Anxiety is part of life. We’re all afraid of bad things happening. But, for some people, our anxiety is so strong that it makes it hard, if not impossible, to relax and enjoy life. We go through our days worrying, tense, afraid…and wonder why. We envy our friends who don’t seem to let things bother them. You know them, they’re the people who live by the surfer dude phrase, “It’s all good”.
I am not one of those people.
Research shows that some babies, from the get-go, are more anxious and fearful than others. And some of us become more anxious as we grow up and experience all kinds of bad stuff. We may have started off surfer dude mellow, but were raised in a house where we could never relax, where it was always emotionally chaotic. Some of us were abused – mentally, physically or sexually – and that left a big “deposit” in our Bank of Anxiety.
There are all kinds of good reasons why some of us live with high levels of anxiety. This column is about what we can do about it.
Let’s start with an exercise that calms the nervous system. I call it “Straw Breathing”. It’s a simple exercise that, for most people, lowers their anxiety right away.
- Take a regular breath in through your nose.
- Hold that breath for four seconds.
- As slowly as you can, gently breathe out through pursed lips, as if you are blowing through a straw.
This simple yet effective exercise comes from Dr. Howard Leibgold, M.D., whose book, Freedom from Fear: Overcoming Anxiety, Phobias and Panic, I highly recommend.
“What exactly is anxiety?” a client recently asked me. Biologically, it’s when you have an excessive secretion of adrenalin and your body reacts. Anxiety expresses itself differently in each of us; some of its symptoms include: fear of dying, fear of going crazy, fear of impending doom, constant worrying, low-grade depression that doesn’t go away, headaches, clenched teeth, detachment, poor sleep, restlessness, body aches, hyperventilating (breathing too fast and too shallowly), irritable bowels, loss of appetite or overeating, inability to concentrate, rapid heart rate, chest pain, cold hands and feet, muscle tension, nausea, sexual dysfunction…you get the drift.
The “Straw Breathing” exercise will help your body feel less anxious; here is an exercise you can do to make your mind less anxious. I call it “Confronting the Lie”:
- Notice when your anxiety peaks by identifying your own personal symptoms of excessive adrenalin (refer to the list above).
- Identify the thought that is scaring you, e.g., “I’ll be lonely forever. No one wants to be with me.”
- Confront this thought by saying, “That is a lie. This thought can only hurt me by trying to scare me. I am not going to believe that lie anymore.”
- “Reality test” the thought: “It is extremely unlikely that this lie will turn out to be true. It just wants to scare me now. But, even if this lie somehow turns out to be correct, I will find a way to survive and I will be okay.”
- Practice the 4-step “Straw Breathing” exercise.
Repeat this as necessary with any anxiety-producing thoughts that come up.
To lower your anxiety, it’s crucial to stop avoiding the thoughts that create it. Anxiety is caused by cognitive distortions: things we tell ourselves that aren’t true. It’s helpful to identify the anxiety-producing thoughts (step 2 above) and “reality test” them (step 4).
We can re-train our bodies to secrete less adrenalin by using the “Straw Breathing” and the “Confronting the Lie” exercises. The former calms our nervous system, while the latter identifies the subconscious lie that our fear wants us to believe. By confronting this lie directly, we render it less powerful. Each time we confront our fears, they lessen.
There are many ways to work with anxiety when it holds you back. Try these two and watch your anxiety get smaller and smaller. It may never go away 100%, but if you can reduce it by even 50%, your life will be a whole lot better.
—Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.