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Learning Healthy Ways of Coping with Anxiety


Updated September 26, 2011

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Everyone experiences anxiety, and everyone has to learn ways of coping with it. It is a natural human emotion. However, although everyone experiences anxiety, we all experience it differently. Some people tend to experience low levels of anxiety, whereas others experience anxiety strongly or have a high number of situations that trigger their anxiety.

People with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in particular tend to experience very intense anxiety and have a number of situations that bring up anxiety, such as large crowds or tight spaces. When anxiety is very intense, it can be very difficult to manage. Listed below are some basic coping strategies that are designed to reduce anxiety that may help you take back your life from anxiety.

Deep Breathing

Deep breathing, also referred to as diaphragmatic breathing, is one of the most basic and effective coping strategies for reducing anxiety. When people are anxious, they tend to take shorter and shallower breaths, which can further increase arousal. Deliberately breathing deeply with your diaphragm can counter this anxiety response, reducing your heart rate and bringing on a state of relaxation and calm. An added benefit of deep breathing is that you can use this coping strategy anywhere – while in the car, in a large crowd, during a test or when giving a presentation at work.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Another basic coping strategy for anxiety is progressive muscle relaxation. One common symptom of anxiety is muscle tension. Progressive is a coping strategy that is designed to bring about complete relaxation of all of the different muscle groups in your body. In this exercise, you systematically tense and then relax different muscle groups. By first tensing your muscles and then relaxing, you can achieve a more complete and a deeper relaxation of your muscles.

Cognitive Restructuring

How we evaluate or perceive certain situations can determine whether or not we have anxiety. For example, if you enter an enclosed space and evaluate that situation as threatening or one in which you will become trapped and not be able to escape, you are more likely to experience anxiety than if you were to simply evaluate the situation as mildly uncomfortable or not dangerous at all.

Cognitive restructuring can help you change how you evaluate certain situations, reducing the likelihood of anxiety. In cognitive restructuring, you try to find evidence for and against your thoughts. In doing so, you will likely develop a more accurate and balanced view of your situation that may limit the amount of anxiety that you could experience.

Breaking Down Avoidance

Anxiety and fear are natural human emotions that motivate us to avoid potentially threatening or dangerous situations. However, although anxiety and fear can be very adaptive, they also can cause us to avoid situations where we really aren’t in danger, negatively affecting our lives. For example, if you fear giving a presentation at work, you may take steps to avoid that situation, which could cause you to receive a negative evaluation at work or negatively affect your advancement at work. When there are many situations that bring up anxiety, people may find that they put a tremendous amount of effort into avoidance. As a result, their lives may become smaller and smaller, maybe even to the point where someone does not feel safe leaving their house.

If you tend to engage in a large amount of avoidance behavior, it is important to take steps to break down this avoidance. Breaking down avoidance is a central part of exposure therapy. As the name implies, in exposure therapy, the goal is to increase contact with anxiety-provoking events. As you approach more and more of these events, you will find that your tolerance for anxiety increases.

Approaching feared situations can be a difficult and frightening thing to do initially. Therefore, it is important to start off slow, approaching events or situations that only bring up mild anxiety. From there, you can slowly work your way up to more anxiety-provoking experiences. In addition, it may be useful to practice other healthy coping strategies (for example, deep breathing, mindfulness) in order to handle the anxiety that comes up as part of these exposures.

Be More Mindful

Finally, mindfulness can be an excellent way of managing anxiety. When people are anxious, they tend to experience high levels of worry. Worry is focused on the future and, as a result, it can take us out of the present moment. Mindfulness is one way to reduce worry, as it helps you to connect with the present moment in a non-judgmental and non-evaluative way. It may also help you connect with rewarding aspects of your current environment that can counter an anxiety response.

The Importance of Self-Compassion

As you try out these different coping strategies for anxiety, remember that practice makes perfect. The more you practice these exercises, the quicker they will become habit. In addition, it is also important to remember that anxiety is a natural human emotion and can be difficult to manage. You are not alone in this struggle.

When people experience intense anxiety, it is normal to struggle with how to manage it. Approach yourself and your experience with self-compassion. Validate your anxiety. Simply validating your experience has been found to decrease arousal, as well as decrease the extent with which we respond to our anxiety with other unpleasant emotions such as anger or shame. As a result, validation can make the anxiety easier to manage.

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  5. Coping with PTSD and Anxiety
  6. Coping with Anxiety - Coping with Anxiety in PTSD

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