Anxiety is not something to cure but rather a response to gain mastery of. Often, people’s automatic ways of coping with anxiety may inadvertently make their anxiety worse. For example, avoiding situations, escaping from a scary situation at the height of your anxiety, and seeking reassurance from others has the unintended effect of increasing one’s anxiety.
Learning coping strategies to reduce fear and avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations is critical. Anxiety symptoms such as racing heart and racing thoughts will usually reset to normal within a relatively short time, often 15 to 20 minutes. But if you feed the anxiety by hyperventilating and thinking catastrophic thoughts it may take longer for your body to reset.
It is important to remember that the feelings will pass and your goal is to send a signal to your brain to slow things down. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and positive self-talk can help you gain control of your body’s responses. If possible, have a support person stay in the situation with you for about 20 minutes, or until the anxiety diminishes.
Anxiety is treated through gradual exposure to the feared situations. The exposure must be gradual, otherwise you will not feel successful in the situation and this may reinforce your fear. For instance, if you are fearful of elevators you may begin the exposure by writing down the word “elevator,” looking at pictures of elevators, watching others ride an elevator, or visualizing yourself being in an elevator. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is extreme discomfort and 1 is comfortable, we want the exposure to produce a discomfort rating no higher than a 3. Exposures may also be done for physiological responses to fear such as dizziness, difficulty breathing, and tension.
Break goals down into small, manageable chunks. Do not set a goal that you are unlikely to achieve. Attempting to move through exposures too quickly can inadvertently increase your anxiety and reinforce negative emotional responses to fear-inducing situations. It is also important not to progress to more difficult exposures until your anxiety has diminished in the current situation. You are ready for the next exposure when your anxiety remains at a 1.
Frequent practice is more effective than occasional practice. Your brain needs repeated success with exposures in order to correct the false alarms that it is currently sending. Avoidance increases anxiety, as it reinforces your brain’s perspective that you cannot handle the situation and/or that it is dangerous.
Anxiety IS treatable. Contact a qualified anxiety specialist today to begin gaining mastery of your anxiety.