3 Skills to Help Manage Anxiety & Regulate Emotions

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What is anxiety? That sick feeling in the pit of our stomach? Our heart fluttering or racing when we think of something that makes us feel nervous or fearful? Starting to sweat and possibly feeling like we can’t catch our breath? Feeling awkward, self-conscious and out of place around people in a social setting?

Anxiety can be all of those things and more.

Learning to pay attention to our body’s signals can help us to pinpoint when we might be feeling anxious and why. Sometimes we don’t recognize anxiety for what it is. We might simply think we’re hungry or tired or just feeling physically off, but it could actually be anxiety. Anxiety can present itself in many different ways.

I find that most times, people experience anxiety when thinking about the past or the future. For example, excessive time spent worrying about their past actions or fixating on what the future holds. Living in the present moment can help to free the mind from the “hamster wheel” of constant negative thoughts churning away in our brains.

So what can we do about anxiety?

There are many effective skills people can learn in order to manage anxiety and help to regulate their emotions. Here, we will focus on three:

  1. Radical Acceptance: a component of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) in which a person practices accepting their life the way it is today, not the way they think it should or ought to be.
  • Some signs that may indicate you are not accepting of your current reality include thoughts/statements that involve the word “should.” For example, “I should be doing better than I am right now. I shouldn’t be struggling this much. Other people have gone through worse and they’re doing okay.” Should statements are judgements and can serve to make us feel worse about ourselves or our situation.
  • “Why me” thoughts can also be indicators that you are not accepting of your current situation. Not accepting our reality leads to a multitude of negative emotions, such as frustration, anger/rage, hurt and basically just overall an inability to move forward.
  • So, how can we practice acceptance?
  • We can remind ourselves that reality cannot be changed; we can’t go back in time and un-do what’s happened. All we can do is try to cope as best we can from this point forward.  
  • Reflect on how things lead to this current point of reality. What happened?
  • Acknowledge your feelings, even when they are negative: “yes right now I feel angry about what happened. I don’t believe I deserved that, but it happened and I can’t change it. All I can do is try to move forward. What does that look like for me?” Try writing down what you believe personal growth would look like for you and how you could achieve it.
  • Acknowledge that no one can go through life without pain. It is universal to all humans. The key is learning to tolerate the pain and cope with it. How might you do that?
  • Try to focus on the lessons this current hardship is trying to teach you. Maybe a lesson in patience, trust, building faith, repairing a fractured relationship? Keep an open mind.
  1. 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Exercise: Grounding exercises are a form of mindfulness. They help us to anchor our minds in the present time, rather than rewinding to the past or fast forwarding to the future, which actually creates and/or increases anxiety.
  • Sit comfortably, close your eyes and breathe in for the count of 3 then out for the count of 3. Repeat this 3 times. When you open your eyes, name:
  • 5 things you can see – really notice each object and take in the details of what you’re observing. Give your whole concentration to the task.
  • Now name 4 things you can touch/feel. This could be the texture of your hair or clothing, objects in the room, etc. Really feel and notice the details in each object you’re touching before moving on to the next one.
  • Now listen for 3 sounds you can hear. These could include routine noises within the house such as the furnace running, people talking, etc. It could include traffic noise, birds outside, music.
  • Now notice 2 things you can smell (perhaps the fabric softener on your clothing, a candle, scented oils/lotion, etc.
  • And finally, 1 thing you can taste (a piece of chocolate, a sip of your coffee or tea) Really notice and try to identify the flavors you’re tasting).

Finish the exercise with 3 more deep breaths and observe how you feel afterwards. Notice if the exercise helped you to feel differently and if so, how?

3. Opposite Action: a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) skill that involves choosing to do the opposite of what your emotions are telling you to do. More on why this is beneficial later.

  • First, identify your emotional impulse. What are your emotions telling you to do? Hibernate at home and avoid friends because you had a rough day or just went through a relationship breakdown? Get angry and tell someone off because they cut in front of you in line?
  • Let’s say for the sake of this exercise, you’re feeling angry because a co-worker is slacking off at work and you’re having to shoulder the majority of the workload. Instead of saying something in the heat of the moment that you will probably regret later, you plan to do the exact opposite of that.
  • Maybe that looks like simply acknowledging and accepting that you’re feeling ticked off and choosing to sit with those emotions while consciously making the decision NOT to act. For example, “I’m so annoyed right now, I really wanna go over there and unleash on her. But…I know that if I follow through with that impulse now, I will probably regret it later and it will probably make things worse. So I am choosing to acknowledge that I’m pretty ticked off, but I won’t make any decisions now.”
  • After returning home from work, rather than venting to your spouse, family or friends about the matter (which is what your emotional impulse is telling you to do), maybe you do the opposite and choose to be quiet. Perhaps engaging in a grounding or meditation exercise, maybe going for a walk or otherwise participating in self-care or a hobby that keeps your mind occupied. Whatever works for you. Eventually, given some space and time, the intensity of the emotion will fade and allow you to tap into the logical side of your brain to come up with a plan on how to deal with the situation.
  • Why is this important? When we make decisions based on our emotions, we are following our feelings which is not always a good thing. You know the saying “a feeling is not a fact?” It’s true. Of course, our feelings feel correct to us; this is why we’re tempted to believe them 100% and follow through on them. But when we’re blinded by our emotions we are often not thinking clearly. We may be overcome with frustration, anger, righteousness, hurt, etc and we are tempted to “solve” our problems by acting on those emotions. At times like this, we are operating strictly on “emotion mind” rather than “logical mind.” Solving problems when we are in emotion mind is usually not a good thing!
  • When we allow ourselves time and space from those extreme emotions, the intensity will fade and we can then come up with a plan to deal with situation in a rational way.

The thing to remember with these skills is: consistency is key! You can’t just do these exercises once and expect lasting results. It’s a commitment to participate in self-care and coping skills on a regular basis. With continued practice, it becomes easier to “rewire” your thoughts and focus on more positive coping skills. It’s a process. Everyone has to start somewhere and these are very simple exercises to get you practicing and building on your coping skills today.

You CAN do it.

Amber Fortowsky RSW, BSW

Amber has been a practicing social worker in Saskatoon since 2008. She has worked in the non-profit sector as well as with the Saskatchewan Health Authority in various roles. She also spent several years working in the area of Mental Health and Addictions.

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