Thinking of times in my life I’ve had the most anxiety, one night in particular stands out.
I was working a high-stress corporate job. Expectations were high, deadlines were unrealistic, and non-stop meetings prevented me from even sitting at my desk to do the work. This triggered my perfectionism big time, especially considering the corporate world worships perfectionism.
Lying in bed one night, mentally running through my to-do list and thinking about the projects I hadn’t gotten to that day, the pressure mounted. Everything closed in, as if a wall in my brain was dropping lower and lower, threatening to squeeze me out of my own skin. It felt like I was about to explode, and as I desperately wished to escape from my head, something clicked.
The pressure was all in my head. I could choose to place my awareness outside of it.
I could only do what I could do. My best would have to be good enough.
To say that was the last of my anxiety would be a lie, but since then, I’ve learned a few more tools to manage this horrible feeling. This post is filled with practical tips you can try right now, and this video illustrates powerful breathing techniques and yoga poses to create calm.
Like any other emotional state, anxiety manifests in the realms of body, mind and breath.
Let’s tackle these areas one by one.
What is the source of anxiety?
Anxiety often stems from the feeling that there’s not enough of something. We don’t have enough time or money, or we’re not good enough. Our best is not good enough.
Reframing the situation is the first step towards managing anxiety. Take a step back. Why are you really anxious? Know that there’s enough time for everything that matters. Know your best is good enough. The rest can wait.
Manage anxiety by respecting your capacity and boundaries, and knowing that it’s not all up to you.
Rethinking the to-do list
Many times, it’s the to-do list that causes anxiety. To alleviate those feelings, pick one or two things you want to finish and surrender the rest. Let them go for another day.
If I have a long to-do list, it helps to open a planner and physically assign a task to each day over the next week or so. Knowing that I don’t have to do everything today, but that everything will get done calms me down immediately. Seeing it all laid out also helps.
Prioritize your day so you complete those things you REALLY want to get done, the things that will nag at you and make you feel anxious.
Maybe you have a bunch of work to get done, but it’s really your dirty kitchen floor that’s causing you anxiety. So mop the floor. The work will get done later, and you’ll feel more calm while doing it.
Clean surroundings, calm mind
Having clean, organized surroundings is really important when it comes to managing the mind. Let’s say you have a pile of clothes on the floor and every time you walk past it, you think, “Gosh, I really need to pick up that pile.”
Those thoughts take up way more mental energy than you might know. Taking the five or ten minutes needed to organize the pile will pay off dividends when it comes to giving you peace of mind and freeing mental energy.
Honor the anxiety
Sometimes we know what is giving us anxiety, but instead of taking the time to address the triggering issue, we may try to outsmart our feelings, convincing ourselves that we should not feel this way.
Resisting anxiety only causes more of it and creates frustration. Do what you can to tackle the situation, whether that’s creating a list or spending five minutes working on a portion of a larger project.
Honor your feelings and recognize that taking the time to organize and clarify will make you feel better.
Maybe that means you spend some time journaling or thinking things over on a walk. It’s okay, healthy even, to take time to think. Just make sure to avoid ruminating — thinking the same thought over and over or envisioning worst-case scenarios.
Keep your contemplation solutions-focused, thinking of actions you can take to feel better or ways of reframing the situation.
Often in the yoga world, there’s so much emphasis on controlling your insides regardless of what’s going on outside. And while loosening our attempts to control life is important, it’s also important to recognize our personal power.
I’m not suggesting you be a fascist, but ask for what you need or take the necessary steps to feel better. Maybe further along your spiritual journey this one thing won’t bother you, but right now it does. So see what you can do. Ask for help, ax a responsibility from your list or tell someone no.
Honor your inclinations. They’re there for a reason.
Spend time intentionally
We often let time pass while focusing on the tasks that are easy to finish or most in our face, like email, or we avoid stress by watching television or scrolling through Instagram.
In my own work, I have a bunch of long-term projects that nobody is waiting on but me, and more urgent work for clients. Email and all the other busy work also beckons.
It’s easy to spend the day busy at the computer, but on those days of busy work, I haven’t done anything of lasting value by the time night falls. Those are the days that it’s hard for me to sign off.
Busily, I try to take care of more little tasks until that feeling of satisfaction kicks, the feeling that I’ve made a difference that day. But on these busy-work days, that feeling never comes.
To counteract that feeling, I identify a core activity to complete at the start of each day. I usually pick something in a specific realm — health, work or house — and make sure it happens no matter what. Maybe my top goal for the day is getting to yoga class and I make sure to stop work no matter what and get there in time.
Or maybe my top goal is to work on my ebook. Spending even 30 minutes on the ebook makes me feel satisfied at the end of the day, like I did something that matters.
This creates balance. Maybe one day you’re focused on work, but the next day your body is calling for attention and so you make sure to carve out time for an extra long yoga practice.
Whatever you do, do it mindfully, giving all your attention and awareness to the job at hand. Let the rest go in that moment.
Balance happens over days and weeks, not on a single day.
The overarching theme is to be intentional about how you spend time, and also realistic about the amount of time there is in the day. Things often take longer than we think. Instead of trying to cram every little item into the day, pick what calls to you the most right then.
Pick what’s important, what matters, and not necessarily what’s urgent. Many things we believe are urgent can actually wait. The important things are usually quiet, like listening to our hearts amid the hamster wheel of life.
Ultimately, reducing anxiety isn’t about running down a to-do list. It’s about making time for the most important things and releasing the rest, making sure to build in plenty of time for pauses into the day.
For example, I spent way longer than intended writing this article. Meanwhile, I had signed up for a webinar that started at 6 p.m. It’s 6:09 p.m. now, and although I really wanted to attend the webinar, my presence was not needed there.
Instead of spending time on that educational activity, I decided it was more important to finish this blog post and have time to relax this evening. You can do anything, but not everything. Choose with intention.
Take pauses for peace
Will you have those days where you’re non-stop from morning until night? Sure, but make those the exception and not the rule. Try to carve out time every day to just be. Sit and listen to your breath, meditate, take a walk and quiet the mind.
Indulging in this time allows your cells to reset. When I take a break and lie down for a few moments, I can literally feel the tension from my cells begin to melt away.
When we feel as if we can go forever, that’s when adrenaline has taken over. When we run on adrenaline, we’re actually digging into our spiritual reserves big time.
So create little spaces throughout the day to re-center and calm down, remember our connection to the infinite. This allows us to move and create from a place of stillness. It allows us to stay connected to our intuition and higher self throughout the day, no matter what life throws at us.
Staying connected helps us quickly evaluate two conflicting priorities and decide which direction best serves the highest self.
Maintain your peace of mind in increments, keeping tabs on your mental and physical state throughout the day.
Keeping constant awareness helps to avoid the breakdowns. Panic attacks, major episodes of anxiety — these don’t happen out of the blue. They happen after a long period of slowly building tension.
Do maintenance practices to keep adrenaline from taking over and avoid the worst of anxiety.
When you feel panicked and think, “No! I have to go on!” That is exactly the moment you need to stop and take a breather.
The most important thing in life is your connection to the infinite, nurturing yourself so you can be calm and peaceful, adding more calm and peace into the world. Nothing else matters. Maintain that connection always and anxiety will begin to fade away.
Your best is good enough, return to the flow of life
Another common source of anxiety is the feeling that no matter what we do, it will not be enough.
A helpful mantra might be: I am grateful for my gifts. I value my contributions.
Anxiety may boil down to the fear that arises when we try to control an uncontrollable situation. Return to the river of the breath, the flow of life.
Know that everything will work out one way or another. Even if things don’t work out to resemble the image of perfection in our heads, we ensure the best possible outcome by staying in the moment and having faith that our experience is for the highest and best purpose.
As humans, we don’t understand the bigger picture. Surrender to the flow of life, coming back to the breath, and know that your best is good enough.
Of course there are more serious reasons to have anxiety, like illnesses, serious financial difficulties or other significant life events. Managing anxiety in those areas is outside the scope of this article, but the breathing and yoga poses in this video may help you.
Mantras to release anxiety
Mantras may also help calm your mind and remove inner turmoil related to anxiety.
The chant referenced in the video is Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha. This mantra invokes Ganesh, the remover of all obstacles. In yoga, all obstacles are in the mind.
Repeat for at least 108 times if you have a mala. Here is a YouTube video with 108 repetitions if you do not have a mala.
We often hold anxiety in the shoulders, hips and upper back. View the video to see these poses and more demonstrated.
Shoulders and back: Try a gentle, restorative backbend to release these areas. If you have two blocks, place one block underneath your head and the second underneath your shoulders at bra strap level.
The blocks should be on the lowest level for the most gentle backbend possible. We want to open up this area to help breath return, but not create so much openness that we aggravate anxiety. If you don’t have a block, roll up a towel and place it underneath the shoulders.
Lie on the blocks or blanket and rest your arms above your head, clasping the elbows to open the shoulders. Stay here for about five minutes. Free the shoulders to free the mind.
Hips: Try double pigeon. Bend the legs and stack the right ankle above the left knee and right knee above the left ankle. Keep the feet flexed to protect the knees. Breathe deeply and lower down onto your forearms if possible.
Stay on this side for three to five minutes and repeat on the other side.
Opening up these areas helps to remove the physical manifestation of tension that may be stored here.
Every emotional state corresponds to a breathing pattern. By controlling the breath, which in yoga is known as pranayama, we can influence our emotions.
When breathing to reduce anxiety, focus on making the exhale longer than the inhale. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the system that assures our brains everything is ok.
View this video for breath demonstrations.
- Counting breath
The simplest breathing exercise involves counting the breath. Breathe in for four, hold for two and exhale for six. Those more advanced at manipulating the breath may want to try inhaling for six, holding for two and exhaling for eight. The key is keeping the breath even, focusing on the exhales.
- Alternate nostril breathing, nadi shodana (explanation in video)
Cover the left nostril with the right ring finger and the right nostril with the right thumb. The remaining fingers can rest on the third eye or inside the palm of the hand.
Gently close the right nostril with the thumb and take a few cleansing breaths from the left nostril. The left is the cooling, yin side and this starts the process of calming the nervous system.
Then, inhale through the left nostril, close the left nostril and exhale out the right side. Inhale through the right side and exhale out the left. Inhale left, exhale right. Inhale right, exhale left and begin the cycle again, making sure to keep the breath long and steady.
I like to apply counting technique here, inhaling for six, holding for two and exhaling for eight. Make sure to finish with an exhale on the left side.
This breath balances the two sides of the body and calms the nervous system.
How do you manage anxiety? Share your tips in the comments below.
Image by Scarleth Marie via Flickr