Around 1 in 4 people will experience mental health difficulties like anxiety. In 2015, it was the most common mental health issue worldwide and has been described by mental health practitioners in Ireland as the “silent epidemic”. Anxiety often shows up as feeling worried a lot of the time, trouble sleeping (insomnia), lack of concentration, feeling irritable, loss of self-confidence, and feeling depressed. In this post, you will learn five ways to cope with anxiety and worry from a cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), and mindfulness-based approach.
At times in our life when we have choices and decisions to make, change presents itself, and this uncertainty can lead us to become overly concerned about the “What ifs…” of the future. This process of thinking things through can be helpful in that it allows us to work out solutions to problems and motivates us to take action. It’s when the worry starts to take over, keeping us locked in search of certainty that the worry cycle begins. This is not only time consuming being distracted from the present and in our own heads but also exhausting, thinking about all the countless eventualities that may exist for any given situation. More often than not these worries never materialise anyway.
We’re left feeling anxious, consumed by thoughts that may never happen, and irritated with ourselves for not getting on with life – the worry ultimately holds us back from experiencing joy and happiness, growth and fulfilment, and a sense of achievement. So, what can we do to help ourselves worry less?
We can learn to monitor our worrying thoughts by noticing and identifying when we’re starting to get pulled into the vicious cycle of worry. Then let’s choose to shift our focus and attention onto something we can enjoy in our immediate environment, an activity maybe or the simple act of making a cup of tea.
But how do we go about doing this? Here are five strategies to try out.
1. Use a decision tree
Ask yourself, “What am I worrying about?” “Can I do something about it?”. If the answer is YES, write up an action plan to include What? When? How? Do it now if you can, then let the worry go by changing your focus of attention. Or schedule it for later and let the worry go until then. If you can’t do anything about the worry, let it go and again change your focus of attention. By using the decision tree, you are starting the process of quietening your mind and freeing up space from your worrying thoughts to be more present.
2. Notice and return
This mantra helps you to notice the worrying thought. Say to yourself that thoughts are just thoughts and not facts, and return your attention to your breath. The idea is not to allow yourself to follow the thought into the worry zone. Just notice your thought and return your focus of attention to your breath.
Take three deep breaths to calm your mind and become more present by observing what is going on around you, allowing yourself to do something more enjoyable and rewarding (e.g., walk your pet, sit on the beach, play or watch some sport, watch the sunset, read something inspirational, practice yoga, paint pebbles, play music, cook or bake, connect with nature).
3. Delaying the worry
Another practical strategy to help you cope with worrying thoughts is to write down your worries on a piece of paper and place them into a small box/jar. Alternatively, if you’re at work/college or out and about carry a small notebook to write your worries in. Then fold up the worries and place them in the box/jar when you get home. Allocate yourself a “worry time” – no more than 10 minutes at a set time each day, for example at 6pm for 10 minutes.
Now, read through your worries and use the decision tree to assess whether you can take action (writing up a plan) or not. If there is nothing you can do about the worry, put the piece of paper in the bin to help you let go of the worry, and then refocus on the present moment. If you’re someone who struggles to get to sleep at night, you may find it also helpful to have a notebook by your bed so that you can externalise the worries and review in the morning.
4. Being mindful in everyday life
We can choose to pay attention to what we are doing with curiosity, kindness and compassion. For example, whenever you eat and drink something, take a minute and breathe. Look at your food and realise that the food was connected to something that nourished its growth. Can you see the sunlight, the rain, the earth or the farmer in your food?
Pay attention as you eat, consciously consuming the food for your mental and physical wellbeing. Bring awareness to seeing your food, smelling your food, tasting your food, chewing your food and swallowing your food. By slowing down and really connecting with the pleasure of eating and drinking we are no longer in automatic pilot, which we so often are. How many times have you driven on a stretch of road and not remembered doing the driving? We can change this habit of not being fully present by noticing our surroundings, and appreciating what we see, hear and feel around us.
5. Mindfulness practice
This teaches us that the nature of our mind is as vast as the sky, and our thoughts and emotions are like the clouds. If we want to experience the infiniteness of the sky we need to accept that we’re having worrying thoughts, and kindly non-judgementally let the thoughts/clouds float on by. They will disappear, and then once again we will see the great expanse of the sky. Practise noticing the thoughts, allowing them to come and go, not trying to change anything at all and return your attention to your breath.
When breathing out let go of the worrying thoughts or difficult emotions. By practising this, one of the first things we notice is how much our mind wanders, which is what all minds do, planning and worrying about the future or reminiscing and ruminating about the past. Anchoring onto the breath will help you to not get caught up in the past or future. Simply acknowledge these thoughts and let them go. By gently bringing yourself back to the present moment, you can start to experience some peace and quiet from the mental chatter, even if this is just for a few moments to begin with.
Starting or ending your day with a mindfulness practise can do wonders for your stress levels by calming your thoughts, helping you to regain a sense of inner balance, being more focused and happier in yourself.
So, why not give these five tips a go – there’s nothing to lose. You might be pleasantly surprised by what unfolds and the change you experience, feeling less worried about the future and more present in your life today.