You might say 2009 was The Year of the Worry. Whether or not you actually lost your job or your house, suffered a pay cut or watched your 401(k) go up in smoke, chances are you couldn’t help fretting about it—and who could blame you?
In times like these, it’s normal to feel anxious. But it doesn’t have to be your new normal. If greater peace of mind is one of your new year’s resolutions, here are seven small steps that can make a big difference.
Start the day in a calm way
Think about it: How do most people begin their mornings? They pour themselves a big mug of high-voltage java and slurp away while reading the paper or watching the TV news. Bad combo, says marriage and family counselor Dawn Mecham of Windows of Hope Counseling Center (in Roseville and Sacramento). “The news can generate anxiety, and the caffeine in coffee can also bring on anxiety,” says Mecham. Her solution: Make a soothing cup of caffeine-free herbal tea, do some deep breathing (see step No. 4), and listen to some relaxing music. By beginning the day in a calm way, we pre-empt the tension that might otherwise set in—and we’re more likely to stay
serene as the day goes on.
Do some journaling
For another anxiety-reducing activity, Mecham suggests pulling out a notepad and writing. She is especially big on writing in the morning “to release or exit anything that might be in the body, including dreams we’ve processed in the night,” she says. The practice of “morning pages,” famously put forth by author Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, basically goes like this: By writing down thoughts and feelings in an uncensored, stream-of-consciousness kind of way, you “get to the other side,” as Cameron puts it—the other side of your moods, negativity and fears. An added benefit: It unblocks creativity, which is why Cameron is such a big proponent. There are no rules here, says Mecham; write whatever you like. Research shows that journaling not only helps to reduce stress but even can boost the immune system, benefiting overall health.
Think in shades of gray
Black-and-white thinking is a distorted kind of thinking that inevitably leads to anxiety, says licensed marriage and family therapist Jennie Gault of The Anxiety Treatment Center in Sacramento. “When my clients have a strong anxiety, there’s a good chance there’s some distorted thinking or catastrophizing behind it,” says Gault. The solution? Recognize black-and-white thinking when it happens and replace it with shades of gray. “I’ll never get another job” can be changed to “I may not get a job as quickly as I’d like, but I’ve found jobs before and I’ll find one again,” suggests Gault. The idea is not to pooh-pooh your worries or concerns, she says, but rather to “create a more balanced thought by balancing the irrational with the rational.” Comparing yourself to others is another form of distorted thinking that can cause anxiety, she adds. “A lot of times, we’re comparing our life situations with someone else who presents well—someone who seems to have it together better than you,” she says. “But things are not always what they seem.”
Take a deep breath
But not just one deep breath: Most experts suggest doing so for 5 to 10 minutes for best results. “Deep breathing is one of the best relaxation techniques for people who are dealing with stress and anxiety,” says Angie Weckworth, a holistic health practitioner and owner of Elemental Holistic Healings in Fair Oaks. “It basically ‘reboots’ your system because when you’re really stressed out, your body tends to shut down.” It’s simple, says Weckworth: Sit somewhere quiet, place your feet flat on the floor and close your eyes. Inhale slowly through your nose, hold your breath for 1 to 3 seconds, then slowly blow the air out through your mouth. Repeat several times. And don’t do it only when you’re stressed: Practicing deep breathing for as little as 5 minutes a day not only combats anxiety but can have many other benefits, including lowered blood pressure and improved sleep, according to a 2005 article in the Mayo Clinic Women’s HealthSource.
Find a gratitude buddy
Having an “attitude of gratitude” is not a new concept. But here’s a new angle: Instead of keeping what your grateful for private, form a “gratitude group” with a friend, suggests Beth Cohen, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and director of UC Davis’ Academic & Staff Assistance program. Here’s how you do it: Enlist a friend who is willing to commit to “practicing gratitude” three to five days a week. Pick a time that works for both of you, and choose your preferred mode of communication—phone, e-mail or text messaging. Express your gratitude for at least one thing during each conversation—“even if it’s something as simple as ‘I’m up and functioning today,’” says Cohen. While the mood-lifting effects of practicing gratitude have been confirmed in study after study—in fact, Cohen’s UCD colleague Robert Emmons, a psychology prof, has written books on the subject—the buddy system works better for some people because it keeps them on track, much like having a workout buddy.
Find a positive outlet
Doing things you enjoy is a “basic premise” for reducing anxiety, says Gault—so pick your pleasure and do it. While everyone defines pleasure differently—one of Gault’s clients is spending Furlough Fridays going through her storage unit, for example, which may not sound like fun to you but “is helping her feel better because she’s doing something she’s been procrastinating about,” explains Gault—the emphasis here is on taking positive action. If job loss suddenly has left you with wide-open days, “ask yourself what you can do now that you have extra time,” suggests Gault. Spending eight hours a day tethered to the computer looking for work will only increase anxiety. Break up the day by picking up a paintbrush, taking a stroll or clearing out clutter—whatever works for you.
Remember, you’ve “been there, done that”
If anxiety and feelings of hopelessness begin to take over, simply reminding yourself that you’ve survived tough times before can help buoy your spirits, says Cohen. In counseling faculty, staff and families at UC Davis, Cohen says, “we like to have people recall a time in their life that they lived through an adverse experience as a reminder that not only did they live to tell the tale, but that they created resilient skills that they can use again.” If you’ve conveniently forgotten all the times you’ve “been there, done that,” ask a friend or family member to remind you. Sometimes perspective is best gained through someone else’s eyes.
Recession-related anxiety can be serious—The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reported a jump in calls from 39,465 a month in January 2008 to 50,158 in January 2009. Economic stress was cited as a key factor.