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5 Tips from a Psychologist for Dealing with Anxiety

We asked a doctor for her 'anxiety' toolbox.
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Ever since I began opening up about my almost-daily dealings with anxiety on Instagram (see here and here), I've received a flood of overwhelmingly positive responses, and also a lot of questions. It's honestly one of the most exciting privileges of my job—to connect with and hopefully encourage others who struggle with the same issues. Although we all have our personal hacks to cope with anxiety and even use it to our benefit (I find that anxiety has helped me be more cognizant of and sensitive to Sloan's, which makes me a better parent), I thought it'd be helpful to reach out to a professional for her advice. Read on to see Dr. Allison's strategies for how to deal with anxiety head-on, versus just being a victim of it. - Emily

If you’ve ever felt that tightness in your chest or that nagging fear that something is going to go wrong, then you probably know a thing or two about anxiety. As a psychologist, anxiety is the number one reason people come to see me in my practice, and it’s the most-visited topic on my website.

Fear and doubt are a normal part of life, yet so often, these emotions cross a line. They become overwhelming, and in many cases, paralyzing. Anxiety can take a variety of forms, including worst-case scenario thinking, frequent panic, and chronic worry. It has the uncanny ability to sneak into our lives, grow roots, and stick around, long after it’s worn out its welcome. Thankfully, there are tons of evidence-based ways to manage and reduce anxiety, and I’m privileged to help people do that each and every day. Today, I’m thrilled to share five of my favorite tips for dealing with anxiety, all of which you can start using right this very moment:

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Did you know that as humans, we are wired to focus on the negative? Our brains are naturally drawn to see the bad. It’s an old, adaptive survival mechanism that was once helpful, and as we’ve evolved, it’s just stuck around. (Annoying, right?) The key in combatting this is to train your brain to see all of the 'stuff,' not just the bad, scary stuff.

This approach is similar to how a scientist operates. They look at each and every data point. They don’t draw conclusions based on just a few data points, and they can’t exclude data they don’t like. They look at all of it, thoughtfully and logically, before they draw their conclusion. With anxiety, consider all of the data points, not just the negative and scary ones. This means acknowledging the ways things could go wrong, but also the ways things could go right. It’s choosing to hold all the information together, drawing rational, data-driven conclusions.

For example, if you’re waiting on scary news from the doctor, your brain will naturally drift to worst-case scenario. And it’s true, that could happen. But so could fifty other things. It’s true that your life isn’t always as cut and dry as science, but you have more data than you might think. Challenge yourself to look at all of it.

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As humans, we spend nearly 47 percent of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we’re doing. 47 percent! You’re at work, but you’re thinking about home. You’re out for a walk, but you’re thinking about a family conflict. You’re driving and replaying that difficult conversation you had earlier, thinking about all the things you should have said.

This constant mind-wandering is both draining and anxiety-provoking, and we spend a ton of time worrying about things that will never happen. Learn to redirect your attention back to the present moment, focusing on the here and now. Instead of beating yourself up for how often it wanders off or thinks ten steps ahead, just notice that you’ve wandered and come back to the moment. The mantra, “Be where you are,” is particularly helpful for redirecting your attention to the present moment.

Afraid of how your big meeting will go tomorrow? Be where you are. Worried about a recent health issue? Be where you are. Overanalyzing the future of your relationship? Be where you are.

Redirect your attention to the present moment, over and over. It takes practice, but like a muscle, it gets stronger with use.

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Before you roll your eyes at this suggestion, hear me out. Taking a slow, deep breath is one of the quickest, most effective ways to reduce your anxiety in any given moment. It’s targeting your anxiety at the physiological level, so it’s nearly impossible to breathe this way and not feel a reduction in anxiety.

However, deep breathing isn’t as simple as it seems. It isn’t just a giant huff in and a giant puff out. That’s not a deep breath; that’s an exasperated sigh, and it’s probably going to make your anxiety worse. The little-known secret is to gently pause between your inhale and exhale, holding your breath for a few moments. It’s in this brief pause that you begin to slow down, feeling a release of tension in both your body and your brain. You want to breathe in slowly through your nose, pause, and then slowly exhale. If you map your breath with your hand, the arc should look like a nice little bunny slope, without quick or steep changes.

Taking one or two slow, mindful breaths in a moment of stress or panic is enormously helpful. In addition, you should also sprinkle mindful breaths in regularly throughout your day. This helps make this method of breathing more of a habit, also keeping your anxiety at a more manageable level throughout the day. (For a super helpful video on mindful breathing, click here.)

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If you’ve ever sat across from a therapist, you probably know that there are a few words that prompt our eyebrows to rise. One of the biggest? Should. “I should eat healthier. I should’ve known better. I shouldn’t have said that. I should speak up more. I should be a more patient parent. I should go. I shouldn’t have overreacted.”

While you probably intend the word “should” to be motivating, it’s usually the exact opposite. 'Should' leads from a place of shame and inadequacy. It’s harsh and critical. You think this phrasing will encourage you to keep striving, but it typically leaves you feeling stressed and stretched thin, feeling like you aren’t doing enough. Like you aren’t enough. And that is a recipe for anxiety.

Try replacing 'should statements' with something less shame-ridden. “It’s important to me; I want to; I’m going to make time for; I’d like to.” This small language shift can drastically improve mood, as well as your confidence.

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Anxiety can be so convincing. It has a way of getting into the tiniest cracks and crevices of your brain, growing roots before you realize it. It makes up stories, draws conclusions, and generates all kinds of possibilities. And these thoughts often seem so real. But remember, your thoughts are not the truth. Your thoughts may feel real, but when you step back and look at things logically (like a scientist, remember?) you’ll notice that they’re not always as accurate as they seem.

Healthy self-talk is a huge part of managing anxiety. The anxious part of your brain is a chatty Cathy. And she’s persuasive. Learn to talk back, to doubt, and to question your anxious thoughts. Your anxiety says, “You can’t do this.” But that’s not accurate. It’s hard. And you can do it. Your anxiety says, “You made a major mistake, and now everyone sees you differently.” But you don’t know that. “I made a mistake, and some people may have noticed. But I’ve done good work here, and that carries weight.

Learn to question your anxious thoughts. Embrace the phrase, “My thoughts are not always accurate,” and use it on repeat. It takes some work, and it’s not always easy, but it’s worth it.

Managing anxiety is like any other healthy habit. It takes work. It’s an active process that takes attention and effort, but with practice, it gets easier. We can’t always control what life throws our way, but we absolutely have a choice in how we respond. 

Thank you, Allison! You can read more of her tips at her website, Dr. Allison Answers.

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