Anxiety: Simple Skills for Change
Alex Harrison, LCSW:
This is the last in a three part series, focused on anxiety and the goal here is to help you better understand the experience of anxiety so that you can begin to relate to it differently and ultimately, navigate it more effectively. We spent the first two videos helping to reframe the experience of anxiety. Helping to normalize the fact that anxiety is a common emotional experience for everyone, that it can be both situational and chronic. That when anxious thoughts and worry get to the point when your perspective is becoming more limited and your day to day options feel fewer, it's probably time to consider doing things differently. Because truly you deserve a life of fullness and meaning without your anxiety calling all the shots.
So now we're going to talk more about how to use coping skills more effectively. When it comes to coping, we need to understand what we need. First, by cultivating emotional awareness. Second, rating the intensity of the distress, and then finally, trying a skill that fits and intensity determines strategy. In the last video, we spend a lot of time talking about how to identify and name your emotions. Not only that, we talked about how to contextualize our emotions, which helps us validate why the emotions that we have make sense. After all, we don't have big emotions around things that don't matter to us. Believe it or not, the very practice of naming and validating our emotions is in fact a coping skill. It's a great way to grow an awareness and move away from the shame that we can sometimes allow to push its way in when it comes to our feelings.
The next step is to rate the intensity of your difficult feelings on a scale of one to 10, 10 being the most intense. As a starting point, it helps to take a moment now and think of a situation where you were the most anxious, worried, or distressed that you've ever felt. What was going on in that moment? If that's your 10 out of 10, everything else gets rated accordingly.
Now, once you've rated the intensity of a feeling, it's time to practice a coping skill that fits the intensity. This is so important to do because our brains need different things at different times. When you're somewhere between a four and a 6.5 or seven out of 10, you're able to talk things out. This is a great time to remind yourself of your values. For example, if I'm anxious speaking before a room of people, I'm usually at around a five out of 10 in terms of distress. My chest and my neck may be a little flushed. I may feel a little intestinal discomfort, but at a five out of 10, I can remind myself that hey, I'm anxious because I care about connection. I want to connect with the people that I'm about to speak to because I want them to feel open to learning new things. So of course I'm anxious. It's easy to talk to myself like this when I'm at my five out of 10.
Or maybe I'm at a six out of 10, because after dinner, I had a difficult conversation with my partner and I felt really misunderstood, and insecure, or uncertain of where we stand. So I can text or call a friend for some support and then talk to my partner about it in order to do some repairing. The mid-range of anxiety is a great time to process your feelings verbally with someone or to talk to yourself in order to remind yourself of what's important to you and what you really want.
On the other hand, when you're at a 7, 8, 9, 10 out of 10, this is not the time to process our feelings. It's not the time to talk to our partner about how we feel misunderstood and disrespected. This is the time to use sensory coping skills to get grounded in the present moment first. How do I know if I'm in eight, nine or 10 out of 10? Well, my body usually feels hot. My hands feel tingly. I might feel like I need to run for the bathroom. I'm overwhelmed and my thoughts are really disorganized. Maybe I'm crying or right at the verge of tears.
Trying to have a meaningful conversation with someone or make a big decision when you're in this place is just not a great idea. The goal in these moments is not to get ourselves into some kind of zen state. No, the goal here is just to get ourselves back to the place where we can remember what matters and consider what we really want. For that to happen, we need to be fully in the present moment.
So one of my favorite techniques for getting back to the present moment is the four senses grounding tool and it works like this. Name four things you see, four things you can feel, four things you hear, and four things you can smell. I love this tool because you can do it anywhere anytime. When you do this, you're going to start by taking a deep breath and you're not going to rush through. You're going to pause to fully notice and experience each of the things you name. This exercise should take more than just a few seconds to do.
I see the painting on the wall. I see the coffee table. I see my fingernail polish. I see the spruce tree outside the window. For touch, I can feel the lines on the inside of my hand. I feel my smooth fingernail polish. I notice the fabric of my jeans. I feel the sleeve of my jacket. For hearing, if you close your eyes for a moment, you'll notice that even a quiet room has sounds. I hear the ticking of the clock. I hear the breath of my videographer. I hear a car passing outside. I hear the air coming through the vents. For smell, you can notice subtle smells around you. I can smell coffee. I can smell my hair. I can smell my jacket and my hands.
This activity might seem overly basic, but when we're overwhelmed with emotion, it's just enough of a challenge that it requires our full attention and that's what helps us lower the intensity of our emotions enough so that we can reclaim some perspective. Overall, when it comes to managing our anxiety, we need to keep a few things in mind. First progress takes practice. Even a simple skill like the four senses grounding tool takes repetition before it becomes a go-to skill. In fact, the best time to practice coping skills is when you're not that anxious at all. Try practicing the four senses tool a couple times a day, maybe in the morning upon waking or before bed. This way, you'll be more likely to call this tool to mind when you actually feel intensely.
Secondly, when it comes to coping skills, think toolbox not duct tape. Coping skills aren't one size fits all. As I said before, we need different things at different times. When we're moderately anxious, we can practice validating our emotions. Think about our values as motivators to help us take action, even as we're feeling anxious. But when we're overwhelmed, we need to use those sensory grounding skills to get us back to the present moment. Soothed enough so that we can think more clearly about how we want to move forward. Different grounding skills work for different people, try out different things to see what fits for you.
Last, know that community heals us. We are made for connection and leaning into relationships helps us feel less alone and helps us learn. Healing through community can look like lots of different things, family and friendships, support groups, and professional help can also be an invaluable resource for healing and for growth. So take some time to consider what your next move is when it comes to managing your anxiety. Compassionately remind yourself that things can change and that you can take action steps in order to live a life that feels more meaningful. Thank you.