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10 Ways to Cope With Anxiety When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

10 Ways to Cope With Anxiety When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed
Ⓒ Provided by Self

By Bonnie Darves, Self

Ever feel like you have a low hum sounding off in your head? Like an alarm is going to go off any minute? Like your tight shoulders are sitting inches higher than they should be no matter how hard you try to relax them? Chances are you’re dealing with some form of anxiety. While occasional worry is expected for anyone, some people have been struggling with persistent, low-level anxiousness due to the near-constant uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic has catalyzed, psychologists report. “It’s not over until it’s over” has taken on new meaning now that we’re into year three of this world-altering event.

“What some people are experiencing is a sort of cumulative anxiety buildup. We think we understand what’s going on and what we’re doing, and then the virus does a one-eighty on us,” Angela Neal-Barnett, PhD, a professor of psychological sciences at Kent State University, tells SELF. “We’re being asked to be flexible, but we don’t know what the rules are. People are just exhausted.”

The current state of our news feeds—which are frequently filled with horrors out of the war in Ukraine, unconscionable gun violence in our children’s schools, and building momentum to dismantle Roe v. Wade, which would limit crucial abortion access for most of the country, to name just a few stressors—certainly doesn’t help either.

“Anxiety and worry are important parts of our human survival function. But if we’re in a constant state of highest alert, it’s overwhelming and it limits our ability to access the inner resources we have—and need—to deal with anxiety,” Michi Fu, PhD, a Los Angeles–based psychologist who specializes in working with Asian American women, children, and families, tells SELF.

If this sounds like something you’ve been living with, it’s important to remember you are absolutely not alone in it—and there are effective strategies that can help you cope right now. Ahead, experts share 10 ways to cope with anxiety when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Read More: 5 Strategies to Cope With Climate Anxiety, According to Psychologists

Find peace in your mornings, if you can.

Your mornings can be pretty powerful. “If the first thing you do is start scrolling through email or reading bad news posts, that’s not a helpful way to start the day and it can spark anxiety,” Dr. Neal-Barnett says. That’s because stress—say, from consuming negative information—can cause your body to release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which can set off physical symptoms like sweating or a racing heart.

So try to prioritize your peace after waking up. This sounds simple, but it requires intention and attention. “The idea is to take 5 to 10 minutes right after you wake up to do something that calms and centers you,” Dr. Neal-Barnett says. “It might be meditating or praying, or maybe it’s singing or some form of play.”

Just stop—literally.

Hit pause and engage in this skill-based therapeutic approach for reducing anxiety, Kimberly Applewhite, PsyD, a psychologist at the Utah Center for Evidence Based Treatment in Salt Lake City, advises. The STOP acronym stands for Stop or pause; Take a step back; Observe how you’re feeling; Proceed mindfully. “The point is to truly stop what you’re doing and then try to move out as much of the ‘crisis energy’ you’re feeling as possible,” Dr. Applewhite tells SELF. “It takes only a minute or two, but it’s particularly helpful when you’re feeling anxious.” Here’s how to try it:

First, when you’re feeling anxious, literally stop what you’re doing if you are able to, whether that’s pacing the room or allowing your mind to race. This can be difficult at first but, with practice, it becomes easier, Dr. Applewhite says. Then take a step back. This is the equivalent of simply pausing and taking a deep breath (or several) if you’re having trouble trying to calm yourself. Observe how you’re feeling and acknowledge it with a name—frustration, anger, pain, or grief, for example—as a way to check in with yourself. Proceed mindfully. This is a matter of first identifying a mindfulness practice that works to calm you. That might look like trying a grounding technique, repeating a mantra, or simply engaging in movement, such as yoga or walking, that calms you.

Practice self-compassion.

This one can be harder than it sounds, especially for people who identify as women, Dr. Fu acknowledges. Women generally tend to be self-critical—about their abilities, their bodies, their work performance, or their parenting, to name a few factors.

“We’re always there to put a Band-Aid on someone else, but often we’re not as compassionate toward ourselves,” Dr. Fu explains. “Part of the reason some people feel anxious is because they think there’s always something they should be doing. It’s important to recognize that you’re already doing enough.”

Dr. Neal-Barnett agrees with that sentiment. She advises her patients—and everyone, actually—to practice giving themselves grace as a way to calm down. If you need a prompt to practice this one, Dr. Fu recommends placing two sticky notes nearby—say, on your bathroom mirror, fridge, or desk. Make one that reads “I’m trying” and a second that reads “I tried” so you have them as reminders when you need them most.

Be positively selfish at least once a day.

Georgia-based therapist Angela Londoño-McConnell, PhD, encourages people with anxiety to make room for one self-soothing activity every day that’s purely for their own benefit. “Identify something that nurtures you, provides comfort, or brings you a sense of peace or contentment,” Dr. Londoño-McConnell, who specializes in multicultural issues and is regularly a featured expert on CNN en Español, tells SELF. “We all need self-soothing, especially during the pandemic, so identify something that truly soothes you and make it a daily habit.”

Think of this small practice as a way to hit the reset button. “It can be as simple as listening to a favorite song, laughing, taking a warm shower, or listening to the birds singing. Or maybe just going out and being part of nature for a few minutes,” she explains. “As a daily practice, this is a very effective way to lower anxiety.”

Feel and move your body.

One way to lower anxiety is to, quite literally, move your body or at least reposition your physical self, according to Dr. Fu. That might be as basic as getting up from your chair and moving around the room or taking a brief walk outside in the middle of the day, or as intense as working out at the gym or going for a run. “It’s really about movement—any physical movement—because that helps calm the mind,” Dr. Fu says. “But avoid doing any intense physical activity within a few hours of going to bed, as that can make it hard to get to sleep.”

Dr. Londoño-McConnell also suggests letting your body relax, completely, wherever you are, and then engaging in a mindful minute. “The idea is to just focus on what is, right now, for one full minute,” she explains.

Start by focusing on one body part or muscle group at a time—your neck, your jaw and face, your shoulders, your breathing functions, your gut, and your hips, for example. Then intentionally release any physical tension you feel in each area, one at a time. Simply dropping your shoulders or unclenching your jaw can begin the relaxation process.

Embrace your inner child.

One of the supreme benefits of play, particularly physical play, is that it can help you get out of your swirling, anxious head, the experts we spoke to say. For some people playing an evening game of Words With Friends might be just the ticket. For others it might be ritualizing a family activity—whether that’s preparing dinner together, taking a quick sprint through the neighborhood, or making time a few nights a week for a short, spirited card game.

Since the pandemic began, Dr. Applewhite and her children have begun scheduling a five-minute dance party in the kitchen around dinnertime. “It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s a great way to do something together that benefits our mental well-being. We need to remember that we’re all under a tremendous amount of stress—our children included—and to look for opportunities to reduce that stress,” she says.

“It’s helpful to try to have a childlike approach to play,” Dr. Fu agrees. Find inspiration in things that you enjoyed when you were younger; whether that be frolicking outside in the rain or snow, drawing pictures (no artistic talent required!), or even walking barefoot in the grass.

Reach out to people you care about.

Meaningfully connecting with others has been challenging during these isolated times. Some people have found social, non-work-related Zoom gatherings helpful. Others have benefited from joining online interest group gatherings, even if they’re only participating “in a fringe-y way,” Dr. Fu says. “Even the most introverted person needs to feel validated.” That means most of us need to have our experiences, thoughts, and, ideally, our values and beliefs acknowledged by other people.

If you’re feeling heavy anxiety, Dr. Applewhite recommends taking a little time to connect or reconnect with people who are important to you or who have had a positive impact on you in some way. “This is one of the few positives I’ve seen during the pandemic—people reinvigorating old friendships,” she says, adding that it can be grounding to reminisce with people who truly know you and your backstory.

That might look like giving a close college friend who you don’t see often a call to catch up or making dinner plans with a former colleague who totally understands the nuances (good and bad) of your job.

Reassess your relationship with social media.

This should go without saying, but doomscrolling isn’t doing you any favors. “In my experience, people tend to underestimate the amount of time they spend on social media, or any media, and they might not realize how excessive exposure contributes to their anxiety,” Dr. Applewhite says.

Here’s her tip: Try to track the time you spend on social media (or other forms of media, like binge-watching TV). If you find that you’re spending a ridiculous amount of time scrolling through horrific headline after horrific headline (which may look different for everyone), it may be time to give yourself a daily time limit.

But researchers are finding that it’s not just the amount of time, it’s also how you engage with your social media feeds that can affect your overall mental well-being. And, let’s be real, limiting social media can be really hard, especially if you’re trying to stay informed.

Read More: 9 Signs of Anxiety Disorder

Please, please prioritize sleep if you can.

Lack of sleep can trigger or worsen anxiety, Dr. Fu says, so allocating enough hours for shut-eye is crucial. “That means getting as much sleep as you need, not anyone else,” she explains. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most adults need at least seven hours of sleep to replenish themselves and function well physically and mentally. If you’re short on sleep and can squeeze in a brief nap (a true luxury for many, of course), try to permit yourself to spend 20 minutes lying down with your eyes closed, Dr. Fu advises. Even if you don’t go into a deep sleep, you’ll briefly recharge and soothe your psyche. Breathe—really breathe, down to your core.

Taking time to breathe deeply several times throughout the day is a simple but effective way to reduce anxiety, according to Dr. Fu. “The idea is to really get oxygen to different parts of your body,” she explains. Breathing is something you actually have control over—and doing so intentionally can help calm your stress response, as SELF previously reported.

Finally, while it’s important to try to cope with anxiety in any way that feels doable for you, it’s equally important to recognize when it’s severe enough to warrant professional help, because no one deserves to live with extreme or prolonged anxiety. If you’re concerned about how your anxiety affects your day-to-day life, reach out to your primary care doctor if you have one, who can refer you to a licensed therapist if needed.

See more at Self

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Health Magazine: 10 Ways to Cope With Anxiety When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed
10 Ways to Cope With Anxiety When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed
Dealing with constant anxiety can threaten your overall health. Experts explain how to reduce anxiety when it feels never-ending.
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