Almost everyone has experienced anxiety to some degree. Anxiety typically occurs when we’re feeling nervous about a situation in the future, such as an important presentation, a deadline at work, or the possibility of not being able to pay the bills at the end of the month. The experience of anxiety can span from a simple worry or concern to a full-blown panic attack. No matter where you fall on that spectrum, knowing the causes of anxiety and gaining techniques in how to reduce anxiety can help.
Lets start with what anxiety feels like. The most common signs of anxiety include:
Heart palpitations (Feeling your heart beat strongly)
Feeling sweaty and clammy
Experiencing a sudden sense of doom
Tense muscles, particularly in the neck and shoulder area
Racing thoughts about a future or current event
A need to isolate yourself
Sudden tunnel vision
Feeling dizzy or light-headed and unable to focus your attention
These experiences can be quite alarming, which is why many people go to the hospital during a panic attack or a severe anxiety episode thinking that they may be having a heart attack or that there is something seriously wrong. Before it gets to that point, anxiety symptoms typically have a sequential pattern. Most people first experience worry or racing thoughts about a future or current event, from there you may start to feel more tense and feel your heartbeat speed up and your breath become shallow. If the trigger continues, it can lead you into the other symptoms listen above.
Even though the experience of anxiety can be quite different from person to person, the cause can usually be narrowed down to a few culprits. The best way that I have helped my patients reduce anxiety, is by going through a checklist when they feel their anxiety symptoms begin. When you feel the first signs of anxiety come on, it is very important that you follow the following checklist of questions to determine the potential causes of anxiety and then implement the techniques showing how to reduce anxiety.
How to Reduce Anxiety:
Have I eaten?
Low blood sugars can be a big trigger for anxiety and worsen symptoms of anxiety like feeling sweaty and clammy, feeling dizzy and light-headed and feeling an increase in heart rate. If you feel that this may be the cause, reach for your nearest snack to bring your blood sugars back up to calm your system. To avoid this situation, make sure you are eating regularly and that you are eating whole food instead of refined or processed food. Refined and processed food, such as candy, white bread and pastries, can spike your blood sugars and then quickly drop your blood sugars leaving you feeling weak, tired and anxious.
Have I had too much caffeine?
I know, coffee is a touchy subject for a lot of people, but caffeine can trigger your nervous system into thinking it is having an anxiety attack. Caffeine increases heart rate and heart palpitations, dehydrates the body leading to muscle tension and can make you feel shaky and light-headed. Caffeine on an empty stomach really exaggerates these symptoms. So, think back to how much caffeine you’ve had when you’re feeling anxious and if you’ve passed your threshold try a calming tea like chamomile or lavender to reduce the effects.
Am I breathing?
The breath is the communication point between the mind and the body. When your mind starts thinking about all the worst case scenarios of a future event, your nervous system tells your respiratory system to quicken its pace. When the body feels your respiration rate increase, it believes that it is in danger and sounds the alarm, causing the signs of anxiety. When you start to feel your breath become more shallow, try to calm your respiratory system by taking deep long breaths. This will tell your body that you are safe and there is no need for alarm, and it can turn off the original stress response. Try counting your breaths by inhaling for 4 seconds, holding for 5 seconds and exhaling for 6 seconds.
Am I safe?
This is a very important trigger for anxiety because there is no possible way to feel calm if you do not feel safe. Safety means more than physically staying out of harm’s way. Feeling unsafe can also come from a potential risk of embarrassment. If you feel that you are in a situation that you don’t have control over, this can really ramp up anxiety. For example, if you have to do a presentation that you have not prepared for, or if you get called out to answer a question that you do not know the answer to, this can cause a great deal of anxiety. The best way of dealing with the sensation of a lack of control is by asserting boundaries. Asserting boundaries lets other people know what you are comfortable with and what you are not comfortable with, and you have every right to assert these boundaries for your own wellbeing. This will give you a stronger sense of empowerment and help you feel more confident with whatever situation arrises.
What are the thoughts running through my mind right now? Are they true?
This is the biggest factor when it comes to anxiety. Anxiety is rooted in our fears of a future event and in the beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world around us. Pay close attention to the thoughts that are running through your mind (I find writing them down to be quite useful to have a more objective perspective). Once you’ve identified them, start to question them. Are they true? Do you know with 100% certainty that they are true? Usually, the answer is no, because we never know with absolute certainty what’s going to happen in the future. For example, if the thought is “I can’t ______ because I’m not smart enough, I will make an embarrassing mistake and everyone will think I’m stupid ”. How can you know with 100% certainty that this will happen? It is just as likely for the opposite thought to be true - “I can do this because I’m smart and I know what I’m doing”. Once you realize that your thoughts are not actually based in reality, you will start to dis-identify from them and not let them control your mood or actions anymore. This will free you to do the things you want to do and that you are more than capable of doing!
I encourage you to put these suggestions into action and witness their transformative ability to turn your anxiety into a confident and present awareness.