The Taconic Counseling Group

Marsha L. Shelov, Ph.D.

Understanding and Coping with Anxiety

All of us experience symptoms of anxiety and/or panic at times during our lives.  Often we feel anxious when there is a real external event that causes us to be fearful, so that anxiety is a response appropriate to the situation.  At other times, anxiety can be a sign that there is something occurring in our emotional selves that we should pay attention to.  In these situations, anxiety is a wake up call for us to try to identify underlying thoughts and feelings.  It is also important to monitor our bodies for physical signs of stress.  In some people, the  first signs of stress appear in their bodies.  Sore back, tight jaw, stiff neck, rapid heart beat, insomnia, stomach aches, sweating, are some of the body's indications of anxiety.  In almost all cases, the symptoms of anxiety are unpleasant and should be responded to.


There is substantial research evidence that anxiety and panic symptoms can be reduced.  Our own thoughts and behaviors in response to anxiety can contribute to or help alleviate the symptoms and signs of anxiety.  The following suggestions are ways that you can try to reduce your symptoms of anxiety. If, however, your symptoms persist after experimenting with the techniques listed below,  or if you believe there is an underlying emotional issue, it might be appropriate to see a psychologist for a consultation.


1. Diet.  The foods and substances we introduce into our bodies matter.  It is important to take care of ourselves.  Diets that are high in caffeine can cause  bodily responses of anxiety.  Alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, tobacco can also add to sensations of anxiety.


2.  Physical Exercise.  Twenty minutes of cardiovascular exercise five or six times a week will reduce anxiety and stress.  Walking, bicycling, swimming, running are examples of this type of exercise.  Other forms of physical exercise can also reduce anxiety such as yoga or T'ai chi.


3.  Relaxation Exercises.  There are a number of relaxation techniques available, including progressive relaxation, meditation, and guided imagery. The key to the successful use of relaxation exercises is practice.  Try to practice once a day and begin during times when you are not anxious, so that you can know what to do when anxiety hits.

4.  Worry Containment.  If you tend to worry too much over many different things in your life, make an agreement with yourself to contain your daily worrying to a half-hour time slot specifically dedicated to worrying. Channel your worrying to that slot only and do not exceed the time for that day, and do not skip a day.  Worriers need to worry, but in a focused and structured way.


5.  Thought Stopping.  Many anxious thoughts are exaggerated. When you recognize that you are thinking or worrying in a negative direction, pause a moment and tell these thoughts to STOP.  Then refocus your thoughts and attention on something positive.  If the negative thoughts return, say STOP and refocus on the positive again.  The negative thoughts or worries will eventually lose their energy and you will feel much less anxious.  This strategy is most effective when used in conjunction with worry containment.  Having planned worry time gives you a place to put your anxious thoughts.


6.  Panic Symptoms.  For those of you who suffer from sudden, intense symptoms of panic, there are a few critical things you can do to dramatically decrease the negative impact of these symptoms:  First, when you feel these panic symptoms beginning to happen, you need to remind yourself, "This is a panic attack.  I know what it is and I know I am not dying and I am not going crazy.  This is a panic attack and it will soon be over."   Most panic attacks last only 5 to 15 minutes.


7.  Meditation.   Setting aside a quiet time of day to meditate quietly can greatly strengthen your core sense of meaning and life direction.  This, in turn, can reduce feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.  If you find prayer soothing, incorporate it into your daily life.


8.  Journal.  Keeping a daily journal  to write down feelings, thoughts and memories can help you become aware of your feelings and release them.  Anxiety is often the result of unresolved issues.  We need to get in touch with these issues, and journaling may help us do that and thereby reduce the stress.


It is important to remember that there is no one right way to reduce anxiety and that we all need to try out different methods to find the ones that work the best for each of us.  Once found, it is crucial to take time each day to take care of the stress in our lives.