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Eleven things you can do when you are anxious

Anxiety is an energy consumer. In high amounts, it leaves you unfocused and wasting time. There are a few things that can help you deal with it more easily. And when it is persistent, go and get help.

1. Drink more water

Remember when you were a child and you had a nightmare? What did your parents do? They gave you a glass of water. And the water helped chase the nightmare away, right?! Indeed, plenty of water helps reduce anxiety. We don’t know how it works, but it does. Don’t take fizzy drinks or (herbal) tea. They don’t do the trick. Use plain water.

2. Lower your shoulders

I will bet you 10 to 1 that when you’re anxious, you subconsciously have raised your shoulders. At the end of the day, they will be pretty stiff. Just remember every now and then to lower them. You will notice a difference immediately. How does this work? The brain receives constant feedback from the body about how things are. This is because the body responds to situations much quicker than the brain. Imagine when you see a tiger: run first and then think. And when the body adopts an anxious pose to respond adequately to a threat, the brain registers it as having to be vigilant. When the body is calm, the brain will relax too. When your posture has become automated, there’s your quick gain. Probably this is the exact another way around than you thought?

3. Power Pose

You can do many more things than just lowering your shoulders. If you Google Power Posing, you will find some interesting suggestions. Try imitating them and see how they make you feel. It’s a well-known trick for job interviews, public speaking, and other challenges, or just for feeling stronger and more self-confident in yourself. It works wonders.

4. Breathe

This trick is so simple that it took me a long time to believe it. Deep breathing is an ancient technique, mostly from the eastern philosophies. I am not so interested in becoming enlightened, so this temptation has passed me by for a long time. Only when I read the research, I became convinced. The theory for those who are interested is called the polyvagal theory. Simply put, it states that you have a vagus nerve, descending from your brainstem to your organs. There is also a second branch, ascending in the opposite direction. The second one sends information from the body to the brain. When you engage in deep diaphragmatic breathing, the vagus nerve will activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the one that calms you down. It also increases your heart rate variability, which is an indicator of the flexibility of your system to deal with situations and stress. The more you practice it, the easier it gets and the quicker you’ll be relaxed each time. There are a few great apps that you can use to help you do it. (I’m not advertising here). Go to the app store and use these keywords: diaphragmatic breathing and/or HRV.

5. (Quick) Mindfulness tricks

When you’re anxious you’re not living in the present. Mostly you are anticipating all sorts of doom and gloom in the future. (If they were in the past you’d be depressed). One way of stepping out of your anxiety is to shift your focus to the present so as to get immediate feedback about the actual danger of the situation. This danger is most probably very low. One way to do this is to count e.g. 5 blue things in the room, then 5 soft things, then 5 cold things, then 5 living things etc. You can make up any characteristic yourself. It forces you to focus on what is happening in the here and now. I bet you your anxiety will come down very quickly.

Another thing you can do is to observe your anxiety and name it: oh, so I am anxious. You may repeat that sentence a few times in silly voices and see how that takes the charge off.

I will write more extensively about mindfulness methods in a later blog.

6. Meditate

This one is almost an old one. Meditation has become hugely popular in the recent past, not ‘hippie-like’ at all anymore. You can do it on your way to work on the bus or tube, or when you’re at a party and you lock yourself in the loo for a few minutes. The trick is: you want to do it regularly, so your brain is trained and quickly goes into alpha (brainwaves that are associated with mediation) as soon as you start. Why is this? That is because then when you need it, you are so well trained you can do it in an instant. Thus you are not struggling to actually get there. Also, people who regularly meditate are found to be calmer overall, more balanced and more stress resistant, even when they’re not meditating. The brain gets a little holiday, which helps to reset old patterns that you are dying to get rid of. Join a class, find a youtube video or an app, buy a CD; there are plenty of ways you can meditate.

7. Do yoga

Just like meditation and mindfulness, yoga is booming. Some people use it for exercise; others use it for mental and physical balancing of the body. The principle is the same as with the postures, the breathing, and the mindfulness. By doing the exercises, your body becomes more balanced. It sends impulses to the brain that it is relaxed and so the brain can relax too. There are great instruction videos on youtube, DVDs in the shop or classes in your neighbourhood that will guide you on this path. It will help you in dealing with stress much better. And according to some therapists and researchers should be a mandatory element of trauma therapy. Plus… you can do it for 5 minutes during your lunch break or a whole week in a summer retreat -and everything in between.

8. Stay away from alcohol and sugar

Stress is managed in the adrenals. They produce adrenalin, cortisol and a bunch of other hormones that help you deal with stressful situations. Alcohol and sugar are big stressors for the adrenals as well. So when you consume them, you put an even greater burden on the adrenals. And these glands will have an even harder time dealing with the stressful situation than they had in the first place. So alcohol and sugar are making you more stressed, unfortunately. However, then you may say: ‘But I relax when I drink alcohol!’ Yes, alcohol is a relaxant… for particular parts of the brain, the control center so to speak.… for a little while. It tones down this ‘flight tower’ and makes you less inhibited. But the after effects are greater and longer lasting. After the intoxication has worn off, the adrenals are still very tired from all the hard work and need ever-longer recuperation.

If you can’t do without sugar, there are some excellent replacements: Stevia and Xylitol, (don’t use chemical sugars as such as aspartame and acesulfame-K, they are tricky for your health). Some spices make life sweeter too: cinnamon, aniseed, unsweetened fruit juices, or dates…

9. Add more magnesium to your diet

Magnesium is a muscle relaxant. It is apparently involved in about 300 chemical processes in the body and therefore essential to have in abundance. Relaxing your muscles, I’ve said it before, calms the brain, see also tip 2, 3, and 4. Now, where do you find magnesium? You find it in otc supplements of course. And you find it in green leafy vegetables. So up your salads, kale, spinach, and herbs. Calculations, however, have indicated that by purely eating more leafy greens, though very good and healthy, you’re not meeting your daily requirements. So also hop to the nutritionist for advice on dosage and form of the supplements.

10. Think of the worst case scenario

You’re anxious and that makes you stop or avoid doing things. But… what is the worst that can happen? Will you or someone else die? Will the damage be irreversible? Really? I mean really? What can you do to solve it? Have you been in a situation like this before? What was the outcome? If you are just anxious to be anxious I have bad news for you. You will be (and have to be) anxious every now and then in your life. It’s healthy and normal. It’s about how you deal with it. It doesn’t mean your weak. Courage isn’t the absence of anxiety; it’s dealing with the situation despite the anxiety.

11. Remind yourself that anxiety is not going to kill you

What is so bad about anxiety? It doesn’t feel nice. We all know we can’t live without anxiety because we would be killed very quickly. So… anxiety is a good thing. I repeat: anxiety is a good thing! It is trying to tell you something.

When you allow anxiety to help you indicate what is wrong, you can change your plan or attitude and deal with the situation better. When you only regard it as a nuisance and a shameful thing, it will impede your functioning. As such, you allow it to become too powerful and take over control. You will start avoiding things and limiting your activities. But when you don’t avoid and stay with the anxiety and nothing unmanageable happens, your body will automatically tone down. Your body won’t be fooled you know. It’s not going to stay worked up for nothing.

Now, anxiety is there for a reason. If it's a good reason, that's for you to sort out. And even when it is, there are still ways to make it more bearable. I hope you find this helpful!

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