Updated: Mar 23
Written by: Dr. Abby Meszaros Published: March 9th, 2022
I’m going to ask you to get uncomfortable for a moment. Just trust me. Are you ready? I want you to take a moment and visualize that thing that you avoid thinking about because worry will start to curl its suffocating tentacles around you when you go there in your mind. Think about that thing that makes you feel completely overwhelmed and worried and gives you that familiar sick feeling of dread that you can’t shake. You’d do anything to avoid that feeling so you keep putting it off for another day, which ends up only making you feel even more stressed. Yup, I want you to go there.
Visualize in detail: that upcoming project that you still haven’t started, the final exams and papers which feel like they are right around the corner, that job interview that’s creeping up that you haven’t prepared for yet, that conversation that you’ve been avoiding because you have no clue what to say or how to say it. As you visualize, every nerve and synapse in your being may start screaming at you to think about something else, anything else! But don’t step away from this feeling. Live in it for just one moment more. What is your body telling you right now? In what muscles do you feel tension? Are your shoulders creeping up towards your ears? Is your stomach sinking; are your palms sweaty; is your jaw clenched?
If you noticed any changes in your body, you know that just visualizing what stresses you out can send your body into panic mode, preparing you to fight or flee. Instinctually, that’s how your body takes care of you when there is a stressor in your environment. But final exams aren’t the same as a predator that you have to run away from. Our basic animal instincts often don’t know how to differentiate between real danger and the things we worry about. On our path to mental health, our job is to retrain our mind so that it doesn’t go into panic mode and set off our alarm bells, which can leave us feeling overwhelmed and worn out, every time there is something that stresses us out. So how do we better manage what worries us? How do we avoid that fight or flight instinct when we feel stressed, and instead move towards our inner peace? Here are a few concrete strategies that you can do immediately in the moment to halt that panic mode and to return your body to calm.
First, Notice Your Body
Before we can calm ourselves down, we need to notice how stress and worry manifest in our body. This is different for everyone and being more aware of how stress presents itself in your body will give you clear clues that you can identify in the future, for when you need to use your calming strategies. For me, whenever I’m stressed, I notice my shoulders tense up and start rising up towards my ears. In those moments, I remind myself to physically drop my shoulders and use one of the strategies below. But you can’t start to calm your body until you recognize its cues. So take time to really think about what your body does when you are feeling anxious, stressed, or worried.
Your mind is really good at ignoring the things that stress you out. But all it takes is one tiny reminder and suddenly your stomach drops, and you’re consumed with a fear that won't go away. At first you may not even understand why all of a sudden you feel complete dread, out of the blue. Then it hits you. UGH. Yup, there it is again. You can’t keep ignoring these stressors if you want to truly feel at peace.
In those moments, one of the best tools you have is your breath. Try this 4-7-8 deep breathing exercise as soon as you feel that stress, anxiety, or worry creeping up to calm yourself down immediately.
Sit up straight
Inhale through your nose with your mouth closed for 4 seconds, pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth
Hold your breath for 7 seconds
Fully exhale through your mouth with your lips pursed, like you are blowing out a candle, for 8 seconds
Repeat until you notice your body has released the tension it feels
Challenge Your Worry
A lot of the time, when we feel that stomach drop of dread, we do everything in our power to think about something else and avoid it. Try to instead identify what is making you feel afraid. Get specific. “I am worried about my Econ exam because it’s in two weeks and I haven’t started studying yet.” First acknowledge that the worry is there and accept its presence. Then challenge that fear to see if it is a real fear or if it is primarily anxiety based. Are you stuck in a worst-case scenario narrative: “I’m going to fail the exam!” How can you challenge that worst case scenario narrative to take small steps to manage your fear? “I can start today by studying for 10 minutes, I won’t fail the exam, and I can handle this.”
Make a List
Worry grows into an insurmountable colossus when we allow it to live in our heads unchecked. Our worries constantly swirl around in our minds and build up, making them feel bigger than they actually are. The five things that are actually on our plates can feel like 15 things when we haven’t been clear about what is making us feel stressed out. Make a list of the things that you are worried about to get them out of your head and organized. Making a checklist of the things that you need to tackle, with the quickest things to complete at the top of the list, can add to a feeling of accomplishment as you check them off.
While any of these strategies can be helpful in the moment, if you notice that your stress, worry, or anxiety is starting to have a bigger impact on your life, know that you’re not alone and that there are people available to support you. People like me, a therapist specializing in stress, anxiety, and worry, and other mental health services that you can get connected to on the Find Support link above. That’s the mission of the Inspire Others Organization, to make sure you know that you don’t have to do this all on your own and that your voice will always be heard.