Exercises To Manage Anxiety

This post offers exercises to manage anxiety. You may find them difficult at first because they involve doing things that feel foreign, awkward, and even counter intuitive. I encourage you to stick with them and to not be hard on yourself if you find them difficult. They do get easier the more you do them. Remember, too, as you do them that no one else will be aware that you are doing them, so there is no need to be self conscious.

One of the best ways to manage anxiety in general is to work with the breath as it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which can be thought of as the branch of your nervous system which facilitates relaxation. All of these exercises involve use of the breath.

It is ironic that in order to change (including to become less anxious), we need to have enough compassion for ourselves to accept ourselves exactly as we are. In other words, accepting yourself (and your anxiety) with compassion is the first step toward changing for the better. For this reason, the first two exercises involve deliberately cultivating compassion.

Exercise 1: The Compassion Exercise

Spend a few moments breathing deeply from your abdomen. Notice the sensations of your breath as it enters and leaves your body. Do this until you begin to feel more relaxed. Once relaxed, bring an image into your mind of something that elicits your compassion. It does not matter what you choose. It could be anything. It just has to work for you. It might be a beloved pet or a child or an elderly person whom you love. As you feel the compassion in your body, notice the sensations. What do they feel like? Are they warm? Do they tingle? Do they feel light? Where do you experience them?  Stay with these sensations and notice how they evolve. If they start to dissipate, bring the object of your compassion back into the foreground of your mind. Do this for several minutes until you feel fully in touch with the sensations of compassion as experienced in your body.

Exercise 2: The Self Compassion Exercise

Breath deeply from your abdomen for a few minutes until you feel your body relax. When relaxed, picture yourself as a small child. Focus in on this young version of you for a time. What do you look like? What do you seem to be feeling? What is on your mind? See yourself as clearly as possible. Next, generate compassion for this young version of you. If you are able, try to imagine scooping your young self into a hug. Feel your own arms around your young self in a loving embrace. If you find this difficult, just gently return your mind to the feelings of compassion for your young self. Next picture yourself as an older child and do the same thing again. Do this again for yourself as an adolescent. Finally, imagine yourself in your mind’s eye as the adult that you are now and generate compassion for the present-day you. If you feel comfortable enough, you can even wrap your own arms around yourself and give yourself an actual hug.

The next exercise involves working with the emotional and physical discomfort associated with anxiety. We tend to add layers of discomfort onto the experience of anxiety. For example, the way we talk to ourselves about feeling anxious may become such a layer. We may tell ourselves that we shouldn’t be anxious. Similarly, we may tell ourselves that something is wrong with us that we are anxious. We may even tell ourselves that we are going crazy. This type of self talk exacerbates anxiety. It is an additional form of mental pain layered on top of the physical sensations of anxiety. In addition, because anxiety is unpleasant, we tend to try to push it away; we tense our bodies in response to it, in an effort to distance ourselves from it. This exercise peels away these additional layers to reveal and work with anxiety in it’s raw form.

Exercise 3: Peeling Away Additional Pain

Begin by using your breath to relax. Breath deeply from your abdomen until you feel your body relax. Tune into the thoughts that you have about being anxious. What do you tell yourself? Do you tell yourself that you are inadequate or bad somehow? That you are going crazy? That you shouldn’t be experiencing anxiety? That something really bad is about to happen? Take some time to get the messages that you give yourself about your anxiety into focus. Once they are in focus, substitute the following thought “I love and accept myself exactly as I am“. Say these words to yourself several times in your mind. Each time one of the negative thoughts that you had resurfaces, counter it with this new thought.  It may feel awkward at first to talk to yourself this way, but do it anyway, even if at first you don’t believe it.  It gets easier and more believable with repetition.

Now scan your body for tightness. Look for places where you are tensing against anxiety. Common areas people tend to tighten against anxiety include the shoulders, the jaw, the mouth, and the hands. When you have located where you are tight, imagine that you can direct your breath to right to these parts of your body and do so for each area that is tight. Feel them soften as you do this.

Once you have identified and countered the thoughts you associate with anxiety and located and softened the places where you physically brace against it, you will be able to find the raw sensations of anxiety in your body. Just notice what these sensations feel like and where they are in your body. Is your heart beating harder or faster? Is your mouth dry? Is your stomach upset? Try to describe these sensations to yourself. Become aware of how these sensations shift as time passes. Notice in particular as these sensations dissipate. Tell yourself that this is what anxiety boils down to: nothing more than sensations in your body which have a beginning, a middle and (importantly) an end.

(These exercises are adapted from exercises in the book “Neural Path Therapy”, 2005, by Mathew McKay and David Harp.)

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