How to reduce anxiety on the go: strategies that work

An important question I am often asked is how to reduce anxiety away from home and without a scheduled therapy session. I have always held the stance that psychotherapy (and treatment), in general, is a few hours per month at most. In between, there is a lot of living that happens. It all matters.

Having skills and strategies that work, and are individualized, is incredibly important. I ask patients what feels best (and it may vary even for each person) when they feel a wave of anxiety in the moment, day, or even longer. Contrary to ‘follow a manual’ therapy, everything does not work for everyone.

Here are some things that might seem deceptively simple, but can be adapted for using during moments of severe anxiety, during travel, airports, classroom, campus, work, meetings, deadlines, and social gatherings.

*Listen to your body. What does it want to do when it’s distressed? I have clients who want to walk around, they need to pace. Others need to get out, go outside. Curling up in a fetal position, ‘child’s pose’ in yoga, is also soothing for many folks. Some people want to call a trusted friend, I call this having an anxiety coach. On the other hand, people might need to be in a quiet space with no conversation, and to be left alone. For people who prefer a sense of being grounded, lying on the floor, carpet, grass, earth can be very soothing.

*Escape hatches. I am rightly asked, how am I supposed to do that stuff in the middle of a long and stressful meeting or other setting? There are strategies that can be used as an ‘escape hatch’ during the requirements of your day. The important thing is to practice them and think about them and what works and what doesn’t beforehand.

*Practice. In mental health, we frequently hear, ‘I had an OK week, nothing bad happened.’ That’s great. That IS the actual best time to maybe think about and learn some strategies in the session. No one has ever learned anything that ‘sticks’ with cortisol and adrenaline coursing through their body, during the very moment of severe anxiety or panic. Learning in between, that’s where you get to practice the best.

*Music is evocative. Put together a specific playlist that is only to be used for moments of anxiety management. I have people do specific playlists for coping with anxiety/stress, focus and attention, relaxation and unwind, feeling powerful, and exercise, among others. The trick is to only use the playlist for those moments, not in general. Our brain creates pathways with specific associations. Just think of how you might crave a childhood favorite food when you’re feeling the need for comfort. When that coping and stress playlist comes on, your brain (eventually) remembers,’this is to help me calm and soothe myself’.

* Placement. Not possible in all settings, but have a small prayer rug or yoga mat with you. Again, it’s the association. This small (physical) space is where you go to breathe for calmness (see diagrams, below), practice meditation or pranayama (controlled breath work), or pray, whatever form that takes.

* Journal. Try to write down any thoughts, feelings, opinions, ideas. A robust body of clinical research shows that getting feelings out of your head by doing this is remarkably helpful in reducing anxiety or depression in the moment. One of the things I come, across with clients is the self critic, what if I don’t know what to say, what if I don’t know what to write, what if it sounds stupid? The technique that I suggest:

First, no one needs to see what you’re writing. It’s for you, and only the other people that you may or may not want to share it with. Write your truth: ‘I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what’s happening. I am confused. I feel stupid.’ It clears your head and creates the foundation for thinking more reflectively. Speaking your truth, as closely as possible, is genuineness, and it’s a superpower when it comes to alleviating anxiety.

Anxiety can see through fancy maneuvers, denial, and numbing behaviors. It is ancient and has seen it all.

Not everything works for everyone. But finding out what helps matters.
For more info please read: Anxiety Toolkit.

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