Updated: Jul 6, 2020
Sometimes it may feel like anxiety comes out of nowhere, pouncing on us when we least expect it. And while this does happen from time to time, there’s also a lot that we can do to help prevent ourselves from feeling unwanted or unnecessary anxiety. Today’s post is all about tried and trued tips to help you out in this department.
Be mindful of who you follow on social media.
There’s almost a masochism to our patterns on different social media platforms; if we’re self-conscious about our body, we’ll look at photos of bikini models or personal trainers who have spent hours upon hours making their body look the way it does. Or we might start lurking friends’ profiles who have just bought a house when we recently decided to switch career paths. With each of these images we see, we internalize the message: I’m not good enough. Simultaneously, we often forget that we’re comparing ourselves to fantasies. I read recently that some of the most popular Instagram stars will use three different apps to filter their photos, meaning that photo-shop like effects aren’t just reserved for magazines any more; they’re everywhere. Instead of following people on social media who make you feel bad about yourself, follow people who inspire you in a healthier way. Perhaps this means following someone who’s body-positive, who’s just getting started on a healthier path, or who posts inspirational quotes.
In today's age of Zoom calls and virtual hang-outs, I invite everyone to intentionally put some time aside to fully unplug from their phones as well, even if it's just for 30 minutes. I don't know about you, but constantly getting email alerts, texts, and more has a funny way of making me feel "on edge." Putting my phone in another room, turning it off, or just leaving it at home while I go for a walk can make a world of difference!
2. Treat yo’self.
Self-care is essential, but it's also important to do it the right way in my opinion (click here for more on what I mean!). Personally, 'treating myself' takes a number of forms, including: taking a bath, doing my nails, giving myself a facial, relaxing in front of the TV, or making myself a delicious home-cooked meal where I use fresh ingredients, plate it as if I'm on MasterChef, and enjoy it without any distractions. It's all about giving yourself a little extra love and care, whatever that means to you.
3. Journal to help slow down your thoughts.
Okay, okay, I’m sure you’ve heard this before if you have anxiety, but there’s a good reason why journalling is so commonly recommended. The best part about journalling is that it slows. your. brain. down. When your thoughts are just reserved to your mind, they go a mile a minute. But when you actually have to write them out, it gives you some extra time to process what’s happening, what you’re feeling, and why you may be feeling that way. An exercise I like to recommend is free flow journalling, where you set a timer for however short or long and spend the entirety of that time writing without even taking your pen off the paper. The key here is that during that 30 seconds, 5 minutes, or 30 minutes, you are not allowed to judge what you write; your only prerogative here is to write. Anything and everything. You’d be highly surprised what ends up on that page. And remember, you can always rip up the paper at the end if you want!
Another way to slow down your thoughts, though you'll likely feel a bit crazy at first, is to say them out loud to yourself when you're alone. Not only will it help slow the pace at which your thoughts are moving, but sometimes when we hear things out loud we can realize just how ridiculous our brain can be!
4. Play with a pet.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m a humongous animal lover. There’s a certain simplicity to pets: they’re always happy to see you, they always want to play or feel loved by you, they make you laugh, and can offer an amazing distraction overall. If you’re experiencing anxiety, try sitting with your pet with your hand on its belly and feeling its slow, controlled breathing patterns. If they’re breathing slow enough, you can even try to mimic their pace to calm yourself down.
5. Do something tactile that requires concentration.
Doing activities with your hands requires a lot more focus than just watching Netflix like a zombie. So, work on a puzzle, build some Lego, knit, crochet, play Solitaire, or create a necklace. Anything that’s tactile can be a great, helpful distraction for your brain when anxiety comes around.
6. Do something with someone else in mind.
It’s so easy to focus inward when we have anxiety: what’s happening? Why am I feeling this way? And while this reflective practice can be helpful sometimes, it can also be debilitating in other moments. Doing something with someone else in mind helps shift your focus outward. You might want to make some cookies for your co-workers, call your grandmother, send someone a little “just because” card in the mail, or even volunteer.
7. Remember you're oh so insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
I mean this in a reassuring way, not a rude way. You see, anxiety can often convince us that small things are actually super important, completely life-changing, make-or-break moments in our life when whatever we’re stressed about may be highly insignificant. It might sound strange, but sometimes I like to imagine the size of the universe. I imagine all of the people in it, the different countries, the various time zones around the world, the many stars in the sky, the things that have been undiscovered, etc. It reminds me that I am incredibly small, and sometimes that’s so very reassuring.
PixelThoughts is one of my favourite sites to help out with this! It offers a 60-second meditation where you enter an anxious thought into a little box, and then it shows that thought drifting away, further and further until it’s just a little speck on your computer screen. It’s oddly satisfying and calming.
A 2013 study done in Frontiers in Psychiatry does a great job explaining why exercise helps improve anxiety: firstly, exercise offers a beneficial distraction or “time out” during which you’re unable to have pestering anxious thoughts. Secondly, exercise can increase feelings of self-sufficiency, which plays an influential role in mitigating mental health issues. When you finish those 20 squats, your brain feels like it’s overcome a hurtle, which makes you feel more capable of overcoming other obstacles. Finally, exercise helps increase your tolerance for some of the symptoms of hyper-arousal that often come with being anxious. In other words, the “side effects" of getting your work out on—like experiencing an increase in heart rate and sweatiness—act as a form of “exposure therapy” in a way to bodily responses that are typically associated with fear. Translation: when you get a bout of anxiety and you’ve been working out frequently, your body will think, “Oh I’m pretty used to this rapid heartbeat nonsense, no need to panic!” Pretty cool, huh?
NOTE: many people with anxiety are often referred to yoga since it incorporates mindfulness. I totally see the validity of this recommendation—and have personally found yoga to be very helpful when I’m feeling overwhelmed—but I also think there’s something to be said for going to a kickboxing class and punching the absolute sh*t out of something when you’re feeling anxious. Sure, it’s not ~zen~ but if it works, it works!
9. Surround yourself with positive people.
Science tells us that moods really are contagious thanks to something called mirror neurons. These are types of brain cells that are not only activated when we do an activity ourselves, but when we see someone else doing that activity, too. For example, when you see someone smile, your mirror neurons for smiling fire too, which causes the release of chemicals that are associated with smiling. But this works in the opposite way, too: see someone in a bad mood and you’re likely to experience all of those not-so-fun sensations as well. Surrounding yourself with positive, content people can really help improve your anxiety.
10. Practice checking in with yourself.
Anxiety can seem like this unquantifiable feeling, but I believe it's more complicated than that. Rather, it's not uncommon for anxiety to occur when other stressors have accumulated. For days, weeks, or months, those stressors can be like a pot of water on simmer until all of a sudden, the heat gets to be too much and the water boils over.
When I'm working with people in session, it's often helpful for us to come up with an individualized "Stress Scale" where I ask them questions like, "If your stress level was at an 8/10—with 10 being the most stressed you've ever been—what would I notice?" With this awareness, the person can practice asking themselves, "What number am I at today?" or "Were am I on my stress scale?" and act accordingly.
When you start getting to the upper end of your own personal Stress Scale, I find that the best thing to do is start tending to the basics: sleep, hygiene, food, and movement. Forget about everything else and do your best to focus on getting 7+ hours of sleep a night. Start eating well-balanced meals on a regular schedule. Don't forget to shower and brush your teeth, and do your best to get at least a 10 minute walk into your day. Try your best to avoid using alcohol and/or recreational drugs. When our stress levels are that high, we need to make sure our body is in a physical state that supports us, too.
11. Seek profesional support.
Whether this is through calling or texting an anonymous crisis line, attending group therapy, or seeing a therapist one-on-one, speaking with a professional who can help you look at things differently can make all the difference.
The Bottom Line
Sometimes it's easy to feel like you have no control over when anxiety strikes—and sometimes that may be true. But I've found that these are helpful habits that can address anxiety in both preemptive and responsive ways, whether that involves making sure you're making more time for yourself, creating space for reflecting through journalling, or allowing yourself moments of distraction, too.
You Tell Me!
What are your favourite tips for keeping anxiety at bay? Let me know in the comments below!