When you’re a champion worrier, it can feel like you’re the only one freaking outm while everyone around you has it together.
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Think again. Almost 1 in every 3 people in the United States will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
An anxiety disorder is excessive worry that can interfere with day-to-day activities, like work, school or relationships. It can feel overwhelming. But you can learn to tame it, says behavioral health therapist and mind-body coach Jane Pernotto Ehrman, MEd.
The annoying thing about anxiety is that it’s literally impossible to avoid. It’s a basic human emotion, and we all feel it at times. It’s normal to worry about a make-or-break work deadline or a serious medical diagnosis.
But when you worry all the time, or it interferes with everyday life, it’s a problem. “It’s an overwhelming, out-of-control feeling, and it can feel like it comes out of nowhere,” Ehrman says.
A racing brain is a hallmark of anxiety. Yet the feeling isn’t just in your head. Anxiety affects the whole body, including your heart rate and breathing patterns. To dial down the anxiety, Ehrman says, you can use tools to address both body and mind.
It sounds like a cliché (or an irritating way to tell someone “calm down”). But, in fact, your breath is an excellent tool for calming the body, Ehrman says. “As you move through your day, pay attention to your breathing. Regularly stopping to take some full, deep breaths keeps your brain from reaching the tipping point where anxiety takes over because you have been shallow breathing or holding your breath without realizing it.”
Ehrman recommends a 5-4-3-2-1 exercise to tune into your surroundings:
5: Identify five things you can see around you — anything from a pen on the table to a stray cat hair on your pants.
4: Find four things you can touch. Notice the soft texture of your pillow or the smooth coolness of your water glass.
3: Listen for three things you can hear. It might be birds chirping, your breath or your foot tapping the floor.
2: Name two things you can smell. (If you want to sniff something pleasant, Ehrman suggests an aromatherapy oil diffuser. Lavender is her pick for relaxation.)
1: Identify one thing you can taste. (Got nothing? Pop a peppermint in your mouth.)
“Acknowledging these things pulls you out of your head and into the present moment,” she says.
Maybe it’s, “In this moment, I am OK,” or, “This moment will pass.” When your anxiety wheel starts spinning, repeat those words to yourself. “Positive, truthful words are helpful as an affirmation. What we say can become our reality,” Ehrman says.
Don’t worry — you don’t have to become a Pollyanna. Even when difficult things are happening, though, there are usually some good things to notice. And the more attention you give those good things, the easier it will be for your brain to notice the good instead of the bad. “Our perspective is powerful,” Ehrman says.
“Focusing on the things you’re grateful for is a great way to pull yourself out of anxiety.”
Pay attention to the things that make you anxious. If you can, try to limit those triggers. If the news is making you anxious, give yourself a window of time to check the headlines, then steer clear the rest of the day (and especially before bed). “Stick to accurate news sources and stay away from sources that are speculative and overly negative,” Ehrman says.
Maybe it’s a role model whom you admire and look up to. Maybe it’s your spiritual beliefs. Or it could be an accomplishment from your past that you’re proud of. “Tapping into those sources of strength can bring a sense of calm, comfort and safety,” she says.
If you’re still drowning in worry, it’s okay to reach for a life raft. Counselors and therapists have a lot of experience treating anxiety — and it can be successfully treated. “If these tools aren’t working, or your anxiety is becoming more intense or more frequent, it’s helpful to seek out someone to talk to,” Ehrman says.
“Anxiety is more common than people realize,” she adds. “You might feel embarrassed, but the truth is that this is part of being a human, and it’s OK to ask for help.”