Recently I attended a wonderful conference on treatment resistant anxiety, worry and panic. Dr. Jennifer Abel, Ph.D. was the presenter, and she is an international speaker and clinical psychologist who has specialized in cognitive-behavioral and integrative treatment of anxiety disorders for over 20 years. She developed numerous innovative techniques based on evidence-based approaches that effectively treat anxiety disorders and related problems such as insomnia, irritability and fatigue.
Now, you may be thinking, what is the difference between anxiety and worry? Worry is defined as thoughts that cause anxiety or prevent relaxation that are not productive, while anxiety consists of at least 6 months of excessive worry with symptoms of restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, and sleep disturbance. So how can our worries spiral into anxiety? According to Dr. Abel, anxiety occurs in a spiral of interactions between thoughts, images, physical sensations, emotions and behaviors. So in other words, what we think affects how we feel, what we feel affects how we behave, how we behave affects how we feel, what we feel affects how we think… etc. etc.
Not everyone experiences all 5 components of the spiral, but the components tend to follow a similar course each time and then it spirals out control. What you want to do is to be aware of the spiral starting to occur and catch it when it is at its weakest. You want to prevent it from being practiced in memory, thereby weakening it. And then ultimately, you want to strengthen a new healthy habit of coping with thoughts instead of spiraling out of control.
Start to utilize relaxation strategies such as mindfulness, which is focusing on one’s own senses and being in the moment; use breathing exercises and incorporate them into your daily routine; and use positive imagery to increase your mood. Tension and muscle relaxation has many benefits to your health such as: alleviating tension headaches, decreasing blood pressure, decreasing insomnia and increasing better sleeping habits, improving energy conservation, sexual satisfaction, and decreasing chronic body pain. According to psychology today, mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad.
Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience. It allows you to notice your senses and emotions, and trains your brain into focusing on the present moment. This can prevent symptoms of anxiety being produced because worry comes from thinking about the future, so if we are in the present, we are free from worry.
Another technique to use is aromatherapy and classical conditioning. Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils, and other aromatic compounds for the purpose of altering one's mood, cognitive, psychological or physical wellbeing. Find a pleasant scent that you enjoy; possibly a scent that already has positive memories associated with it to enhance the feeling of relaxation. Then pair it with a relaxation technique of your choice. The pleasant scent will be associated with feeling relaxed, and then you can use that scent in stressful situations in order to relax you. When you find yourself worrying about things, try to transition into a problem solving mode. Start to observe your thoughts and label them as being useful or useless. Try to become deeply relaxed and observe the problem you are faced with. Then begin to brainstorm ways to deal with the problem before it gets out of control.
Postpone your worries and attempt to problem solve instead:
- 1. Make a decision to postpone the worry.
- 2. Decide on a time to problem solve.
- 3. Use a coping strategy or two such as breathing.
- 4. Follow through with problem solving at a specified time.
By following these steps you can train your brain to rationalize your thoughts and guide them into the problem solving mode instead of the worrying mode.
Remember; try to catch your anxiety early by using relaxation techniques like mindfulness, imagery, and breathing. You don’t have to let anxiety control you, you can control the anxiety.