Exercises for dealing with anxiety

So how to deal with all this? I’m not going into all the usual stuff that people say about relaxation, CBT and possibly taking anti-depressants. This is because there’s loads of stuff about this that is repeated around the net, and as regards CBT, I think it probably isn’t the panacea that it is portrayed to be.  I more interested in developing approaches to help people who have had childhood trauma where anxiety has become part of their everyday experience.

I think that anxiety is a complex problem. My solution is to unravel it by tackling each aspect of the problem and going back to the beginning, starting with baby steps.  I am taking this approach because I think that in my case there isn’t one single amazing thing that I can do to relieve anxiety, however there are some smaller things that I have found helpful and I am aiming at building on these and combining them.  Maybe a combination of relatively small scale approaches that address each part of the problem will have a synergistic effect.

So based on my analysis of what anxiety is, any successful approach needs to tackle a range of factors.  For each of these factors I am suggesting an exercise.  This is because I think that anxiety, as an illness, is a learned state and because I think it is better to consciously approach the anxiety rather than wait for it to come on and then start throwing all sorts of breathing exercises, tablets, CBT thoughts at it, or relaxation exercises since a lot of this may constitute a kind of avoidance of anxiety (but hey, whatever works, do it 🙂 , we’re all different)

I’ve written more extensively here about what I believe causes anxiety. This is a summary of the main factors underlying anxiety:

1 – Underlying factors

  • Physical, sexual and psychological abuse and neglect factors
  • Internal personality stresses and external social stresses
  • Cumulative psychological trauma

2 –  Following a triggering event this leads to:

  • Worry and Frustration and Depression
  • Anticipation
  • Physical tension
  • Disrupted Breathing (hyperventilation)

3 – This then causes the Anxiety Disease of:

  • Fear of fear – phobophobia.
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy – worrying about and imagining symptoms and thereby producing them
  • Conditioning of physical symptoms and thoughts
  • Reduced functioning
  • A sense of lack of control
  • A loss of confidence in one’s thoughts
  • Low self-esteem and other negative beliefs
  • Sometimes social isolation.

4 – This then repeats the experience of trauma.

Exercises and strategies to reduce anxiety:

The exercises need to tackle as much and as many of these factors as possible.

The exercises involve setting aside short periods of time – maybe 10 to 15 minutes where you repeat a statement to enable you to adopt a different attitude.  So that they don’t end up feeling like a chore or boring, it’s good to take the mindful attitude approach where you suspend any assumptions you have and  see it as a fun exercise where you are learning about yourself and how your mind works.  However, they differ to mindfulness in that you are using them as specific stepping stones for each aspect of anxiety where you then move on to deal with specific situations that you find anxiety provoking.

I will now offer exercises or other approaches to tackle the multifaceted dimensions of an anxiety disorder.

1 – Underlying factors

The trauma that has been experienced in childhood and sometimes later in life unfortunately cannot be undone.  This is one of the reasons why long term trauma induced anxiety is a challenging condition to treat.

  • Internal personality stresses – low self-esteem: find work or activities that you are good at and develop your skills in these areas – write a list of things that you say to yourself everyday that counter the negative thoughts of ‘people don’t like me’, ‘no-one understands me’ ‘no-one is listening to me’  – sensitivity: see the section on ‘dealing with sensitivity’ 
  • External social stresses – this can be managed better by dealing with social situations better through developing your social skills.  A good author on this topic is Don Gabon. – Develop a support network of confidantes and people who can simply help you take your mind off things, remembering that taking is always balanced with giving. – Move your focus from being about yourself to thinking about how other people are feeling.
  • Cumulative psychological trauma – the key here is to build in recovery time to your life, to increase psychological resilience and to vary your stresses  Essentially you need to find ways to apply to your situation what is known about treating physical cumulative trauma injuries to your mental cumulative trauma injury. – see the section on Rest.

2 –  Dealing with stress triggering events

  • These events will happen, so it is about knowing how to deal with them.  Firstly, there will always be setbacks on a journey to recovery.  So, it might be better to expect them, not in a negative anxious way, but in an accepting way. Realise that they will pass. Again, as mentioned above it may be useful to have key statements that you have written down somewhere or put on your phone or something else accessible so that you can repeat these things to yourself.

3-    Dealing with the emotions that make up anxiety

  • Worry:
    • Anticipation -Put yourself in the anxiety provoking situation and just say to yourself ‘I will wait and see what’s going to happen’. This is about taking a slightly detached view but also genuinely learning about how your mind really works, not just how you expect – because of your negative experiences – how it will work.
    • Fear of fear – practice Paradoxical Intention but remember it is better to actively choose situations to practice or practice before entering the situation rather than using it in the situations as they arise.
    • Positive statements. Use brief positive statements that you may keep on a card and carry around with you.
    • Change your focus – every 15 minutes or so, look around you and observe your environment to take your attention away from yourself.
    • .Use humour – I am not aware of any formulae for doing this!
  • Frustration

Practice acceptance. It’s easier to practice acceptance if you feel that things aren’t that bad. So the first step is to incorporate gratitude into a daily psychological routine where you briefly remind yourself of the things that you should feel grateful for.

In terms of accepting the symptoms of anxiety that you experience, actively seek out a certain number of situations or activities that heighten your anxiety and practice living with the symptoms i.e. not trying to stop the symptoms, but just carrying on whatever you are doing.

Depression

(See Gratitude exercise above). Identify the the things you like doing and without overdoing it, try to do more of them.

Physical tension

  • An important part of anxiety is making excessive effort which causes tension. Practice reducing effort by beginning by just sitting and not doing anything.  This is a bit like mindfulness, except you are not even trying to focus on your breath or anything. – It is also possible to be aware of the amount of effort that one uses in undertaking various activities and to consciously ‘make an effort to reduce the effort’.
  • Disrupted Breathing (hyperventilation)

3 –

  • Self-fulfilling prophecy – worrying about symptoms can produce them: so the reverse process must be possible. To use imagination in this positive way, focus on a part of your body and imagine a sensation of relaxation there (either warmth, heaviness or a sensation of letting go), but don’t attempt relaxing all of your body in one go, build it up gradually, so once you can create the sensation in one part of the body then you work on the next.  It is probably worth combining this with positive statements e.g. ‘If I can make myself feel tense, then I can make myself feel relaxed’.
  • Conditioning of physical symptoms and thoughts – once you find something that works for you then practice it at the same time and place, or have a cue.
  • Reduced functioning
  • A sense of lack of control

The exercise here is to go with the flow of the sense of lack of control.  To practice letting go control.  This includes not trying to control any anxious thoughts or symptoms of tension.  As with the other exercises you do this by having a simple statement that you repeat to yourself e.g. ‘I am letting go control of my mind and body.  I will let it do whatever it wants to do.  I will take an open mind and see this as a learning process’.

  • A loss of confidence in one’s thoughts

Practice sitting and observing in a calm and detached way what your mind is doing. Part of anxiety may an overreaction to anxious thoughts.  When we learn to have the anxious thoughts without taking them too seriously, then we find that the anxiety drops down to a much more manageable level, which may be a very acceptable outcome for many people. So when you just observe any anxious thoughts without trying to fight them or change them, you may find that they are not the scary monsters that you thought they were.