The ABC's of Anxiety
Simple rules to help manage the stresses of parenting
Anxiety is a naturally occurring emotion. It gives us information about our world, and it keeps us safe. In moderate amounts, anxiety is what tells us to look both ways before crossing the street and motivates us at work. Whether we like it or not, we need anxiety. Why then, if it’s such a helpful emotion, does it feel so uncomfortable?
Believe it or not, symptoms of anxiety like shortness of breath or racing heart are not dangerous. It’s simply your brain tricking you into thinking you’re in danger. Your body goes into overdrive to prepare and protect you. It’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do when you’re in danger. The problem is that you’re not actually in danger; you’re on a mat in your favorite yoga class. You feel so unbearably anxious that you quickly leave the class.
Coping with these sensations is distressing. It makes sense that you would try to immediately get rid of them by leaving. While this may quickly alleviate your anxiety, you’ve provided false confirmation to your brain that you were in danger. You also sent the message that you can’t handle your anxiety; that to get rid of it, you must avoid something you enjoy, making it harder to go back. This can become a vicious cycle leading to increased anxiety, social withdrawal, and depression.
Doing the opposite of escaping bad feelings, in this case staying in your class, is the most effective strategy. You need to sit with the discomfort till it passes and at the same time remain in class. It’s the same for the “worry” component of anxiety; and by “worry” I mean that chronic worry that leaves you stuck in your head, keeps you up at night, and causes you to forget to pick your kid up from school…wait, what? Anyway…
Ever try to purposely not worry about something? Try it. See what happens. Worry is an illusion of control that makes us think we are problem solving when all we’ve done is sit in our heads. The worry hasn’t stopped. In fact, trying to control worry makes it worse. Instead, notice the thoughts and watch them pass by, just like watching credits at the end of a movie.
Feeling feelings and noticing thoughts can be scary. It’s the reason people engage in substance use or bury themselves in work. These things temporarily get rid of the all the discomfort. Avoidance can also play out in ways we wouldn’t expect. Take “people pleasing” behavior. A people pleaser often prioritizes everyone’s needs above their own and frequently overextends themselves. You’re probably asking how any of this relates to anxiety.
Good. I’m glad you asked. It’s because the function of these behaviors is to avoid feeling bad. For example, people pleasers will rarely say “no” because they want to avoid the anxiety of someone possibly being angry or disappointed with them. Or they’ll put their needs second to avoid feeling selfish.
Here are some practical tips and strategies to help you manage anxiety:
- Set daily routines. Our brains don’t like uncertainty. So, when our brains can predict what comes next, we’re less likely to feel anxious. While some flexibility is healthy, you want to maintain as much consistency as possible. Don’t forget to schedule enjoyable things, not just tasks you need to accomplish.
- Monitor social media intake. Pick 2-3 times a day for 3-5 minutes to check social media. This helps prevent mindless scrolling - a very common avoidant behavior. Unfollow, restrict, or block accounts that make you anxious.
- Grounding techniques are an excellent way to keep you in the present moment. The goal is to simply notice your environment using all your senses.
- While washing dishes, notice how the water feels on your hands, the smell of the soap, the sound of the water.
- When showering, feel the water on your skin and the suds in your hair, smell the shampoo, notice the water drops on the tile.
- While driving, notice how the steering wheel feels, how your back feels against the seat, the noises of the traffic.
- Good sleep hygiene is essential.
- Bedtime/waketime should be around the same time every day.
- Turn off all blue screens an hour before bed. IF you need to leave your phone on, keep it somewhere out of reach.
- Your bed should ONLY be used for sleep and sex. No napping or relaxing.
- No caffeine or sugar at least 2 hours before bed.
- If you can’t sleep after 15 minutes go sit in another room. Drink some water, read a book, listen to music. After 15 minutes try going back to bed.
- Look for things you can control such as who you make plans with, how you set up your desk at work, or even picking a new restaurant to try.