How to STOP Anxiety in its Tracks
Excuse me sir, your amygdala’s going haywire
Our brains are naturally wired to respond to threats with worry. When we encounter something troubling, a part of our brain called the amygdala sends out red flags to our bodies to be on high alert. Whether you are facing a dangerous situation like confronting a robber or something positive but nerve-wracking like taking your SAT’s, your amygdala will trigger your body to have symptoms of anxiety. Some people have more sensitive circuitry than others, causing them to experience anxiety symptoms more often.
Symptoms can include:
Increased heart rate
Shortness of breath
Feeling like your chest is caving in
Intense, debilitating fear
But son, California doesn’t get tornadoes!
The threat response circuitry for a person with anxiety disorders is highly sensitive and may become triggered for reasons that seem completely irrational to others. Reasonable or not, just about anything can become a trigger for someone with anxiety issues, and their brain responds to that trigger the same way it would if they were standing face to face with a known serial killer. Without learning how to cope with their symptoms, this pervasive worrying can impact a person’s relationships, school or work performance, and mental health.
The equal opportunity offender
Anxiety impacts people through all walks of life and affects children, teens, and adults alike. Anxiety can take many forms. Some common forms of anxiety disorders include:
Social anxiety – Feeling anxious when having to interact in social situations
Panic disorder – Experiencing sudden attacks of fear, often with no obvious trigger
Generalized anxiety disorder – Excessive worry about several aspects of life
Agoraphobia – Intense fear of places where an escape route isn’t obvious
Specific phobias – Intense irrational fear of a specific trigger such as elevators, spiders, earthquakes, cars, etc.
When it’s a Problem
We all experience anxiety at one time or another. Whether it’s starting a new job, going on a blind date, or trying out a new rollercoaster, there are many life experiences that induce anxiety. Most people can move past it as it comes and carry on with their lives, but if you feel that your symptoms are a frequent problem that holds you back in any area of life, give these tips a try:
Get your amygdala out of the gutter
Anyone with anxiety knows how annoying it is for well-meaning friends and family to suggest that they “just cheer up,” or, “stop thinking that way,” as they know it is simply not that easy. However, by practicing a set of habits called STOP skills, you can learn to put the brakes on your brain’s reactions. STOP skills were developed by Dr. Marta M. Shinn, one of Variations Psychology’s specialists, and can benefit both adults and children. Stop stands for:
1. Surprise your brain
Anxiety makes us feel like we have no control over our minds, but we can influence our thoughts with practice. When you have a worrisome thought, identify it as a destructive idea that needs to be removed. Of course, it’s impossible to immediately remove a thought from your brain; if someone tells you not to think about hippos you’ll have hippos dancing through your head all day!
But you can identify the thought as a nuisance and work on replacing it.
One technique is to wear a rubber band on your wrist. Whenever a troublesome thought pops in your brain, snap it on your wrist, tell the thought to “stop!” and then picture yourself throwing the thought away to make room for a better one!
2. Talk to your brain
Positive self-talk is important to replacing your worrisome thoughts. Keep your problems in perspective – in the big picture, is your situation as threatening as it feels? Repeat positive affirmations to yourself, even if you don’t believe them at first.
What if it’s not my brain that’s the problem?
The same goes for parenting a child with anxiety as well – be the confidence that they don’t have. If they keep asking, “What if a tornado comes - you can’t know for sure that one won’t happen here.” Just say, “You’re right, it could happen, but I think we’ll be ok.” This is a great time to model how to manage worrisome thoughts.
3. Open your breathing
Next time you’re overcome with anxiety, pay attention to what your body is doing. Your muscles clench up, your chest tightens, and your breathing gets shorter. Focus on regaining control over your body, loosening your muscles and taking slow, controlled breaths. Once your breathing is under control, your other “high alert” symptoms will start to subside.
4. Practice a new behavior
Find your time out spot. We’re not referring to the corner your mom used to banish you to when you’d smack your brother. We mean to find a hobby, place, mental vision that allows you to take a break from whatever is triggering your anxiety. It could be listening to calming music, going for a drive, or watching cheesy movies with your best friend. Think about things that make you feel relaxed and calm; whatever that looks like for you, make it a priority when you feel anxious.
Other Helpful Tips:
Lay off the vodka red bulls
While you may have a few friends who strongly believe in the notion that “wine is cheaper than therapy,” an anxious person should limit their alcohol and caffeine consumption. Using alcohol as a coping mechanism for anxiety is dangerous because it can lead to dependence on alcohol to cope with your symptoms. Alcohol also changes your serotonin levels, which can increase anxiety symptoms once your buzz wears off. Caffeine can also worsen your symptoms because it is a stimulant that can give you the same jittery effects that trigger your “fight or flight” response during anxiety attacks.
Try a yoga class
…Or just YouTube yoga videos at home if your anxiety revolves around bending your body in unnatural positions in a room full of strangers. Whether you’re into high impact workouts like CrossFit or are more into the slow and controlled movements of Pilates, regular exercise of any kind will help your brain release endorphins and reduce your stress.
Namaste in bed
Yes, we want you to exercise regularly, but it’s equally important that you get adequate rest. Anxiety can be exacerbated by lack of sleep. For adults, try to get at least 8 hours of sleep per night. Doctor’s orders! Children require much more sleep depending on their age, with teens requiring 8-10 hours of sleep, 6-12 year old’s requiring 9-12 hours, 3-5 year old’s requiring 10-13 hours, 1-2 year old’s requiring 11-14 hours, and infants requiring 12-16 hours.
Power up with protein
Remember that anxiety is an issue with your brain’s health – you can address it with your thoughts and coping skills, but you can also support your brain health by feeding your body with proper nutrition. Eat a healthy, balanced diet and make sure to keep high protein snacks on hand to keep your energy up throughout the day.
Talk to a specialist
Variations Psychology has experts with a wide range of specializations to help you overcome problems with anxiety and help you get back to living your best life.
Dr. Daniella A. Davis, Psy.D., is an expert in dealing with the unique challenges that women face throughout each stage of life. Whether it be adjusting to a new baby, managing the demands of college, work related stress, climbing the corporate ladder, life after divorce, or struggling through menopause, Dr. Davis supports women in leading healthy, empowered lives.
Dr. Christopher J. Sample, Psy.D. specializes in supporting men through life’s transitions. Men face a variety of unique challenges throughout their lives, and Dr. Sample is experienced in helping men cope with issues such as marriage, relationship, and dating problems, work stress and career advancement, addiction, veteran’s issues, anger, anxiety, depression, and trauma. Dr. Sample provides a comfortable place for men to overcome obstacles and gain the tools for leading successful and fulfilling lives.
Cynthia Johnson, LMFT, is a specialist in Parenting and Child Therapy at Variations Psychology. She has years of experience in supporting families and strengthening relationships between parents, teens, and children.
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Variations Psychology is a group practice specializing in Child and Family Psychology.
Our specialists provide therapy to infants, children, adolescents, and adults to help them overcome the many challenges they may face throughout the lifespan of a family. We also conduct diagnostic testing of child and adult conditions that may impact the family’s mental health and development (e.g. ADHD, Autism, Depression, Anxiety, Learning Disorders, college entrance exams).
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Anxiety and Depression Association of America https://adaa.org/tips-manage-anxiety-and-stress
National Institute of Mental Health https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/panic-disorder-when-fear-overwhelms/index.shtml
How to Cite This Blog Article:
Shinn, M.M. (2018). How to STOP Anxiety in its Tracks. Psychologically Speaking.
[Variations Psychology blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.variationspsychology.com/blogs/how-to-stop-anxiety-in-its-tracks