Tools to Reduce Anxiety!
One Friday morning a month groups of people around the world attend something called a Creative Mornings Breakfast. It’s a place where creatives come to meet new people, get inspired, share ideas and expand their world view. Each month there is a guest speaker that focuses on a topic that all Creative Mornings chapters tackle. This month the speaker is me for Creative Mornings/Minneapolis. Which is kind of ironic. I’ve been going to Creative Mornings for a little over a year and I always sit in the audience and my ego thinks, “I should be the one up there speaking”. Then my smaller voice says, “You’ve done nothing of significance to hold your place on that stage.” Then I run through the mental laundry list: I’m not a known artist, I haven’t published a book and I wasn’t an in-house photographer for Prince. By this point, I’ve missed the beginning of the talk because I’m having a mental tug of war in my head. This is anxiety—and all self-created. I do a few quick breaths and I’m able to rejoin the room.
Drew Gneiser who hosts the Minneapolis chapter emailed me saying he needed a speaker for January. Before bothering to finish reading the e mail, I thought of a couple people I could recommend. I read down further: It was me he was asking to speak and the topic is anxiety. I got chills and I said out loud, “Now, this is a topic I can nail.”
Before I moved to Minnesota, I lived in New York City for 15 years. A lot of those 15 years were filled with high pressure anxiety. One of my first jobs in New York was for a very paranoid woman who would e mail me at all hours of the night and on weekends with the subject lines URGENT, HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME or my favorite CALL ME ASAP. Most Mondays I would come into work and my office was trashed because she was digging through my files just looking for things I did wrong. I was at that job for 3.5 years and weekly I’d have to get massages because I couldn’t move my neck from all the stress. From there, I became an entertainment reporter, mainly interviewing celebrities – often very difficult ones. If I asked the really good questions, the celebs or their press agents would be pissed at me. If I asked the soft questions, my editor would be pissed at me. When you’re a gossip reporter, there’s this looming feeling that you’re about to get in trouble with someone. Don’t ever ask Jake Gyllenhaal about Taylor Swift. It will get you kicked out of the event and banned from future ones. While I was running from event to event, rarely getting much sleep, I was a social media consultant. I worked for big corporations like Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor. Even Ellen DeGeneres. While that sounds very impressive, it’s also very stressful. I was always on edge waiting for a flood of e mails to come in about a customer service nightmare that went viral.
I know anxiety. I’ve lived with it, I’ve suffered from it and I’ve felt physically ill because of it. I wasn’t asked to speak at Creative Mornings on the topic of anxiety because I was a f*cked up mess for 15 years. I got asked to speak because all those anxiety triggering events forced me to find coping solutions. I was so trapped in the anxiety ringer that at times I felt like I couldn’t breathe or function. For the last 10 years, I’ve been a self-help junkie: I attend a lot of self-growth workshops, go on retreats to “find myself”, I read books about growing beyond your fears to live a better life and I’ve done all sorts of meditations -- each one adds a different level of meaning or serenity to my life. I write about these tools and sometimes go on TV to talk about them!
So when asked to speak on the topic of anxiety my answer was HELL YES. A lot of the anxiety I felt (and feel) is often self-created and self-perpetuated. The more I became aware of my anxiety and how it affected me, I learned that I can keep going and spin out of control. Or, I can grab a tool to help reduce anxiety. I can choose to sooth my anxiety at any moment, and on days I do that, I’m better off. This blog post is a path through my anxiety and a detour into helpful tools. Think of it as a reference guide to my favorite anxiety soothing tools. I’ve included video tutorials and links to my other favorite healers!
I need to disclaim that studying self-help doesn’t mean I’ve become perfect at dealing with anxious situations, healed or enlightened. I could be on the verge of a breakdown or breakthrough at any moment. Just ask my husband. There’s no cure for anxiety, but the tools I use balance my mental scales when the tides of anxiety rise; they may work for you too. I only ask that you keep an open mind for this. I am certain that they might if you are willing to try them!
Let’s break down Anxiety: It is essentially a form of fear, worrying or projecting negative outcomes for things ahead of us. Most likely situations we’ve never experienced, so there’s no true way we can predict the outcome. We try to do just that, and it causes anxiety. And culturally we’re addicted to it. Like coffee or sugar. Most days I wake up and before my head even leaves the pillow, I’m worrying about the 3 o’clock conference call I have, remember the e mail I didn’t respond to yesterday or wondering if the TV show I just did a segment on will have me back again. Anxiety is worry that creates physical effects on the body and causes your mind to believe, “this is going to happen but I don’t know how it will happen, so I need to be scared.”
I personally think we are conditioned to be anxious when we’re growing up, especially if we have anxious parents or care givers.
I come from a long line of anxiety prone people. I was recently with my family for Christmas in Boston and my mom who obsessively watches the weather and worries about people traveling to come see her told me: The best Christmas gift you could give me is staying home, so I don’t have to worry about you getting here safely. Kind of the last thing you want to hear after you’ve flown 1,400 miles to spend the holiday with her. I’m 40 and I’ve never missed a holiday with my family. There’s no messy travel track record to suggest that she should be anxious over the travels I’m taking.
My husband is Canadian so for US Immigration we had to apply for a Fiance Visa before we got married. When the visa is approved, you have 90 days to get married. There’s literally an expiration date on an engagement. The day it was approved I called my dad and told him we would be getting married in 3 months. My dad’s response was this: “Why are you rushing into this. This is too short of a time frame for me to get ready, I need to get a new suit. Douglas, why are you springing this on me, this is causing me a great deal of stress.” Like, I had only 3 months to find a suit too, yet he made my exciting news about him and put his worries on me.
My parents are amazing and loving people but they’ve instilled some sort of perpetual dread in me. For many years I expected the worst and hoped for the best. On some level I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop, things to end, delays to happen. In 2004, I began seeing a therapist because I couldn’t take the feeling of being boxed in by life. I hit a bottom and got help. I got much better at dealing with anxiety, but there was still something missing. By 2008 I watched the DVD “The Secret” which was all about the laws of attraction and manifesting good stuff through positive thoughts and feelings. While I was trying to manifest a million dollars I had the realization that maybe I have control over my circumstances. What I didn’t have control over was my thoughts. I was trying to be positive, but my thoughts always veered right back into the negative. I always felt stuck. I knew that I’d fare better if I was positive and optimistic. I could sometimes get there, but I had no tools to stay there.
In 2010 I had a job with a boss who was emotionally closed off and manipulative. I used to bitch about her to my co-worker and friend Clara. She recommended some names of motivational speakers, metaphysical healers and authors I should check out. I went straight down the rabbit hole into self-help and it has changed my life forever. Louise Hay, Marianne Williamson, Wayne Dyer and my favorite, Gabby Bernstein have given me TOOLS. I learned over many years that I should think positive and be optimistic. I was never given a practical way to GET there and STAY there. Following the teachings of these modern gurus has given me the tools I need to keep my life on track and keep me headed toward the light. Yes, I still go into darkness, but I have tools that can bring me back in an instant. Once I learned a few simple tools, I’ve gotten better at cutting off catastrophic thinking at the pass – I get to trust that I’m right where I’m supposed to be at all moments in my life, I stopped taking on other people’s negative views of the world as my own and I’m better at not projecting potential disasters. It’s a one day at a time thing.
It is now my turn to share these tools that were shared with me. They 100% work! I promise if you suffer from anxiety and want to change, and are willing to change, you will change. If you are reading this, you are being guided. Just as I was when I stumbled upon Louise Hay’s You can Heal your Life or Gabby Bernstein’s talks on Forgiveness. If you find yourself reading articles or wandering onto websites that can help you grow or heal, trust that you are being guided. You might be thinking this isn’t for you—but it might be!
Tips to help reduce anxiety:
Witness & Record Anxiety
1. First, try to understand your anxiety and what it’s all about. Witness your Anxiety without judgement. For at least a week, on a daily basis become a careful observer of when you feel anxiety. When you catch yourself feeling anxious or projecting different outcomes of things that haven’t happened yet, tune into your thoughts! Is it a specific time a day, what triggers the anxiety, what thoughts run through your mind and HOW DO YOU FEEL when it comes up? I encourage you to keep a log and write it down. Have a small sheet with 3 columns:
Time & Date | What made you anxious? | How did that make you feel?
Eventually you may start to see a pattern. Maybe anxiety begins when you pick up your phone or go to your computer to check e mails. What are the feelings behind that? Are you worried your boss is going to send you a scathing e mail? A contract may fall through? Those spam e mails that say, “See if your spouse is cheating on you.” Maybe while you are driving your mind is flooded with all the things you have to do and haven’t done. Then you start beating yourself up about things like that. Once you have a log and can understand when the anxiety is most pronounced, then you can add in some coping tools around it. Start applying these tools to the areas that bring you THE MOST anxiety. Like, before you pick up your phone in the morning, you spend 30 seconds breathing.
1. Breathing – The most simple tool you have access to at any moment is your breath. Even 2 deep breaths when a trigger comes up can calm you down. Below is a video tutorial I made on a Kundalini Breathing meditation. Gabby Bernstein calls this the backpack meditation because you can take it with you wherever you go. It’s 8 quick breaths in your nose and one long exhale out your nose. If you are new to breathing/meditation, start with 4 breaths. You can do this in public; you can do it wherever. There’s an extra frill of putting together the tip of your index finger and the tip of your thumb; this ignites knowledge. If you’re in public you can skip this or you can literally put your hands in your pockets. Below is the video I made to demonstrate this. The benefits: This type of breathing sends oxygen to your brain, it lowers that fight or flight response and can lower cortisol levels – the hormone our body secrets when we feels stress. When cortisol levels soar, we grab for junk food, snap at people and feel like sh*t. Simple breathing can calm you down and bring you back into balance. Check out the video.
Here's another explanation of how to engage with your breath through this Kundalini exercise:
Another great resource is my friend Emily Roberts aka the Guidance Girl. Her blog is filled with great stress and anxiety busting tools! http://theguidancegirl.com/
2. Meditation: Meditate to calm down or reduce anxiety. What does that mean? A meditation can really be anything you make of it. It could be closing your eyes and breathing for a minute and thinking calming thoughts. There are apps on smart phones that you can use that take anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes. Here’s a link to a blog post I wrote on meditation. You can also find guided meditations that are free by searching on YouTube. My favorite meditation is one I do in the morning to set my day up for success. It’s the Ball of Light meditation. It’s something I do to “prepare” for the day, or as I call it, blessing my mess. On any given day I can project disasters, so I do a meditation to counteract that. Or if I don’t have time, I do it when I’m driving. It takes a couple of minutes up to five minutes. There’s a video I made below. Basically, imagine a beam of light is shining on you and you feel warm and safe. Now, visualize a ball of light in front of you, this is your day, and you can put anything you want into this day. Think of this process as blessing for your day--visualizing it going well and you feeling well in it. Have a meeting with your boss? Put your meeting in that ball, send it good energy, say out loud, “I bless the meeting today, may I be confident and may we work well together.” Have road rage? Bless the other drivers on the road. Visualize safe travel, arriving on time, etc. Hate the co worker at the desk next to yours? Put them in the ball, bless them, that they have a great day and that you will be free and protected from their energy. If you spend the time to visualize great things happening through the day, you will feel empowered to have a good day. By the time you step out of the house it’s like you ordered up all these great things to happen. When we expect great things, somehow the great things show up for us!
3. Emotional Freedom Technique (Tapping). EFT or Tapping is an amazing technique to reduce stress and anxiety, help process things that trigger a fear or trauma and when done regularly, can heal and alleviate symptoms that cause distress. I learned of this technique through Gabby Bernstein, who has worked with Nick Ortner, NY Times best selling author who founded The Tapping Solution LLC -- the mission is to bring simple and effective ancient Chinese practices into mainstream. And it's working!! The more I learned about it and tried it, I can say it works and with immediate and lasting results. If you suffer from high anxiety or have a lot of triggers in your life that push you over the edge, try tapping. It’s an extremely useful tool. It’s based on tapping on various acupressure meridians in our body that release energy and activate a healing response that is both physical and psychological. Here is a map of the meridians:
Over time, while tapping and saying positive statements to release pain/fear/trauma, we start to reprograming the neural pathways to respond more positively to negative stimuli, to a point where things that once bothered you may bother you less, or in some cases, not at all. You can talk yourself down from a ledge while tapping it down. This practice also drastically lowers cortisol in the body, which is a great thing. I made this video using my habit of procrastinating as my MPI (most pressing issue I wanted to tap down). Watch the video and follow along.
Here are links to other tapping resources and videos that have helped me:
Original founder of EFT, Gary Craig. This website has all the basics you want to know:
Gabby Bernstein's first EFT Tapping Video - Tapping to reduce Stress:
This amazing talk by Nick Ortner at Wanderlust - if you have an hour, watch it:
Other useful tools:
Beyond the grim, nail biting and frustrating scenarios, there is an upside to anxiety:
1. Some anxiety fuels creativity because on some level it creates a sense of “I have to be the best”, so that inner competitive voice yields harder work and produces better results. Some of the best artists, writers and performers are pretty anxious people, and look at all the beauty they bring into the world.
2. Anxious people have more fun. This is because they expect the worst, so when they don’t encounter the worst scenario, they are pleasantly surprised and enjoy themselves more.
3. A study done by Dr. Jeremy Coplan suggests that the human race needs anxious people. “Worry may make people ‘take no chances,’ and such people may have higher survival rates. It suggests that if no one worried, we might all be dead.
All joking aside, not all anxiety is a bad thing. But it can be annoying and really put up roadblocks to success. Some people say anxiety is a choice we make. I see it differently: Anxiety can ramp up at any moment or come out of no where. How I respond to it is my choice. I could throw more logs onto the anxiety fire. Or I can proactively work to lower it. Today, I choose to actively reach for tools to lower or eliminate it.
If you go through these exercises (especially the witnessing), you will learn a lot about your current state of living. When you understand what's triggering you, things will flow more and open up. You’ll also become really good at seeing what works for you and what doesn’t. The awareness becomes the gift. For example, there were some jobs I had to leave because the tools revealed to me that the situation was just awful and toxic and unbearable. No amount of meditation could bring me to peace when I had a boss ransacking my files to see if I was sabotaging the company. I left the job and life became brighter. I'm not saying leave your job. I am saying that if you do some of this soul searching, you will cut through the anxiety that blocks you from seeing there are other paths for you. So trust that if you embark upon this anxiety healing journey, things will reveal themselves. No matter what, trust you will be OK. Your innate intelligence will not give you more than you can handle. You'll know when you're ready to make changes and you will be able to honor your progress. I can’t wait to hear how it works for all of you! Questions/comments, message me firstname.lastname@example.org!