How to Cope With Anxiety, in a Nutshell
A practical guide to anxiety in 7 steps
This is a short article on how to cope with anxiety.
To keep it brief, this “nutshell” approach won’t go into much of the “why” behind it. It won’t explain why this approach is recommended instead of others. It presents “answers” without “showing the math.”
It's intended as kind of first aid or triage - not as an in-depth or comprehensive guide to understanding it, but as a way to cope with it in the moment.
It’s also offered as if it came up in a friendly chat over coffee or a beer. It’s not therapy, and isn’t meant as a replacement for anything that’s already working. More like a conversation with a friend when the subject matter takes a turn in this direction.
Hope you find it useful.
1. Go into a room, and sit.
Go somewhere quiet, if possible. Sit somewhere, comfortable, but not slouched.
2. Be still.
Just sit, and be still. First, be still on the outside (or the body), then on the inside. No need to “freeze,” or sit perfectly frozen, like a statue. If you need to shift, shift. Then go back to being still.
Your mind, emotions, and body (e.g. heartbeat) might race. That’s OK. Just stay present, and watch them race.
Your emotions might be swirling like a hurricane inside you. That’s fine. Let it be a hurricane. Feel it. Stay present, and feel everything swirling around. But at the same time, keep watching it. It’s not just feeling – also watch. But it’s not just watching, either – also feel. Be especially aware of the physical sensations in the body. Those are primary, while the intellectual interpretations of those sensations are secondary.
5. Hold it.
No need to “let it out” or cathart. Just sit, watch, and feel. Do this for maybe 15-20 minutes or so. Longer or shorter is fine.
6. Don’t analyze.
Be aware of physical body sensations. Don’t theorize or speculate about what those sensations “really mean.” This applies especially regarding any imaginary future scenarios. See them as pure sensations. Just sit still, watch, feel, and hold it. No need to “figure it all out.”
I might help to know that there’s a difference between fear and anxiety (or “dread.”) Fear is directed toward an object. If a physical tiger is physically chasing you, there’s fear of a tiger. That’s a valid fear. Anxiety, on the other hand, isn’t directed toward any tangible object “out there.” There doesn’t seem to be anything tangible “out there” that’s actually causing the anxiety. When you look for it, there seems to be nothing there “causing” it. We often don’t like that. Our minds like explanations, and will often scan everything, trying desperately to “explain” it, to find the source of it and “fix it.”
But don’t get pulled into analyzing, theorizing and speculating. The mind might come up with lots of theories and ideas. Some might be valid, some not. That’s fine. Just avoid getting wrapped up in them. Just watch the mind doing its thing, and pay attention to the actual bodily sensations.
Whenever necessary, repeat the steps above. Or, even better, do this once or twice a day, whether it seems necessary or not, whether there’s anxiety or not. These periods of quiet stillness during the day can become like rejuvenating islands of peace and sanity.
This approach is gradual, but effective. It might seem like a skill that improves with practice - awkward at first, but eventually easier. It accumulates over time, and builds momentum. With practice, your capacity to handle it can increase while the force of anxiety itself can gradually diminish.
To recap the 7 Steps:
2) Be still.
5) Hold it.
6) Don’t analyze.
So, how does this work?
This approach probably sounds simple. It is. Explaining it can become complex, but understanding the “how” isn’t really necessary. It can work just fine without knowing how or why it works.
There’s an old question: what to do about dirty water?
Answer: Do nothing. Just watch it, and let it settle.
If you reach in and try to “clean” the water by force, you’ll just wind up stirring up more dirt. But if you just watch it, the dirt will settle by itself.
Certain plants grow only in a dark, cool, and moist environment. When there’s light and heat, they dry up and disappear. In this illustration, the “plants” are like anxiety. The “light and heat” are conscious awareness. The light and heat of awareness can dry up the anxiety. Over time, it loses more control over you, and you gain more control over it.
This approach is simple, though not always easy. That said, when it’s practiced with patience and persistence, it can be effective.