As we’ve discussed in How To Overcome Anxiety and Feel More at Ease (Part 1), anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health challenge we face.
If you’re feeling anxious, you are definitely not alone. Anxiety is highly common, and it is highly treatable.
This is Part 2 of my series on how to overcome anxiety. And in this article, you’ll hear real stories from those who have been through anxiety, and expert tips and strategies from some incredible mental health professionals in the field.
Advice from Sibyl Buck, a Yoga Instructor and Therapeutic Yoga Practitioner
First, meet Sibyl Buck, a yoga instructor and Therapeutic Yoga Practitioner.
Here, she shares her story and recommendations:
I grew up moving between my parents’ houses, spending a lot of time alone at home until they got home from work, watching television to learn how to be, and developing some socially unacceptable behaviors.
By the time I was a young adult, I felt decidedly weird, uncomfortable in my skin in social situations, and often even when alone.
I developed anxiety, and especially when I felt I had made a mistake, that anxiety could be punishing and debilitating.
When I moved to Topanga, California 10 years ago, finally leaving my urban jet-set lifestyle as a model and a touring musician, I studied to become a yoga teacher and found myself drawn to the more therapeutic aspects of yoga.
As I learned all I could about yoga therapy, I read books on a number of different trauma healing techniques, and was especially moved by Waking The Tiger, by Peter Levin e on Somatic Experience healing, and Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction technique he developed for hospital use as patient therapy.
I followed my intuition and guidance from wise minds and books, and ended up addressing my anxiety and what I believe to be mild, undiagnosed PTSD.
I used lots of questions to learn to listen to a small, quiet voice from within me, who seemed to have all the answers I needed such as, “Where am I holding tension in my body?” and, “What am I avoiding feeling?”
I learned recently, from Richard Miller who developed a trauma-healing modality called iRest (integrative restoration), that a big cause of anxiety is the separation caused when we try to avoid something we are feeling or noticing. His techniques are rooted in ancient yoga practices, and shaped by his medical background and a keen understanding of neuroscience biology.
The techniques I had intuitively compiled for my own self-healing were essentially the same as what he was using to treat veterans, victims of sex trafficking, and post-incarcerated populations who suffer from PTSD.
Effective Yoga Technique
Here’s a technique I used and still use regularly for myself and my students:
Not much healing can happen to anyone actively suffering stress, since too much of the body’s resources will be being directed to larger muscles of movement for fighting and fleeing. This process will help you drop into relaxation response, or the parasympathetic nervous system.
To get started, use blankets and pillows to prop up the body in an extremely comfortable position. Bend your knees, with your thighs and shins supported; your whole body should be supported anywhere it naturally lifts off the earth such as the neck, lumbar (low back) spine. Have a heavier folded blanket or pillow over your middle torso and lap, which helps to calm and balance the nervous system.
Once you’re comfortable, follow this process by directing your attention to the:
- Earth under you. Start by feeling where your body is in contact with the floor and props. Really feel yourself being held up by the ground and the pillows and blankets, so you can surrender any way in which you’re holding yourself up.
- Breath moving through you. Notice the movement of breath, and the shape of it in your body; expanding when you inhale and flattening a little when you exhale.
- Brightness behind your eyelids. With your eyes closed, notice the brightness that’s visible there, especially noticing any color, shadows and layers.
- Sounds all around you. Open your ears to all the sounds around you. Instead of identifying the sounds, open to the whole soundscape.
You can remember this by EBBS. (Think ebbs and flows.)
Your attention will probably swing from noticing these sensations and being distracted by thoughts pulling you forward and back in time. Whenever you realize you aren’t noticing sensation, return to the four steps.
If you find your mind races or it causes anxiety to lie still, practice this breath:
Take a short shallow inhalation through the nose, and exhale with a long sigh. Repeat this breath for as long as you are experiencing an anxious state. In my experience, this breath pattern is very helpful for calming anxiety.
Letting yourself feel is a powerful healing modality, and the biggest challenge to it is setting aside the time to essentially do what is considered ‘nothing’ by our modern culture. However, this kind of slowing down can restore the natural healing capability contained within each body.
Up next – strategies, techniques and insights from Mental Health Professionals…
Anxiety disorders are counterintuitive problems; our common sense responses to them are likely to make problems worse rather than better.
I rely on the Rule of Opposites, which states, ‘My gut instinct of how to respond to panic and anxiety is typically dead wrong, so I’m better off doing the opposite of my gut instinct.’
For example, people with Panic Disorder will avoid the circumstances they fear, only to see the fears grow worse, and will do better with progressive practice with, and exposure to, the feared situations.
Someone with Social Anxiety Disorder will fear being judged by others, and come to avoid being in situations where they can be observed by others; they will actually do better by practicing with being around people.
Overall, people will get better results by working with, rather than against, the signs and symptoms of chronic anxiety disorders. This is why exposure methods are the best available type of treatment.
I want to direct your attention to two particular techniques, described in detail on my website
1. Belly Breathing
Note the centrality of the Rule of Opposites. People having panic attacks find themselves short of breath, and struggle to inhale, when they get much better results by first exhaling.
2. AWARE Steps
As an overall strategy, accept that it’s common and easy to get tricked by anxiety – to feel afraid in the absence of danger, even when you know there’s no danger.
Work with that situation rather than struggling to “stop feeling afraid”.
If you’re suffering from anxiety, please:
- Don’t avoid things, locations, and activities you fear – find ways to approach them, one step at a time.
- Don’t try to hide and keep your problems a secret from loved ones – find ways to discuss and undo the secrecy.
- Don’t struggle alone without help or a knowledgeable plan – seek professional help because these problems are very treatable.
I had one client, a woman in her late thirties, who had been almost completely housebound, afraid of all travel (local travel by train or car) and being in stores.
She is a very bright and talented, gregarious person whose life was being stunted by the agoraphobia. She made a wonderful recovery, step by step, practicing with an expanding list of situations and activities, and ended up accepting a job as chief of the crossing guards in her hometown.
She was able to travel cross country and visit relatives she hadn’t seen since childhood, and even had the experience, in her forties, of seeing a cow for the very first time.
Advice from Marisa Peer, a Celebrity Therapist & Pioneering Hypnotherapy Trainer
Marisa Peer is a celebrity therapist and pioneering hypnotherapy trainer. She shares that anxiety is most often caused by not feeling good enough, pressure to perform, or feeling judged.
Here are her thoughts and recommendations:
One of the biggest symptoms is the feeling we’re not enough.
The number one way to feel good about yourself is to believe in yourself and fill yourself up with positive thoughts. That’s why you won’t see small babies scared of flying, because they haven’t formed the words or pictures that create anxiety.
Their only fear is of being rejected. This is the number one fear, which will definitely cause anxiety until you understand that no one can reject you but you.
For those of you suffering from anxiety, I recommend:
- Taking deep breaths, pushing down your shoulders and fill your mouth with saliva. It has an almost immediate effect.
- Do not judge yourself harshly. Hurtful, critical words that you say to yourself on a regular basis will continue to cause stress, anxiety and unhappiness.
- Take advice from professional therapists to make you feel calm and at ease.
I once worked with a client who had tremendous stress and anxiety, and believed she had no coping skills. She was sensitive to noise and people and felt inadequate.
She practiced saying, “I have phenomenal coping skills, I have extraordinary coping skills, I have exemplary coping skills.” She said this over and over and noticed a rapid and permanent change in her stress levels. And then, she began to feel calm and indeed able to cope.
Your mind does not care whether what you tell it is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, true or false, it lets it all in regardless.
When you tell yourself better things, you feel better.
We make our own beliefs and our beliefs make us, so we might as well make better beliefs. Your mind acts on the words you tell it, that’s it’s job. Your job is to tell it better things that help you not hurt you, that elevate you not diminish you.
Advice from Jennie Morton, MS Psychology, Certified Anxiety Treatment Professional and Mental Health Integrative Medicine Provider.
Jennie Morton is an Osteopath, MS Psychology, Certified Anxiety Treatment Professional and Mental Health Integrative Medicine Provider.
One of the great relievers of anxiety is information. My first approach is to provide education about what is actually going on in the body when we experience anxiety.
The brain is simply running a software program based upon previous experience, but the fear response is now likely to be inappropriate or disproportionate to the current level of threat.
What we need to do is create a new software program that removes the “unsafe” label from the trigger. However, when the amygdala responds quickly and seemingly irrationally to an event, this response exists beneath the level of the logical, thinking part of the brain.
It is not something we can necessarily talk our way out of. The response must be reprogrammed through experience, not by cognitive logic. The tricky part is that the amygdala has to be ‘online’ in order for any changes to be made.
To do this, we can use a form of exposure therapy where we are placed in the presence of the trigger and allow our anxiety to rise to a level of 50-60/100 (where 0 equals no anxiety and 100 equals panic). We then need to stay with this anxiety experience until the level drops by 50% (to around 30/100).
Use deep slow breathing to calm the heartrate, but do not try to rationalize or minimize the situation (as this will rob the amygdala of the opportunity to learn a new outcome). Eventually, the anxiety response will lower and the amygdala has learned that the situation poses no threat. If you always avoid the triggering situation, it will never have an opportunity to learn a new experience and therefore response.
If you suffer from more acute anxiety, it is recommended to work with a mental health professional to guide you through this protocol.
There is a wealth of other strategies with a proven track record for managing anxiety including yoga, breath work, exercise, mindfulness practice, somatic experiencing, and EMDR therapy.
Our brains have an amazing capacity to be rewired given the right conditions. If you constantly rerun the same programs in your mind or avoid triggering situations, you will simply reinforce the perception of danger.
This doesn’t have to be a Herculean task. Studies have shown that eight weeks of daily mindfulness practice can actually shrink the size of the amygdala. Science proves that we have the capacity to get back in the driving seat of our anxiety responses.
I urge you to reach out to find a practice that works for you.
Thank you to the incredible experts who contributed to this article. You might have noticed they share a similar sentiment – anxiety is common and highly treatable.
Your next step? Take a step forward — any step. That may mean trying one of the techniques you’ve read here or reaching out for help.
There are many forms of fantastic therapies that can support you – but they can only work if you do.
I know it may be hard, but if you can summon up the strength and courage to take a few steps out of the darkness, you will find light.
As you may have read in Part 1 of this series, when I was suffering from anxiety, I tried everything I could get my hands on. I kept what worked for me and let go of what didn’t.
It was a very challenging time but I was able to work through my anxiety, and my experience has helped me evolve into the more conscious, thoughtful, connected and compassionate person I am today.
For those of you facing anxiety on any level, my hope is that these stories and recommendations support you in working through your process too.
Featured photo credit: Anthony Tran via unsplash.com