Anxiety can be an overwhelming emotion that many of us struggle with. Racing thoughts, obsessions, and consistent worry are common symptoms of anxiety. If we are able to use skills to calm these symptoms, anxiety can actually help to motivate our behavior and facilitate change in our life. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) identifies distress tolerance skills that are helpful in taking a step back from anxiety, prior to reacting to negative emotions. One popular DBT skill encourages you to IMPROVE the moment to decrease anxiety.
Below are 7 ways to IMPROVE your worried state of mind and decrease personal distress:
- Imagery – Imagery helps to guide thoughts and emotions into a calm and relaxed state. There are many ways to do this. One way is to picture a safe place where you feel comforted, supported, validated, and internally at peace. What would be around you? What does this place look like? Who would be in this safe place with you? Another way is to visualize working toward goals and aspirations. You can also imagine something humorous and light-hearted. For example, if you were a super hero, what super powers would you have? What would your costume look like? Would you have a side kick? It may sound silly; however, it will distract you from worrisome thoughts.
- Meaning – “Remember that by trying to find positive things about our distress, we are not denying that things are bad, or trying to say that distressing things are not distressing. We are trying to Improve the Moment, to find some things that help us feel better in the moment.” -Lisa Dietz. Finding purpose and perspective in overwhelming times help to decrease hopelessness. Have you handled something like this in the past? Have difficult times taught you anything? Has getting through stress improved your relationships? Answers to these questions will help you refocus and think about the situation on a deeper level.
- Prayer – Whether you identify as religious, spiritual, or neither, prayer can be beneficial. When we mentally release emotional concerns, it helps to decrease negative emotions. Praying to a higher power or any force outside of yourself can help decrease loneliness and hopelessness in situations. If you struggle with higher power or religious practices, try speaking out loud to yourself. You could also journal these thoughts and emotions as another outlet.
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- Relax – Relaxation helps to regulate our body temperature, decrease racing thoughts and improve our ability to breathe and circulate oxygen. Planned activities could include a bubble bath, getting a massage, manicure or pedicure, or doing something you enjoy. If you need to relax with short notice or on a budget, try using essential oils or calming lotions (spearmint, eucalyptus, or lavender), light a candle, take a short walk, stretch out your legs or arms, or try 4 square belly breathing (4 seconds in, hold for 4, 4 seconds exhale, and pause for 4).
- One thing at a time – Being in the “now” allows you to let go of anger, shame, worry and let go of the past and future, where ruminating increases suffering. Some ways to practice grounding are to identify animal letters A-Z (alligator, bear, cat, dolphin, etc.), count 5 things you can hear, identify 3 places that your body makes contact with something else (feet on the floor, back on the chair, etc.) or counting 5 breaths inhaling and exhaling.
- Vacation – This skill refers more to mental vacations than geographical vacations. To use this skill, try taking a mini break from the presenting stressor. Give yourself 5-10 minutes to break. Ideas could include listening to a song, making a phone call to a support system, watching a YouTube video, taking a brief walk or having a small snack.
- Encouragement – Be nice to yourself and be a cheerleader. Instead of cycling with negative thinking patterns, try saying “this situation won’t last forever”, “I’ve been through painful experiences and I’ve survived them”, “this too shall pass”, and “my feelings make me uncomfortable right now and I can accept them.” Self-affirmations can help improve our sense of self and confidence which could decrease overall anxiety and fear. Try asking yourself, would you talk to your best friend this way?
Anxiety, worry, and racing thoughts can feel overwhelming or like our world is closing in on us. The skills mentioned above could be useful in stopping this cycle before it perpetuates and impedes our behaviors. Practicing these skills before anxiety consumes us will help us be more effective at work, in our relationship with others, and accomplishing our goals.
Author: Stephanie Pruefer, LPC, CADC – Footprints to Recovery – Counselor