It’s hard not to scroll through any news or social media source and not be a little rattled by the current state of things. We can panic globally about climate change and the potential negative effects to panicking about issues right in your home such as the potential detriments of distance learning and then everything in between from politics, a raging pandemic and impending holidays. So much to be worrying about. How does one not become consumed?
Greta Thunberg, the young environmental activist, speaks about her anxiety and depression resulting from her realization and understanding about the potential disastrous effects of climate change. Her response: she ultimately sprang into action. Ms. Thunberg has held protests, has spoken at multiple global events, and she documents her own journey on minimizing her environmental footprint. As a result, her name has become synonymous with her efforts and she has created an awareness that might not otherwise have been. Thus, it is often through taking action that we reduce our anxiety.
Anxiety, when it works the way it was intended, can actually propel us to accomplish tasks that need accomplishing. Your in-laws are coming over? Let’s pick up the house! You have a big presentation in two days? Let’s get working on it. We all have had our battles with procrastination and some people cannot seem to operate until they are working down to the wire. Ever heard the saying: your failure to plan is not my problem? My oldest was notorious for turning his assignments in at 11:59 p.m. for a midnight due date time. One or two times, this involved me being roped into proofreading the assignment until I made my position known that I would not review essays after 10 p.m. Thus, 9:45 p.m. became the new deadline since it had to be to me to review before the cutoff time.
What happens though when our anxiety goes a bit haywire and we stay in a heightened state of anxiety? These are the people who often seek help. They are living in a state of feeling as thought they are being chased by a bear 24/7. It’s an untenable situation. I have had that feeling like I am crawling out of my skin, unable to settle myself, yet I had another client to see or it was time to sleep. What can be done? Here are a few ideas:
1) Be active. I like to think of anxiety as extra energy. When we have this extra energy, we need to move to release it in the same way we take our puppies on long, long walks to wear them out. Biologically, when we feel anxious our corticosteroids (stress hormones are high. When we exercise, we release endorphins – our feel-good hormones. One cannot have high stress hormones AND high feel good hormones…it’s one or the other. Which would you prefer?
2) Get out in nature. Research is clear that being in green (think forests or parks) or blue (think any body of water) spaces stimulates our endorphins (see #1) and we feel better and more relaxed. Often ideas 1 and 2 can be combined.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to get outside daily. We are in the midst of a pandemic with our children sitting in front of screens all day long for school and then often after school on their devices; and often the same for adults with work. As humans we need to be connected to nature. In warmer weather an easy way to do this is via earthing: simply being in bare feet standing in the grass so that you are in direct contact with the earth. When is the last time you were barefoot in the grass? I personally think of childhood memories when I imagine myself with bare feet.
3) Make a list. Literally, write down what you are feeling anxious about in a worry book. Give your anxiety to the list and let the list do the worrying. The same way I try to remember my grocery items. If I don’t write it down, without fail I forget something pertinent. I let the list be my memory.
The list making is a very effective tool at bedtime. Often when our head hits the pillow, we are at the first point in the day when we have been without any distractions and our mind is flooded with remembering this or that and also thinking about any number of things from lab test results, the potentially offensive remark we made at work, wondering about our children’s futures, etc.
The list also makes us mindful. Our minds can run amuck. Why not organize your list of worries the way you might organize an errand list in the order of where you need to go?
4) Set aside time to worry…about the things on your list, if you’ve made one. Say at 5 p.m. you will allot 15 minutes to worry about the items on your list. Just keep piling on the issues throughout the day you’d like to worry about and then head into your room for some peace and quiet to sit there worrying about them. Often by the time you get to your worry time, you’ve moved on and many of the things on your list no longer matter. This can be very eye opening. Will this worry matter a week from now? If not, is it really worth worrying about?
5) Distraction is the most often used tool from what I have seen in my practice for dealing with anxiety. Anyone partake in binge watching a show that has dropped on Netflix or scrolling mindlessly through TikToks? Distraction serves a purpose for sure but it simply pushes the anxiety off for later and does not actually help address the anxiety. When used sparingly it can be a useful tool.
6) Taking up meditation. I think this is the most valuable tool in the toolbox because as it is practiced, and it must be practiced, it can be utilized anywhere, any time. Meditation teaches us human BEINGS how to be. We become observers of our thoughts and feelings and learn that we are NOT our thoughts and feelings, which are often the drivers of anxiety.
I often recommend implementing meditation as part of the bedtime routine and/or first thing in the morning, much like one would implement an exercise program. The apps are endless but some favorites are Headspace, Calm and Oak. YouTube also offers many options. It is advisable to begin with guided relaxations as these are scripts that tell you what to think about and what to focus on. The app Headspace begins this way and then leads you in to longer and longer periods of time with nothingness. This is true meditation with the ability to focus the mind on nothingness.
I do acknowledge that the title of this article is coping with anxiety through *action* -- we have to start somewhere and I believe that is the way people most often like to cope is by doing. It is a great place to start but do lookout for another post about coping with anxiety through *being*!!!