I was ten-years-old when I had my first anxiety attack. I’ll never forget experiencing it for the first time--the gnawing feeling in my gut, the racing thoughts, and the way my chest tightened making it difficult to take deep breaths. I didn’t have words for what I was experiencing until a decade later, when a counselor told me I probably had an anxiety disorder.
The thought that took hold that day and continues to haunt me? I don’t know what is going to happen. And the underlying assumption is that I should know, I should have all the pieces or be able to gather enough information to know, but somehow I can’t.
I’ve been accumulating practices to help me move through moments of severe anxiety. A lot of that has been intense work in therapy to understand where it comes from. If that’s something you’re interested in, there are a ton of resources to take that step virtually.
But if you’re just looking to move through the low or high-level of anxiety in these uncertain times, I have five practices that have helped me over the years. Anxiety has been such a part of my everyday reality for so long that my instinct is to deal with it on my own. However, if you are feeling an overwhelming amount of anxiety, don’t hesitate to reach out to a trusted counselor, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or text “Home” to 741741 and a crisis worker will text you back immediately.
Noting/Noticing thoughts and feelings
If you’re anything like me, your instinct might be to minimize or repress your emotions, particularly the uncomfortable ones. This leads to numbing and dissociating, or cutting yourself from your emotions and not fully experiencing the reality you’re living. For me, this has always been a way to kick the can down the road. Noting and noticing have become instrumental practices for me when feeling anxious.
Headspace (a meditation app) leads you through some short exercises to learn how to do this. But the key for me has been to let go of judging my thoughts and feelings. Noting or noticing is simply taking a moment to pause and pay attention to what you are thinking and feeling. My anxiety is most powerful when it is non-specific; it becomes like a constant scream in my head. However, when I take a moment to breathe and solidify what exactly I’m afraid of without judging it, I have a clearer sense of understanding and direction. It helps me come back to solid ground.
Questions to get you started: What am I feeling emotionally and physically? What do I think will happen? Does this situation remind me of a previous one I’ve lived through? What feelings did I experience then?
Make or find a playlist
This was one of my most tried and tested practices. At first, I made my own playlists of songs that spoke to me and helped connect me to deeper spiritual realities than what I was experiencing in the moment. It was a lot of Relient K, because I was an angsty college student at the time. I stand by this decision. We are in an amazing time where there are music streaming services that are filled with playlists for everything from Walk Like a Badass to The Most Beautiful Songs in the World.
For me, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all playlist, it depends on what is at the root of my anxiety. Sometimes an instrumental playlist helps me reconnect with my breath and the existence of beauty. Sometimes I listen through Lauren Daigle’s Look Up Child or Josh Garrell’s Love & War & The Sea In Between (B-Sides). Sometimes I need hip hop that inspires me to move. I’ve learned to listen to what my spirit needs, but if you’re not there, start with something calming (Spotify has genres you can browse like “Chill,” “Mood,” and “Wellness”). Pick one and notice what helps you breathe and what makes you more tense.
Questions to get you started: Do I need words to focus on that will help me get out of my head? Where am I feeling most restless? What is my favorite song right now?
Move and breathe
Exercise is an important part of my day-to-day anxiety management. But in the midst of a wave of anxiety, I tend to get stuck in my head and am no longer aware of where in my body I’m holding tension. So when you find yourself spiraling, consider gently turning your attention to your breath. Consider going for a walk (even if it’s just pacing around the open space in your apartment), or going through a brief stretching or yoga video on YouTube. Headspace also has great visualization exercises that will help you systematically release physical tension.
Questions to get you started: What’s happening with my shoulders right now? My jaw? Is my breathing shallow? What is my body trying to tell me and how can I listen to it?
Make a list
Writing is a powerful tool for untangling our anxious thoughts. Putting them on paper gives them form and presents them to us differently. Journaling was one of my first ways of managing my anxiety. It is an act of release, a way of letting them out of our head and releasing them onto the page. Making a list of the things that are causing us from anxiety removes a bit of the power we believe the anxiety has. I also like to take some time to pray through what I list, and counter each thought with a promise of God.
Prompts to get you started: I’m afraid of... , It all started when…, I don’t have control of… I do have control of…, What feels most true and real right now? What do I wish were true?
Talk to your anxiety
I haven’t used this particular practice in a while, but it was extremely helpful for a time. It’s easy to think of anxiety as an enemy. It feels like your brain is attacking itself. And in some ways it is. But what if we could shift our perspective on it? Anxiety happens when your brain is sent into fight, flight, or freeze mode based on particular information. Your brain is trying to help you avoid a situation that it perceives to be dangerous, whether it actually is or it is just different and unknown.
So I treated it more like a nervous friend, and I would talk to it. I’d say (out loud), “Hey, I know you’re trying to protect me. Thanks for that, but I don’t need your help right now.” I’d repeat it any time my thoughts began ramping up.
Questions to get you started: Who does your anxiety sound like? What is his/her name? When do you notice him/her coming around? What do you need?
During my worst moments of anxiety, these have been instrumental. If all else fails, I come back to the breath and a short prayer that acts as a mantra. I have a couple go-to’s. On the inhale I think, “I breathe You in,” then on the exhale, “I breathe me out.” My other is just one line said on both the inhale and the exhale, “I’m safe.” I’ve also used Bible verses, like Isaiah 41:10.
Inhale, “So do not fear, for I am with you,” exhale, “do not be dismayed, for I am your God.” Inhale, “I will strengthen you and help you,” exhale, “I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Sarah Bessey recently wrote a piece in which she walks through this type of prayer and gives a list of beautiful examples.
Questions to get you started: What verses speak to me when I’m afraid? What do I need to hear right now? How can God speak to my specific fears?
There are tons of other tools, like those listed in this article, but these are the six I’ve used over the years. Again, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to reach out to a trusted counselor, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or text “Home” to 741741 and a crisis worker will text you back immediately.
What helps you move through anxiety? Comment below and let me know!
Picking up what I'm putting down? Check out this episode of "Unsuitable with MaryB. Safrit" for a great conversation with Susan Im on mental health.