Learn the skills you need to overcome anxiety
- Experiencing a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
- Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
- Increased heart rate
- Hyperventilation, breathlessness, or rapid breathing
- Trembling or “the shakes”
- Feeling weak or tired even after sleep
- Difficulty concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
- Obsessive negative thoughts
- Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems
- Difficulty controlling worry or nervousness
- The urge to avoid people, events, or other issues that trigger anxiety
Anxiety is a reaction to perceived stress with both psychological and physical effects. These feelings are thought to originate in the amygdala, the part of the brain that governs many powerful emotional responses.
The following are the most common physical responses to anxiety:
- Racing heart rate
- Breathlessness or hyperventilation
- Insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep)
- Muscle and body aches
- Frequent upset stomach resulting in vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation
- Sweaty palms
- Trembling or “the shakes”
- Difficulty swallowing
- Frequent colds
- Being easily startled
The treatment for anxiety disorders is determined by the severity of your symptoms and their impact on your day to day life. The primary treatments are psychotherapy and medication, with many individuals finding success through a combination of the two. Be aware it may take some time and trial and error to find the course of treatment that is most effective for you.
Psychotherapy or counselling involves working with a professional clinical therapist to manage and reduce your anxiety symptoms. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT is one of the most common and most effective forms of psychotherapy.
When you meet with your therapist, they will work with you to identify your triggers and help you develop a skillset to manage your anxiety. Together, you will set goals and work step-by-step to accomplish them. Clients who are committed and willing to do the work required often see powerful results and a measurable reduction of their symptoms.
Medication may also be used to treat generalized anxiety disorder. Do not be ashamed or upset if your therapist suggests speaking to your doctor about selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). If you have diabetes, your doctor would recommend insulin to correct the imbalance and mental health is no different. Be sure to talk to your doctor about potential benefits, risks, and the possible side effects of any medication and speak to your therapist about your experiences. Be aware that some medications take time to metabolize in your system, so the effects may not be immediate.
Although you may live with an anxiety disorder, it doesn’t have to define or control you. Along with counselling from a trained clinical therapist, medication prescribed by your doctor, or a combination of the two, these self-care tips can help manage feelings of anxiety.
- Get moving. Exercise is just as crucial to your mental health as it is to your physical health. Look for activities you enjoy – remember, this is to improve your mood, not spoil it!
- Get some sleep. If you’re struggling with insomnia, try changing your routine to train yourself that it’s time to shut down. Habits like shutting down your devices (phones and tablets), turning off overhead lights and using lamps, drinking a cup of decaffeinated tea, or relaxing in a warm bath can all signal your brain that it’s time to rest.
- Back off caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine is an upper, alcohol is a downer, but both can interfere with moods and spike your anxiety.
- Just breathe. It may seem silly to remind you to do what your body does naturally, but focusing on your breathing and taking deep breaths are an effective way to signal to your brain that everything is okay. Think about when you’re watching a suspenseful scene in a movie – you hold your breath, only relaxing to take a breath when the action is over. Your body reacts the same way to real-world stress.
- Relax. Easier said than done, but if you find you’re experiencing tightness in your muscles, try this simple exercise: One by one, starting with your toes, contract, hold and then release each muscle group. Take just a few seconds for each, but like your breathing, taking control of your muscles signals to your brain that everything is under control.
- Be the boss of yourself. When you feel your thoughts starting to spiral, take control through self-talk. Picture yourself facing your fears head-on and coming out the other side victorious. The more often you do this in your mind, the easier it will be to deal with it when it happens.
- Get trigger-happy. Well, perhaps not trigger-happy, but trigger-aware. Pay attention to people, events, places, and situations that cause your anxiety to spike. Keeping a journal helps, as over time you’ll begin to identify patterns, and these patterns can help you either confront or avoid your triggers.
- Finally, get out of your head by getting out of your house. Many times our anxious thoughts trap us in a self-focused, self-defeating cycle that isolates us and distorts our perspective. By quite literally stepping outside and focusing on others, we can break that cycle. Volunteer in the community or at your place of worship, or help a neighbour or a family member. Not only will you be doing a good deed, but you’ll also build connections and community that will expand your support network.
The first question often asked by individuals struggling with anxiety is, “Can I be cured?” However, being completely free of anxiety is not the answer. Anxiety and fear are essential tools for signaling real danger and keep us safe. They are your body’s natural “fight or flight” response to a threat.
So, rather than eradicating your anxiety completely, your therapist will work with you to create a treatment plan encompassing all your symptoms and provide you with practical tools to manage and control your anxiety.
Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
One of the most trusted and effective treatments for anxiety is cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT. CBT focuses on identifying, understanding, and transforming an individual’s thinking and behaviour. The client is actively involved in their recovery, and as a result, gains a sense of control as they utilize the skills and tools provided by the therapist. CBT often includes outside reading and homework assignments that implement the tools acquired in therapy sessions. Successful treatment is heavily dependent on the willingness of the client to use the tools being taught.
Exposure therapy is another type of CBT used primarily for reducing fear and anxiety responses. Through exposure therapy, the client is gradually exposed to a situation or object that spikes their fear or anxiety. Over time, this continual exposure decreases their sensitivity. It is particularly effective for obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobias.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Commonly referred to as ACT, this type of therapy uses acceptance and mindfulness (a mental state achieved by focusing on the present moment, calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations), as well as commitment and changes in behaviour as a way to cope with unwanted thoughts, feelings, or sensations. Through ACT, the client develops the skills to accept these experiences, re-framing them in a different context, thus developing clarity about their values and recognizing the commitment needed to change behaviour.
Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT)
Incorporating cognitive-behavioural techniques with meditation, dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) integrates acceptance and change. DBT combines individual and group therapy to teach mindfulness and skills for interpersonal relationships, managing distress, and controlling your emotions.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, seems to have a direct effect on how the brain processes information. In essence, it helps a person see disturbing material in a less distressing way. Research has determined that under certain conditions, eye movement appears to reduce the intensity of upsetting or alarming thoughts.
Scientists believe EMDR is similar to what occurs naturally during dreaming or the REM (rapid eye movement) cycle of sleep. Research has established that EMDR is particularly effective for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and clinicians have reported success using it as a tool in treating panic attacks and phobias.
One of the features of CBT is that it is focused on eliminating symptoms quickly and effectively, typically in a few weeks to a few months. Clients may see results in 8-12 sessions, which is quick by therapy standards. These results are possible by applying the techniques and skills learned throughout the week, not only during the therapy session itself.
Please note, individuals rarely present with a single, isolated issue to work through, so there is no magic number of sessions. Each case is handled on an individual basis and treatment is customized based on the severity and number of issues to be addressed.
An important first step in overcoming a mental health issue is to learn more about it, otherwise known as “psychoeducation.” By learning about your problem, you will see that you are not the only one struggling and that there is hope and help available through cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT.
Through CBT, your therapist will give you the tools to overcome your anxiety and take back control of your life.
- 1. You’ll learn to live with uncertainty. Individuals who struggle with the unknown often avoid people and uncomfortable situations, seek constant reassurance, procrastinate, refuse to delegate, and obsess over little things. CBT will help you identify these behaviours and learn to overcome them.
- 2. You’ll recognize when you’re “ruminating.” Rumination is simply the inability to move on from an obsessive negative thought rendering you incapable of problem-solving. CBT can help you recognize when you’re stuck in rumination-mode so you can then apply the skills learned in your sessions to break free.
- 3. You’ll recognize thought distortion. Anxiety can cause you to catastrophize situations, underestimate your ability to problem-solve, feel entitled or victimized, or a host of other out-of-balance thoughts. CBT can help you identify these distortions and bring them back into perspective.
- 4. You’ll learn to practice mindfulness. Through CBT, you’ll learn mindfulness, which will enable you to break the cycle of avoidance, make decisions based on facts instead of feelings, and reduce rumination.
- 5. You’ll learn self-acceptance. Learning positive self-talk techniques can overcome patterns of criticizing yourself for your mistakes or imperfections that lead to rumination and coping through avoidance. Instead, learning positive self-talk leads to increased motivation for self-improvement.