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Anxiety self-help: Break the cycle

People who worry a lot often find themselves trapped in a cycle of anxious thoughts. These cycles can feel overwhelming and exhausting. Unfortunately, just telling yourself to stop worrying seldom does the trick. While getting professional help is an important part of tackling anxiety, breaking the cycle of anxiety on a daily basis can also be helpful. 

When you are feeling stuck in an anxiety cycle, get up and do something such as:

  • Exercise
  • Mindful observation
  • Grounding exercise
  • Deep breathing exercise
  • Soften your gaze
  • Perform a task you’ve been putting off

Getting up and exercising is a good way to break the anxiety cycle, as research shows that exercise boosts your feel-good hormones, and helps to elevate your mood. To assist in managing anxiety, mindful exercise is particularly helpful. Focus on feeling the ground under your feet and concentrate on what your body is doing.

Find a type of exercise that you enjoy. It might be soccer, netball, running, walking, yoga, dancing, swimming or working out with weights at a gym. Walking is one of the most accessible things that you can do, as it requires no equipment beyond some flat shoes and almost any level of fitness. Taking a walk around campus is a simple way to get started.

Mindful observation

Choose a natural object to watch for a minute or two. This could be a plant, flower, insect or even the moon or clouds. Just notice the object you have chosen, and really look at it for as long as you are able to concentrate. Look at this object as if you are seeing it for the first time, and allow yourself to really engage with the object and its purpose in the natural world.

Grounding exercise

Take a few minutes to try this grounding exercise to feel more connected and grounded in the present moment.

  • 5 things you can see – Name 5 things that you can see around you e.g. I can see my laptop, a tree outside the window, a pen, a shoe and my phone.
  • 4 things you can touch – Name and describe 4 things that you can touch. I can feel the warmth of my socks against my feet; the smooth, hard roughness of a wall; the sharp coldness of a key; or feel the warmth of the sun on my skin.
  • 3 things you can hear – Name 3 things that you can hear, close by and in the distance. I can hear the ticking of a clock; the traffic in the distance; or people talking outside.
  • 2 things you can smell – Name 2 things that you can smell. You may need to move around to find something to sniff e.g. food or a plant. If that’s not possible, just think of two of your favourite smells if you don’t notice a particular smell.

Breathe in and out slowly

This should allow you to feel in the present, more grounded and in your body. Notice how your breath gets deeper and calmer.

Deep breathing exercise, with extended exhalation: 3-2-4 Breathing technique

Research shows that lengthening your exhale when you breathe may calm down your central nervous system, allowing you to manage stress and anxiety better. 

  1. Rest your tongue lightly along the ridge of tissue located behind your front, upper teeth; or to rest gently on your lower jaw. Allow it to rest here throughout the exercise.
  2. Exhale completely before you start a new cycle of breath
  3. Close your mouth, inhale quietly through your nose as you count to three. Let your stomach and chest fill up with breath.
  4. Pause. Hold your breath for a count of two.
  5. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a ‘whoosh’ sound, as you count to four. Let your stomach and chest release.
  6. Steps 3-5 make one full breath cycle. Repeat four more times for five total rounds. Try practising these steps twice daily or when needed to break out of a cycle of anxiety.

Breathing exercise infographic

Soften your gaze

When people are under stress and feeling anxious, their gaze is generally more intense and narrow. This is good in situations where you need to be particularly focused due to safety, but less so in day-to-day life when feeling more generally anxious. When you are feeling anxious, try to soften your gaze to see more of what’s going on in your peripheral vision. This helps to send a message to your nervous system that you are not in danger, and so it helps your body to calm down. This is a handy anxiety management tip for social or public situations, as you can do it unnoticed.

Perform a task you’ve been putting off

Putting off a task can often increase your anxiety. If you’ve been avoiding something that is making you feel anxious, take action and do it now.  Carry out the task a step at a time - which helps to make it more doable.

Incorporate calming practises into your day-to-day life

The calming practises above, such as mindful observation, grounding exercises and breathing exercises may also be incorporated into your day-to-day life to help you reduce the effects of anxiety. You could also attend a mindfulness group at CCDU, meditate, practice relaxation/visualisation exercises, or practice yoga. Find something that works for you, and that you find particularly calming. This is different for everyone, and some ideas may appeal to you more than others. The key thing is to keep practising regularly, until these calming strategies feel familiar.  The daily practice allows you to feel calmer in general, and helps you to recognise when you are starting to feel anxious and so you can do something about the anxiety sooner. 

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