Ever caught yourself confused, frantic or short of breath because you’re running late, stuck in traffic, waiting in a hellish line, or just unable to fall asleep due to the thoughts running through your head? That feeling of unrest, accelerated heartbeat, sweats, and just wanting to scream, or choke someone is called anxiety.
Being in the military is stressful for service members and their family members. During a deployment your loved ones will likely experience a range of stressful feelings such as concern, worry, loneliness and distress in dealing with the household and financials.
Life is full of stresses and even the most highly functioning people can suffer from anxiety. I am one of them. From a childhood of needing to be the best at everything, to deploying to the Middle East, to just plain driving around Los Angeles, I’ve often thought I would lose my mind. I’ve taught myself a few techniques to cope with anxiety, and by taking a course at the VA hospital I’ve learned even more ways to reign it in. The below recommendations have worked for me.
1. Practice breathing.
When you start to feel panicked, especially if your heart rate is accelerating, stop what you are doing and focus on your breath. It’s hard to do, but think about nothing but your breath. When your mind wanders off bring it back to the breath. Coherent breathing is a technique I use. It’s based on five breaths per minute. Just breathe in for six counts and then breathe out for six counts. If I do this for just one minute, the anxiety typically passes, but do it for as long as you need.
2. Exercise regularly.
This is my way to handle broad-range anxiety. According to the Mayo Clinic, the links between exercise and anxiety aren’t 100% clear, but there is strong evidence that exercise not only eases anxiety, but can also help prevent it. Exercise releases endorphins --- feel-good chemicals --- into the body and helps you attain a more restful sleep. Meeting an exercise challenge can boost your self confidence in several ways. Who doesn’t like accomplishing a goal or looking your best?
For me, exercise is also a distraction. It’s “me” time. The phone is off, my focus is on my body, pace, or big-picture things of my choosing. The World Health Organization recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate physical exercise each week. That’s just 20 minutes of exercise per day to help your body’s health and your mental health.
3. Don’t forget to laugh.
Laughing increases good feelings and helps discharge tension in the body. Don’t feel like laughing? Fake it. I find faking it lightens my mood and eventually it becomes authentic. I think back to studying in Spain, where I saw the funniest thing ever --- no one was hurt --- and it instantly has me keeled over laughing. Anxious people can take their lives so seriously that they stop having fun or doing things that once brought them joy. Watch a funny movie or an episode of Family Guy, look up jokes on the internet, or get a game of Cards Against Humanity going.
4. Observe something with your eyes.
Dr. Marsha Linehan suggests easing anxiety by practicing mindfulness within the senses. Observing with your eyes presents a focus to you. I like to lie on the grass and stare at the clouds in the sky. Are they moving? Do they resemble something? I only focus on the clouds and as thoughts inevitably pop up, I recognize them, quickly let them float away and go back to the clouds. Another way I’ve implemented this technique is by taking something, maybe a leaf or a rock, in my hands and looking at it until I feel I have recognized every detail. This might sound silly, but I am telling you, it works.
5. Get an app.
There’s an app for everything, even anxiety. I have enjoyed using Headspace almost every day for over a year now. It’s like a personal trainer for your brain. I like to do the 10-minute sessions first thing in the morning or after lunch, when I usually need a little kick in the butt to get back into work-related things. It helps me focus more, worry less, decompress, and I really enjoy the guy’s soothing voice. World of Psychology is an online forum that names their top 10 mental health apps here.
Remember that occasional anxiety is completely normal. It’s a part of the “fight or flight” mechanism that kept our ancestors on their toes in the face of an animal attack or threat to survival. Though a grizzly bear may not be chasing you through the woods, the world presents us with endless reasons to get stressed out. These techniques may not cure your anxiety, but will most likely help you cope with it.