March 3, 2020

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Alyssa Petersel

3 Ways To Calm Anxiety Right Now

Though therapy can change the trajectory of your life, it also often takes time. Sometimes, in the midst of an anxiety attack, you crave relief as soon as possible just to survive to the next moment. Sometimes, you need a tool (or two, or three), to ground enough to be able to engage in a growth process like therapy. Let’s start building that toolkit, together.

When I was 17, I had my first panic attack. Anxiety was no stranger to me at the time, but I had never experienced the life-or-death sensations -- the sweaty palms, racing thoughts, blurry vision -- like this before. It was incredibly scary. My conditioned perfectionism, rather than comforting me in a time of relative need, lashed out with harsh self-judgment and criticism. “Just get over it,” I kept telling myself. I imagine that some of you can relate.

Over the years, I have learned a thing or two about managing my own anxiety, and therapy has played a large role in that journey. I’ve trained as a therapist myself to support others in creating a more balanced relationship with their anxiety. In 2017, I founded MyWellbeing to help people find the right therapist for them, whether they were experiencing anxiety, something else entirely, or proactively hoping to better understand themselves and grow. We know at MyWellbeing that over 70% of seekers who match with a therapist are hoping to work through an anxiety-related experience of their own, either as their sole goal or in combination with other things.

Therapy, like most life-changing resources and experiences, is a commitment. For those of you beginning the journey, I am happy to share with you why therapy is so unique in its ability to help you reduce and manage anxiety. Stay tuned.

Though therapy can change the trajectory of your life, it also often takes time. Sometimes, in the midst of an anxiety attack, you crave relief as soon as possible just to survive to the next moment. Sometimes, you need a tool (or two, or three), to ground enough to be able to engage in a growth process like therapy. I have been there and I hear you.

So let’s start building that toolkit, together.

Here are three ways you can reduce anxiety right now.

  1. Breathe.
  2. Through breathing techniques, you can physically deescalate your system, which will bring your body out of a state of panic, and will ultimately send a calming message to your mind.When we are anxious -- especially when we are experiencing a panic attack -- our heart races and our breath quickens, often to a point where we feel we are out of control. This further spirals our thoughts. Before we know it, we really do feel like we’re about to die.
  3. While you may not be in control of every circumstance in your life (in fact, you are often in control of very few life circumstances), you are in control of your breath. Or, you can be.
  4. I recommend keeping the 4-12-8 breathing technique in your back pocket. Inhale strongly for 4 seconds, hold at the top of 12, and exhale for 8. Repeat this process for at least 3 minutes, the longer the better. Your heart rate will begin to slow and your mind will begin to remember that everything will be okay.
  5. Remind yourself: you are safe.
  6. Panic tricks the mind to think that your life is in danger. There was once a time when we would be chased by bears, or lions, or we wouldn’t have access to food or water. So, we would panic, because our life depended on it.
  7. Though we are very rarely in quite so dire of circumstances, that is still how our body is engineered to react to threat. If you are experiencing high anxiety or panic, you have likely been triggered by an external stimuli that throws you into fight-flight-freeze mode. While the stimuli in our contemporary world may be something like an upcoming exam, a presentation or public speaking event, a first date, a big decision, or a monumental loss, our body remembers the threat to be much more life-or-death. The body is hoping to protect you from a life-threatening situation.
  8. Sometimes, what we are coping with really is life-threatening, in which case, I urge you to remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible in any way that you can.
  9. If you are safe, remind yourself of your safety. Thank your body for trying to protect you. List your safety to yourself, out loud if you can. Do you have shelter this evening? Do you have resources for food and water? Do you have a place to sleep? Believe it or not, reminding your body (and mind) of your safety may relieve some of the life-or-death panic and help you to regain perspective.
  10. Perhaps you have survived a similar state of anxiety or panic in the past. Remember that. You are a survivor, you have survived before, and you will survive again.
  11. Reduce your stimuli.
  12. We underestimate the amount of stress that noise and light pollution adds to our system. Particularly if you live in a large urban area, you are likely bombarded regularly with the screeching of public transportation wheels, the sirens of ambulances, the laughter of neighbors, or the crying of babies. Each of these stimuli contribute to your stimuli capacity, and at a certain point, whether or not you are able to identify one particular trigger, your body will need relief.
  13. Try to enter an environment that is as limited in stimuli as possible. If you are at work, perhaps there is a bathroom that is particularly private or dark. If you are at home, perhaps you can enter your room and turn the lights low or off.
  14. Touch something in the vicinity and pay close attention to what that particular thing feels like. What temperature is it? Is it soft, smooth, textured? Focus on the tiniest thing possible. In some time, you will reground and regain strength.
  15. If possible, I encourage you to weave regular windows of time into your schedule when you can exist in a less stimulated environment, perhaps first thing in the morning or last thing at night. This can help you maintain more equilibrium amid the ebbs and flows of the otherwise stimulating world.

Finally, therapy.

At its core, therapy is designated time, every week, that you have entirely to yourself. Therapy is there for you to unpack anything and everything that’s on your mind with a nurturing adult who cares about you and is there specifically to support you. The impact of such a practice is profound.

Specifically, here are 3 reasons that therapy is a uniquely powerful practice:

  1. Your therapy is personalized to you and your needs.
  2. While tools like the above are universally powerful in reducing immediate symptoms, they are not personalized to you, as it would be impossible to personally prescribe anything without first knowing you. What works best for you may look, feel, and sound quite different than what works for your neighbor, your sibling, or your friend.
  3. Your therapist will get to know you, and will cater your work together to best support your particular wants and needs.
  4. Your therapist is human.
  5. Over 70% of what makes therapy work is the relationship between you and your therapist. Like dating, chemistry and rapport are so important, as are things like body language and tone of voice.
  6. The things we are hoping to work through in therapy are often rooted in human dynamics, whether we are aspiring to strengthen our relationships with others, process grief, reduce procrastination, improve our communication style, or better our relationship with ourselves. The best way to work through human dynamics is with a human counterpart. Much of what you are hoping to work through will present itself in the room with your therapist. Your therapist will be there to help you better understand what has happened before and what is happening currently. Together, you will gain more agency and recognize more choice in how you move forward.
  7. You are working toward long-term, sustainable growth.
  8. Many of the techniques I shared above are fantastic for reducing symptom peaks in the moment. However, there are often patterns in thought, behavior, and action that feed our symptoms. If we do not address those patterns at their core, our symptoms will likely return.
  9. Therapy will help you get to the root of what you are experiencing. Over time, you will release narratives that no longer serve you, increase your distress tolerance, and break the pattern of distressing symptoms moving forward.

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About the author

Alyssa Petersel, Co-Founder and CEO of My Wellbeing and author of Somehow I Am Different, graduated from Northwestern University in 2013 with dual BA degrees in psychology and international studies, graduated summa cum laude from New York University in May 2017 with her Master's in Social Work, and graduated from The Writer's Institute non-fiction program at CUNY Graduate Center in May 2017. A native New Yorker, Alyssa now lives in Brooklyn and enjoys running, coffee, community, and social justice.

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