On a recent flight, I sat beside one of the most anxious people I have ever been around. By the time we landed, I thought I was going to have a panic attack. Not only was she miserable for most of the flight, but she was rude to her husband and definitely didn’t make my flight enjoyable. Now, I know some people are petrified of flying – some people are also scared of snakes, spiders, heights, or clowns. However, we also tend to do things to try to calm ourselves that only make the situation worse. Anxiety is an emotional response but it has very physical components. Often people feel short of breath, heart racing, palms sweating, shakiness, nausea, and light headedness. At the same time, what you often see people do when they start feeling anxious is to hold their breath, wring their hands, shake their legs, and squeeze their eyes closed as tightly as possible. The only thing these coping strategies will accomplish is to increase the anxiety you are experiencing. So in honor of the most anxious woman in the air – and in hopes of saving myself from another uncomfortable plane ride – here are some tips and tricks for decreasing anxiety. You never know, they might come in handy battling all the holiday shoppers.
1. BREATH!! For goodness sakes, take a breath already. It is amazing how often I see someone who is feeling anxious holding their breath or taking very shallow breaths. When you’re trying to decrease your anxiety, you want to take a breath so deep that your stomach expands. Two or three breaths like this and you should start to feel less anxious. Warning – don’t do it too much or you’ll make yourself hyperventilate. Think back to the advice your high school teacher gave before your presentation – take two cleansing breaths. That’s really all this is. Some people like to incorporate imagery and imagine they are blowing out their anxiety when they exhale. Some people think that’s cheesy – but laughter reduces anxiety too so cheese it up.
2. Sit still! All that jittering, jumping, and shaking plays right into the anxiety. Some people say that it releases energy, but if you really think about the action of shaking your leg, for instance, it takes a great deal of muscle tension to move your leg that fast. Muscle tension is a common symptom of anxiety, so doing something that will make you tense and will only increase your anxiety.
3. Live in the present. A lot of the reason people experience anxiety is because they get stuck in the what ifs of the future. I’m sure the woman on the plane was imagining the fireball she would become when the plane crashed. A good technique for being mindful of your current situation is to literally think only about the things your are currently experiencing – feel the furniture you’re sitting on, what do you smell, hear, in some cases taste. Combine this with the breathing and you’re on your way to relaxation.
4. Do not self medicate with alcohol or other drugs. One way to make anxiety worse the next time you have it is to avoid whatever it is that’s making you anxious now. So, if like my plane ride partner, you are afraid of flying the best way to guarantee a stronger anxiety response the next time you have to fly is to avoid this flight. Drinking and taking drugs is a way to avoid. It numbs your feelings and keeps you from being fully present. Your anxiety might be higher the first time you try this exposure but it will go down over time – and you won’t be broke from buying those little airplane bottles.
5. Lay off the caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant. That means that it will mimic the things that are going to happen in your body when you’re anxious, especially if you don’t usually drink caffeine.
Now, if you are one of those people who has extreme anxiety that interferes with your ability to live your life, for example, keeping you from going to work, spending time with friends, or taking care of yourself on a daily basis, then you need to see a therapist. These tips will help you a little, but you’ll need much longer exposures to the things that make you anxious and will probably need to learn about how your anxiety came to exist to start with. You will also need more intensive forms of relaxation. You may also need medication in order to manage your anxiety, which should be monitored by a psychiatrist in conjunction with therapy. I hope these tips can help you the next time you have some event that makes you feel nervous. And please, if you’re going to be on the same flight as me – take a breath already!