By Himshikha Shukla
Anxiety is a reaction designed to protect you from threats. It can make you more alert and focused. But when you’re anxious, decisions will often be limited to ‘fight-flight-freeze’ reactions. Your vision narrows and you lose access to the more creative parts of your brain. In addition, your breathing might become shallow.
Anxious moments happen to everyone. But they don’t have to take over. Having strategies to calm yourself down and re-center can make all the difference, whether you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder or an extra-stressful time in life. The problem isn’t that something made you feel bad for a little bit of time, but that it isn’t healthy to have it impact your entire day, or have it cause a domino effect of negative thoughts that aren’t related at all.
When you catastrophize, you actually do two things: first, you predict the worst possible outcome; second, you assume that if this outcome transpires, you won’t be able to cope and it will be an absolute disaster. And, as anyone who’s ever let a simple rejection letter give way to thoughts about not being good enough in general knows, it’s easy to fall into this spiral.
What to do when you start the spiral?
Ready to learn how to stop negative thinking from ruining your day? Here’s a few suggestions based on research to calm anxiety:
- Recognize it: The first step is becoming aware of your own thought patterns. (A regular meditation practice for anxiety is wonderful for this.) Take it a step further and write down your worries throughout the day in a journal. Both of these activities allow you to step back and observe your own thoughts, rather than actively engaging with them. Eventually, you’ll see your worst-case scenarios for what they are: just thoughts, nothing more.
- Breathe from your belly: When you’re anxious, you’ll tend to breathe in a shallow way, in your chest instead of your belly. Placing one hand on your heart and the other on your belly, noticing the rise and fall of each is recommended. If you’re feeling the breath more in your chest, try to direct your breathing downward, filling up your belly and then letting it fall again.
- Move your body: Exercise can lower anxiety in the moment. And in the long term, exercise has a positive impact on mood. And any kind of movement can help. When you’re in fight-or-flight mode, moving your body can make a big difference. Simple movement like walking or doing deep knee bends, or any form of exercise that’s comfortable for you. It can help flush stress chemicals out of your body.
- Reach for a slightly higher thought: It’s tough to know how to stop negative thinking from ruining your day in every instance, since, often it’s hard or even impossible to transition quickly from negative to happy. In this case, you can still prioritize small wins to slightly shift your thoughts and mood. It’s about consciously choosing to redirect our attention toward something that feels slightly better, even if it’s completely unrelated.
- Turn up the music: Research shows that even a short session of focusing on calming music can lower anxiety and improve your mood. Build yourself a calm playlist. Then, when anxiety pops up, try five minutes of sitting still or walking while listening.
- Remind yourself: This is temporary: Fighting the way, you feel when you’re anxious can actually create more anxiety. Try to witness how you’re feeling without judgment, and remind yourself these feelings won’t last forever. You’re riding the wave. Knowing your symptoms of anxiety can make them less threatening. Plus, you’ll remember all of the times you’ve survived feeling anxious before.
- Visualize it away: Sometimes, a simple visualization exercise can get you out of your head and into your feelings, where you can feel them and release them. Take a few deep breaths and bring the negative thought into your mind. See it in front of you and as you do, imagine a big fire roaring right behind it. Visualize yourself placing that negative thought into the fear and watching it burn up into the sky. Throw the thought into the fire as many times as necessary until you begin to feel lighter. Close this visualization by imagining the fire burning completely out, taking all of the negativity with it.
- Be self-compassionate: If your response when you get anxious is “Why can’t I get over this?” try being kinder to yourself. Remember, you are not your thoughts. Think of your thoughts as distress signals from your brain. We all have negative thoughts sometimes. But these thoughts don’t have to lead to action, or define who you are. Be compassionate. Tell yourself the thing that you wish someone would say to you in that moment.
- Be aware of environment: Be hyper-aware of how your environment is contributing to your spiral. If it’s the fitness models you follow on Instagram, disconnect. If your work environment is toxic, take a mental health day, turn off your mail notifications, and see how you feel.
- Focus on micro-goals: A lot of times, negative spirals start and end with the amount of pressure we put on ourselves. When we set a massive goal with an unrealistic timeline, we can get stuck in the cycle of making an effort, and then beating ourselves up when we’re not there yet. Celebrate the small wins so that when you’re hit with a negative thought, you can look back and see how far you’ve come.
- Write it down: If you know you constantly have the same thoughts over and over, you might benefit from writing a letter to yourself when you’re in a calmer headspace, which will remind you to put things in perspective. If you notice that your thoughts follow a pattern, a quick message you can turn to at the time will remind you to get back on track, and not trust those negative thoughts as strongly.
Learning to calm your anxiety in the moment is crucial. But making those anxiety spirals less frequent means you need to work on it in the moments when you’re not feeling anxious. That’s when your brain can be more creative and open to change, because it’s not in fight-or-flight mode. Finding what strategies work for you in anxious moments can take time and experimentation. So, jump in and try new things. You’ll learn about yourself in the process. Everyone is unique. Take time to identify what makes you feel safe, and proactively bring more of this into your life. Your unique solutions will always trump generic advice about how to deal with anxiety.
Not sure whether you have an anxiety disorder, or are just anxious? They’re even more common in women and people with chronic pain or other health conditions. If you feel excessively worried most days for at least 6 months, or anxiety is interfering significantly with your life, it’s something to bring up at your next appointment with a licensed health care provider. You can get information from your doctor on therapy, medication or other strategies that can help to manage your anxiety level.