The research is massive and fairly conclusive. There are more people struggling with anxiety-related symptoms and fighting with mental health issues now, more than ever before. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exasperated the situation.
Our brains are very powerful. The way our brains are wired up, it has a unique way of dealing with internal and external stressors. Once we sense that something is wrong, our amygdala, which is part of the limbic system, processes the fear. It then sends signals to the hypothalamus to trigger a hormone (cortisol) in order to produce a “fight or flight” reaction. This produces an increased heart rate and respiration that cause us to prepare for action.
All this is good, especially when there is a real and present danger, but it is not helpful when there is falsely perceived danger or when our thoughts negatively affect how we view a situation. Therefore, a lot of the triggers are internal, which are activated in our minds. It can come in the form of replaying and pondering on things of the past that you cannot change (i.e. a mistake or failure) or worrying about something in the future that you might not have any control over (i.e. fear of something or a worst-case scenario). These thoughts can be irrational and even over-power us to live in constant anxiety or to panic.
When a person struggles with anxiety, it can be crippling. It causes a lot of mental dissonance and unnecessary emotions, which cause a lot of problems. Therefore, it is imperative that we find ways to address our anxiety and start living in freedom.
Here are 6 skills (5 M’s) to develop in order to overcome anxiety:
- MONITOR your thoughts. Too often, we focus on our behavior, but then get discouraged because we are not changing. The problem is not our actions but our thoughts. Remember the TEA process of bringing change to our behavior. What is the TEA process? It is simply: our thoughts affect our emotions, which eventually, affects our actions. Therefore, if we monitor what we think about, then we can battle our anxiety. We must catch any negative thoughts. We need to see if our thoughts are true because sometimes, they are falsely perceived realities.
Next Steps: Whenever you come across a negative or debilitating thought, replace it with a truth or a positive thought on the situation. For example, if you feel like you are going to fail in a presentation, then think about the opportunity you will have to grow and learn from the experience.
- MINIMIZE your triggers. If you are able to reduce the number of things that get you anxious, then you will have more peace of mind. But in order to minimize our triggers, we must know what they are. So be observant and keep a journal of things that get you triggered. You might want to invite a trusted friend to help you to identify some of the triggers. As we are more self-aware, then you can choose to not engage or even remove yourself from the anxiety-induced situation.
Next Steps: Come up with a list of “triggers” that cause anxiety in your life. Then think of ways that you can prevent or even address those situations.
- MEET up with people. There is something powerful about being in community with other people. It provides a space where you can be known and feel a sense of belonging. It is an avenue for you to openly and honestly share some of your struggles with anxiety, fear, or worry. Remember that those people should be life-giving. If they are toxic or drains strength from you, then they are not the right people. Also, if you are a loner and don’t have too many trusted friends, try to join a formalize group such as a book club, cooking class, or even a religious small group gathering. It helps to have people that you are meeting regularly for a specific purpose so that you can build relationships.
Next Steps: Commit to regularly meeting with a few people who will care and listen to your struggles, and encourage you on your journey.
- MAINTAIN good habits. A lot of the anxiety that we go through are learned responses to situations that are outside of our control. This then causes us to turn to things that can develop into bad habits. In fact, it can even galvanize addictions (alcoholism, pornography, video games, scrolling endlessly on social media, YouTube, etc.), which will be counterproductive to overcoming anxiety. It helps to make sure that you are taking care of yourself mentally, physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. When we have a clear schedule and small goals to accomplish throughout the day, it helps us to feel less anxious. We need to make positive connections in our brains with good habits. This will give us more confidence and the ability to be proactive in our life.
Next Steps: Write out your weekly schedule and follow through. Find someone to keep you accountable and to practice the good habits together.
- MOVE around. When we struggle with anxiety and get depressed, the temptation is to get lethargic and just sleep. But this in fact fuels your struggles. Some people go to the other extreme and don’t get enough sleep because they are constantly worried. In both cases, it affects our bodies, which affects our emotions. Therefore, it is vital that we stay active. Any physical activity helps to increase the endorphins and serotonin levels which are released into our body. This helps us to feel better, which will then assist us to have a better perspective on our situation.
Next Steps: Schedule a daily time where you will exercise or even take a walk.
- MEDITATE on good things. Once again, the things that go into our minds really do affect our emotions, which will eventually affect how we respond to situations. This is why it might help to get off social media or avoid other things that fuel the negative emotions. The more we focus on the positives and things that are true, then we are able to rewire our brains to respond differently. It is in the cortex, which is the rational part of our brain which is responsible for thinking and processing information through our five senses, that can disengage the amygdala. Once we process the situation with truth and a positive perspective, it prevents the release of cortisol in the hypothalamus, which reduces the anxiety.
Next Steps: Have several positive quotes or images that fuel good thoughts on your phone so that you can turn to it when you sense the anxiety rising up.
So, the 6 skills are: 1) Monitor your thoughts 2) Minimize your triggers 3) Meet up with people 4) Maintain good habits 5) Move around 6) Meditate on good things.