The first step to managing anxiety is understanding it and its symptoms. Anxiety lives in our lower brain which is primed for survival. Other functions of our lower brain include breathing, swallowing, regulating blood pressure, and blood flow. Anxiety exists as a survival skill and is a normal response to dangerous or potentially dangerous situations. That's why you may experience a flutter of fear when you're more than a few feet off the ground, another car veers into your lane, or you get an alert for severe weather on your phone. Falling from x amount of feet, getting into a car accident, and severe weather are all events that may threaten your existence. Ultimately, your brain wants you to live, so it induces fear that is intended to cause you to behave in such a way that you avoid those situations.
Sometimes, our brains go into overdrive and begin perceiving non-life-threatening events as life-threatening or potentially life-threatening, such as giving a speech in class, being in a crowded room, or someone's text bubbles disappearing and reappearing a few too many times. This can be especially true for people who have experienced extensive trauma and/or stress. Once a threat is perceived our systems kickstart causing our heart rates and blood pressure to increase, our breathing to become uncontrolled, and our thoughts to become irrational.
Learning to decrease the frequency of anxiety you experience by changing behavior and thought patterns takes time and is usually more helpful with the assistance of a mental health professional such as a therapist. However, there are quick skills you can learn to help yourself in the moment. Here are a few steps I have my clients start with:
1. Gain control of your breath as quickly as possible
This step is vital. Feeling as though you can't breathe is one of the scariest aspects of anxiety. The sooner you can gain control of your breath, the sooner your other bodily functions impacted by anxiety (such as blood pressure and heart rate) will return to normal. An effective way of doing this is by taking deep breaths. Breathe in deeply through your nose and breathe out slowly and gently through your mouth. Practice by pretending you're inhaling the smell of your favorite soup and blowing on it gently to cool it.
2. Remind yourself you are safe
This is helpful because it challenges your brain's perception of danger. Say the words out loud, "I am safe." This is especially helpful for trauma survivors who have been triggered.
3. Find a way to ground yourself
When we talk about grounding in mental health, we're talking about stabilization and there are several ways to do this. Engaging your senses is key. A common grounding technique I teach my clients is called the "5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Technique." Let's practice. Look around the room you're currently in. Name five things you can see out loud. Now, name four things you can hear out loud. Now, name three things you can touch out loud (and physically touch them). Now, name two things you can smell out loud. Lastly, name one thing you can taste out loud. The numbers may not always line up, but the important thing is that you're distracting your brain and forcing it to focus on something other than the anxiety.
Practice these skills regularly when you aren't feeling anxious. It's like muscle memory. The more you do it, the more second nature it will become. You've got this!