no deeper than our upper chest and so we are chronically oxygen deprived. In other words, we're hyperventilating. This both causes the feelings we identify as anxiety and exacerbates them.
Remember yoga class? Where we breathe deeply and fully into our abdomens? "...in through your nose and out through your mouth." That's how deeply we should be breathing all the time. This alone will decrease anxiety significantly.
So, here's the brief version:
Steps for Managing Anxiety
- Distinguish between fears and facts and keep them separate
- Decide to tolerate uncertainty
- Ground yourself in the present
- Control what you can and let go of the rest
- Create an affirmation, even if it's not yet believable to you, e.g.
- "I'm safe, calm and capable"
- Breathe fully and deeply into your abdomen
If you would like to read more on this topic, I recommend "Don't Panic" by Reid Wilson, Ph.D.