Many of us battle stress everyday, whether it comes in the form of marital stress, financial stress or job stress. It’s no secret that adult life is fraught with stressors, but for some, the sense of anxiety can be excessive and life-consuming, often arising for no apparent reason. Approximately 18% of the U.S. adult population suffers from an anxiety disorder, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates. Luckily, it is possible for anxiety sufferers to conquer the noxious worries and repetitive thoughts haunting their minds, says renowned psychotherapist John Tsilimparis, MFT, a leading authority on the dynamics of anxiety and the founder and director of The Anxiety and Panic Disorder Center of Los Angeles.
Below, Tsilimparis shares ten “sustainable” tips to reduce anxiety in your everyday life. “These tips are ‘sustainable’ because they are life-long techniques you can use over and over again,” says Tsilimparis, who recently authored the book Retrain Your Anxious Brain: Practical and Effective Tools to Conquer Anxiety. “Empower yourself by being your own autonomous instrument for change.”
1. Balance Your Need for Perfection
The quote, “There is no such thing as failure, only varying degrees of success” still holds true. But being perfect is a seductive goal. To many of us, perfection is the ultimate guarantee that will somehow provide us with safety and a lifetime of happiness.
Perfectionism sets the bar way too high and makes us look at life in “all or nothing terms.” We succeed at 100 percent, but we fail at 98 percent. And, in competition, if we finish in second place, we don’t win silver, we lose the gold.
Hence, our perfectionism about appearance, career or getting straight A’s in school can set up a false standard of living that can exacerbate existing levels of stress.
2. Stop “People Pleasing”
Making others the keepers of your self-esteem is a guaranteed recipe for chronic worry with no end in sight. Why? Because we cannot please everyone all the time. In fact, we can’t even do it some of the time.
Hence, we hate saying “no.” But, in its defense, people pleasing (like perfectionism) sometimes gets us results in life and has probably led to many success stories.
People pleasing will disempower you because you are allowing your self-worth to be defined by people like your boss, coworkers, your spouse, your family, friends, etc. Every time you feel good after getting someone’s approval of you, you are feeding your anxiety. Continue to do that and it will never end. You will be anxious every day. So, stop doing it!
3. Let Go of the Illusion of Control
Thinking you have power over every circumstance in your life can motivate you to try to control everything from people, to the aging process, the flow of traffic, the stock market, etc.
Sometimes, you may even try to control what you rationally know is impossible. Then, when your initial efforts don’t work, you may continue to come up with strategies to try and control the very thing that’s uncontrollable. And if you fail, and you probably will, you’ll feel desperate and your anxiety will likely skyrocket.
Trying to achieve absolute control means we always want to know there are guarantees to everything, that risks we take will pan out, that our intimate partners won’t leave us, that we will never get sick, or that we will never be unemployed or in need of money. We unknowingly align ourselves in a “results” expectation of life which does not leave room for allowing things to naturally flow.
The irony is that in trying to gain an excessive amount of control all the time, we essentially feel out of control. So, give it up!
4. Deep Breathing vs. Shallow Breathing
People with anxiety don’t know how to breathe properly. They primarily engage is shallow, upper chest breathing causing hyperventilation, which can lead to more anxiety. But, breathing deeply, via diaphragm techniques, can help to reduce your stress and provide oxygen to your brain to help cope with your anxiety symptoms better.
Exercise: Place your hand on your stomach and push your tummy out. Then breathe deeply by watching your tummy and your chest rise. As you do it, think of some aspect of the breathing, like your lungs expanding with air or the air itself passing through your nostrils. Hold it for three seconds then exhale through your mouth. If you do five rounds of the deep breathing three times per day you will greatly reduce your stress level.
Remember, don’t take the benefits of deep breathing for granted. It is an integral part of stress reduction that cannot be ignored. And most importantly, it gives the “racing mind” something to focus on other than the stresses of the day. Breathing deeply is the ultimate distraction. Try it, but don’t expect perfection. It will take time for your body to adjust to being mindful of your new way of breathing.
5. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Like deep breathing, this is a very effective tool you can use because you can do it anywhere. Don’t wait to do this only when you are anxious. I suggest one time in the morning and in the evening. In the long run it will bring your stress baseline levels down considerably.
The process of slowly tensing and then relaxing muscle groups of your choosing is all it takes. It accomplishes two goals: it naturally relaxes your muscles since you are probably very tense from stress and it distracts the “racing mind” by helping it focus on something different.
Stretch or tense muscle group for five to 10 seconds, and then release the pressure. You can do this for the same muscle groups multiple times. It’s up to you which ones you choose. For example, start with your feet and ankles and work your way up. Stretch and tense your wrists, arms and shoulders. Then neck and face.
For the morning or evening stretch, lay flat on your back and cross your right leg over your body and pivot your hips to follow it so that your knee touches the floor. Do the same with the other leg. You can also pull your knees up to your chest, etc.
6. Ground Yourself
Don’t sit and try to “white-knuckle” through your stress hoping it will go away. It won’t! The trick is to “ground” yourself in a tangible activity that will bring you back to reality. It will remind you that you are okay!
Distract your mind by doing a concrete task like cleaning, washing, organizing things around the house, etc. Or try something tactile, like running your fingers along the teeth of your keys, squeezing a stress ball, or holding any object in your hand that you can focus on, etc. Feel its texture. Is it smooth? Is it rough? Etc.
Another good coping tool is to hold an ice cube in the palm of your hand for as long as you can. You may put a napkin or paper towel underneath to avoid freeze-burning your skin. Then close your fist with the ice cube still in your hand for a few seconds, then switch to the other hand.
Keep in mind that since your brain cannot be in two places at the same time, the ice cube will redirect your thoughts immediately.
7. Thought Replacement
Thought replacement techniques or thought “reframe” exercises have been around for years, and they actually work if you know how to use them. When you experience a negative thought that is causing you stress, say “stop.” Write it down and then cultivate an alternative thought. Write the alternative thought down even if you don’t believe it will help. Alternative thoughts are simple, more rational thoughts that give you peace. They help you see the larger picture.
For example, if you think you will get fired from your job because you were recently late for a very important meeting, stop that thought immediately and replace it with a more rational thought: “I am only human and can’t always predict traffic. My self-worth is not dependent on being a perfect employee.”
8. Accept your Anxiety
Accepting anxiety or “making peace” with it is a great coping technique also. I don’t mean give up the struggle to reduce anxiety; I mean do not fight that anxiety exists in the moment. Big difference.
Cultivating radical acceptance of your symptoms of stress is the first step towards reducing its power over you. Accept that you are scared, and scrutinize the negative thoughts you are having. Is it danger or discomfort? Most of the time, our stress is the “anticipatory” kind which is when we panic about things in the future that have not happened yet or about things that will never happen.
Don’t assume that just because you are stressed, there must be danger lurking somewhere. Stress skews our thoughts and tricks us into thinking that way.
9. Guided Imagery
This one is very important also and is usually the one that gets passed up. It’s an exercise you can combine with your deep, diaphragm breathing techniques mentioned earlier. Close your eyes and try to think of a safe place that represents peace and calm. It could be your home, a beach, a forest, or being in the presence of a loved one or pet.
Then imagine going there and embracing the experience with open arms. What are the sounds, smells and the particular sights you see? Get specific and keep deepening the details of the imagery until you feel your stress level come down. Try this two times per day.
10. Daily Exercise
Lastly, we all know that exercise releases endorphins, which are responsible for increasing your mind’s ability to elevate mood and feel good. Exercise does not only mean heavy cardio activities or going to the gym for three hours every day. It simply means being as active as possible, like taking a 15- to 30-minute walk once or twice a day. It can also mean “light” cardio like bike riding, a short hike, playing tennis or golf. It also means taking a yoga or Pilates class. The more you are active, the better you will feel. If you are a couch potato, your chances of elevating your mood and reducing stress are slim to none.
Remember, life doesn’t have a remote, so get up and change the channel yourself!