The Anxiety Reduction Series: Part One – Learning the Basics of Anxiety Reduction

Anxiety is a common mental health issue that most people experience at some point in their life.  For some it might be a situational problem that only arises in anxiety producing situations like public speaking.  However, for others it can be a chronic mental health disorder that is life-long.  At Silver Lining Counseling in Charlotte, NC, I can help you manage your anxiety symptoms by helping you assess ways to improve emotional and physical health, learn how to breathe in a way that triggers the relaxation response, help you identify ways to manage your stress more effectively, and learn how to restructure your thinking in order to reduce anxious feelings.  Part One of The Anxiety Reduction Series addresses how to improve overall emotional and physical health which will in turn reduce anxiety.  Part Two outlines examples of more advanced skills that you can learn through counseling for anxiety. 

1.        Learn how to belly breath

This is probably the first thing I teach all of my patients.  People who have chronic anxiety tend to have shallow breathing.  What this means is that when you inhale, your chest and shoulders rise more than your belly.  Unfortunately, this type of breathing is associated with the fight/flight/freeze response in the brain and just continues the anxiety cycle.  In order to trigger the relaxation response in the brain, it’s important to practice belly breathing instead.  When belly breathing you do the following:

·         Inhale through the nose or mouth, whichever is more comfortable

·         Breath deep into the lungs so that your belly is rising when you inhale

·         Exhale completely through the mouth, making sure all of the air leaves the body; this will insure a full inhale going forward

Practice belly breathing multiple times a day in order to get more comfortable with how it feels.  If you feel short of breath, make sure you are exhaling completely.  You can even add counting to the inhale and exhale in order to keep yourself focused.  For example, count to 4 on the inhale, and count to 4-8 on the exhale. 

Square breathing is another counting technique which involves counting to 4 on the inhale, holding the inhale for 4, exhale for 4, and then holding the exhale for 4 and then repeating. 

2.       Get adequate sleep

Not getting enough sleep can also lead to mood instability and increased anxiety or depression.  If you’re having trouble sleeping, it’s a good idea to figure out the cause of your sleep problems.  The first step in sleeping more and getting better quality sleep is to make behavior changes.  Start with you habits before bed and then take a look at your bedroom and the environment you’re sleeping in.  For example, cut out use of technology an hour before bed, and have a relaxing bedtime routine.  Once you have made changes in those areas, assess and manage any stress more effectively.  If you are still having trouble sleeping, you may want to see a sleep specialist and have a sleep study done to rule out conditions like sleep apnea. 

3.       Reduce caffeine intake

Do you know how much caffeine you are consuming in a day?  Keep track of how much caffeine you are consuming by recording the number of cups of coffee or sodas in your phone or a journal.  It also helps to record if you notice increased anxiety during these times as well.  This will give you a good idea about how caffeine is affecting you.  Some people are unaware of how much caffeine they are consuming.  Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant, and can cause increased heart rate, jitters, anxiety, and racing thoughts, decreased sleep quality, and digestive issues.   I highly recommend discontinuing caffeine intake after 12 noon in order to make sure that it does not interfere with sleep.  If you do notice that caffeine increases your anxiety, it might be wise to go without caffeine just to see if your anxiety subsides.  If you have been consuming high amounts of caffeine throughout the day, you may want to slowly decrease your consumption gradually in order to avoid severe caffeine withdrawal.

4.       Manage your stress

Stress management is one of the biggest triggers for anxiety.  We all experience stress from time to time, some more than others.  The stress response is helpful in situations in which we are in danger because it propels us into taking action to protect ourselves and our loves ones.  The problem with stress is that many of us are feeling that level of stress in situations that are not necessarily dangerous.  Current life stressors such as providing for your family, caring for kids and loved ones, managing a house hold, and expectations that we place on ourselves can lead us to feeling high levels of stress.  When we feel this stress on a consistent basis, our brain is releasing chemicals that keep us on high alert.  Being on high alert makes it difficult to relax, stop racing thoughts, manage emotions, and think rationally.  It is really important for our emotional and physical health to find ways of managing your stress so that you are not in this high alert state of mind all the time.  Find time to detach from you work and home responsibilities in order to do things that revitalize you such as exercise, meditation, being outdoors and spending time with friends. 

5.        Dietary considerations and exercise

Your diet and what you consume can also affect levels of anxiety.  High intake of refined carbs and sugar can lead to increased anxiety, and also blood sugar fluctuation.  Blood sugar fluctuation itself can lead to physical symptoms that feel similar to anxiety like jitters and shakiness.  It’s important to eat a healthy well balanced diet that follows recommended dietary guidelines.  If you are concerned about your diet or blood sugar irregularities you should consult with your physician for their recommendations. 

I mentioned exercise above as a way to manage stress.  I can’t stress how important physical exercise is to overall emotional and physical health.  Exercise not only is healthy for your physical body, but it also helps you expel built up stress and energy, and if done consistently will help you sleep better.  Exercise is an important part of building a wellness lifestyle in order to achieve optimum emotional and physical health. 

I hope Part One of the Anxiety Reduction Series was helpful!  It’s important to understand the many variables that can impact anxiety and mood stability.  I’m a strong believer that optimal emotional health is just one part of a wellness focused lifestyle.   The mind and body are very connected; therefore any positive changes you make in one area will have a positive impact on other areas.  In Part Two I will outline more advanced skills that I teach throughout counseling in order to help my patients reduce anxiety.