Anyone who has experienced anxiety knows how scary and consuming it can feel. Spinning thoughts accelerate out of control. Waves of fear and doubt run rampant. All of it leaves us feeling exhausted.
Anxiety disorders are one of the most prevalent mental health issues today, affecting as many as 1 in 5 people over the course of the lifespan.
We see increased rates of anxiety occurring in teenage populations. This is likely due to stressful situations and social pressure that teens face. On top of that, the developmental changes that occur in the brain during adolescence increase the chances of experiencing anxiety.
So, if you or a loved one is suffering from an anxiety disorder, what can you do?
Answer: learn how to ride the waves. Riding a wave is a perfect analogy for learning how to manage anxiety.
We need to understand that fighting against the waves, fearing the wave, or avoiding the waves typically increases our anxiety. We automatically tense up, freeze, or over-analyze as our thoughts spin out of control. Our thoughts send us through a flurry of emotions. In this scenario, the wave tosses us and leaves us gasping for air.
The alternative option is to prepare for the wave, acknowledge its presence, and ride it out. If we can do this, we give ourselves a chance to let go of the fear and the thoughts that cause us to fight, freeze up, or run away. Time and time again, I’ve seen clients gain stability and confidence to face anxiety-provoking situations. When clients decide to shift their direction, from avoiding the waves to preparing for the waves, they find themselves doing things that previously seemed impossible.
So, how do we learn to ride the waves?
The first thing we need to understand is that in many cases, we can’t change the waves. Big or small. Choppy or sustained. We have no choice but to acknowledge and accept the wave. Feeling anxiety is a normal part of what it means to be human. For some, the experience of anxiety is intensified beyond what is normal due to reactions of the body and mind that have been reinforced over time. However, the existence of some level of anxiety is common to everyone.
The next thing we can do is breathe and slow down. Think of a superhero movie scene where time slows down, and the hero of the movie performs some superhuman stunt. Just like the hero in the movie, you can slow down your body and your mind by taking deep breaths and letting go of negative thoughts or emotions. As the wave builds, or anxious feelings increase, it may be tempting to feel overwhelmed or to speed your mind back up. Simply acknowledge that feeling and return your focus to taking deep breaths. As you calm your breathing, you may find it helpful to focus your attention on something other than the wave.
The next part is one of the most daunting aspects of managing anxiety. Our tendency with anxious situations is to avoid them at all costs. This is one of the reasons that anxiety has incredible power and control over us. To manage anxious feelings, we must commit to riding a lot of waves. This makes sense if we think about the “practice makes perfect” metaphor. The only way we improve at something is to practice. Start by committing to facing the slightly anxiety-provoking situations. Prove to yourself that you can ride the wave and make it to the other side. Then practice committing to the bigger waves.