Anxiety, and the worried thoughts that anxiety creates, are something we all experience, especially under profoundly stressful and challenging circumstances like now. But there’s much we can do to reduce anxiety, which feels so terrible both physically and mentally.
In the long-term, we can learn to process overwhelming core emotions and conflicts, the experiences that lead to heightened anxiety, so that over time we grow calmer and more confident.
But there are also a number of strategies to halt the cycle of anxiety in the short-term. One tool that cannot be underestimated is soothing self-talk. Speaking supportive words to ourselves will provide relief, much like a parent reassures a distressed child.
Want to experiment with soothing self-talk? With a stance of kindness towards yourself, trying to hold aside any self-judgment, speak the phrases below to yourself. See if the words relax you, calm your beating heart, allow you to breathe a little deeper, or lower the tension in your muscles. Even tiny shifts are important and can bring a sense of mastery that you have some control over your nervous system—which you do!
Here are the mantras I recommend:
"This is temporary."
It's true! The quarantine, Covid 19, civil unrest, or any event or mood won't last forever. As Melissa Etheridge sings, “The only thing that stays the same is change.” And, we humans can sustain stress for long periods of time. We are resilient. Remember no matter what’s happening and how bad you feel, "This is temporary!" Say it again and again. It’s temporary!
"Everything is going to be OK."
The future is unknown, not only now, but always. But there is no sense in triggering our nervous system into states of panic. We can tell ourselves everything is going to be OK, and it most likely will be.
If you're too much of a realist or a pessimist, you can modify this phrase to "Everything is probably going to be OK." If that's still hard for you to believe, try "If everything is not OK, I can handle it." And that is true! Try out different versions and see what calms the anxiety in your body. Click here to try a gentle experiential exercise to practice being your own good parent.
"One day at a time. One hour at a time. One minute at a time."
When emotions run high, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed. This is the time to slow way down. Remind yourself the only goal is to get through the next minute, hour, or day. Shift your focus to figuring out a pleasant and calming activity that you can do right now to get through a tough moment.
For example, recently I woke up feeling really anxious after having several calm days. I knew I was anxious because my heart was beating fast and my body felt like it was vibrating. I reminded myself that my goal was to "slow down and take it a minute at a time." I read my list of state-changers. State changers are concrete activities that with some reliability shift us out of anxiety and into a calmer state. i advocate developing your own personal list of state-changers.
Here's what I did:
Vacuumed my bedroom.
Took a very hot bath, with grapefruit scented bubble bath (my favorite), and with classical music playing in the background.
Made a cup of tea.
It took a few hours, but eventually I started to feel a bit better. If none of those methods had worked, I would've told myself, "Hang in there! Tomorrow is a new day, and you will probably feel better in the morning."
"Just because I feel anxious at this moment doesn't mean in reality things are worse than the moment before."
Anxiety has a funny way of generating catastrophic thoughts. When you are very anxious, it's important to pause and notice your thoughts. If you think the world is ending or you'll never be happy again or you've ruined your life, notice that and then remind yourself it's just a feeling or it's just a worry. It doesn't mean it is true.
The way we talk to ourselves matters and affects how we feel and think. I hope you will try some of these phrases (or some of your own self-soothing phrases) and see if they offer any relief. If not, you can at least feel good about the effort you made to help yourself. Working with anxiety and the emotions that underlie anxiety is a lifelong practice. The idea is to get into an experimental state of mind and have a wide variety of tools, positive self-talk mantras, state-changers, and the Change Triangle, at your disposal. It's about practice, not perfection.
A+ for trying!
For a comprehensive and easy-to-understand read/listen to learn how to work with emotions to prevent, ease and heal from anxiety, depression, and other symptoms of obvious and invisible trauma (the wounds and scars from adverse life events starting at birth), pick up a coy of It's Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect with Your Authentic Self. ( Random House & Penguin UK) Available in Chinese, Korean, Polish, Lithuanian, and coming soon in Japanese and Spanish.