CARE TALK: Strategies for Living With Anxiety

CARE TALK is a monthly advice column in Aurora Magazine where a registered psychologist offers answers to common questions around mental health and counselling.

Q: I have always been an anxious person and there are times when my anxiety is particularly severe. I am considering seeking counselling support for this, but in the meantime, I would really like to know if there are some quick strategies that would help to calm me down?

A: Seeking additional support for your anxiety through counselling, as well as considering discussing this with your GP, are excellent steps for learning long term strategies in living well with anxiety, and reducing your levels of anxiety.

I will describe some effective techniques in feeling less anxious in the short term. It is important to practise these strategies when you are not feeling too anxious so that the techniques are already learned by the time you really need them. I suggest you practise some or all of the techniques on a daily basis, so they become second nature. There are many more strategies that are useful for anxiety and you may consider some additional research in order to build up an anxiety ‘tool kit’ that works well for you. 

Deep breathing 

Although breathing is not new to us, breathing correctly can help us feel calmer. When we become anxious, it is common to take short, shallow breaths. This may make our anxiety worse but the good news is that it can be corrected through deep breathing. When you notice any physical sensations of anxiety, or when worrying thoughts pop up, take a long deep breath through your nose (if possible), inhaling for three seconds. Then exhale with a long deep breath for three seconds through your nose or mouth. Do this repeatedly until you feel physically calmer. Try up to six repetitions when you are practising.

Correcting breathing when experiencing severe panic

If you feel you are on the verge of a panic attack, or during a panic attack, deep breathing will help to some extent, but you may need to do more to calm down. As mentioned above, when we become anxious, we may take short, shallow breaths. This usually means we are taking in too much oxygen, which can result in hyperventilation, or a panic attack. At these times, cup your hands around your mouth and take long breaths in and out of your hands, ensuring you are breathing back in your stale air. This stale air contains carbon dioxide and this is necessary to balance the levels of oxygen in your blood, which in turn, physically calms you down.

Grounding/distraction technique

This will help to take your mind off your worrying thoughts, using your senses to ground you back to the 'here and now'.
Name five things you can see around you.

Name five things you can hear around you.

Name five things you can feel touching the outside of your body (eg feet touching the ground, hand resting on arm).

After you have named five things you can see, hear and feel, move down to four things you can see, hear, feel and then three, two and one.

In order to feel confident dealing with your anxiety in the long term, it is important to explore the causes of your anxiety. This exploration usually involves coming to terms with the past, addressing unhelpful thinking styles, developing effective problem-solving techniques and very importantly, learning ways to introduce more mindfulness into your life. You can learn more through counselling and there are excellent Australian resources online for anxiety and depression. Have a look at the following programs as a starting point.

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Tanya Russell

Tanya Russell is CatholicCare's Assistant Director and a registered psychologist.

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