How to handle anxious thoughts

Feeling anxious, whether it’s because you’re waiting on feedback from your boss on your latest project or wondering if you’ll pass that test,  is zero fun.

But honestly, there’s no getting around it. Most of us feel anxious sometimes—according to a recent poll by Gallup, up to 60 per cent of US adults on a daily basis. And it makes perfect sense. After all, this feeling is a hardwired mind-and-body reaction to stressful situations (and as adults, most of us deal with plenty of them).

But what about when anxious feelings linger and make it difficult for us to get through the day? What can be done to make them disappear or at least dissipate substantially?

Read on for more on why we feel anxious plus some handy tips to help you find your way back to a state of calm (or calm-ish, if that’s more your style) in a hurry.

Fight or Flight Response: The Biological trigger behind anxious feelings

When we sense danger (even if that danger is of a mental sort, like worrying about being criticized), our bodies go into high alert. This is sometimes referred to as the "fight or flight" response. Initially described in the 1920s by Dr Walter B. Cannon at Harvard Medical School this response evolved as a survival mechanism.

Although it doesn’t feel great—biologically—the anxious, worried feelings, heightened pulse, tense muscles and hyper-awareness that we experience in this state are features, not flaws. Fight or flight (and everything that comes in with it) is our bodies’ way of helping us be alert and prepare for potential dangers, contributing greatly to  humans survival and ability to thrive.

However, while our prehistoric ancestors made great use of this heightened sense of awareness to flee oversized ancient predators, in our current saber-tooth-tiger-free circumstances, it can sometimes leave us feeling anxious and overwhelmed as we prepare for an exam or a presentation at work.

Some of the sensations people experience when the fight or flight response is activated include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Stomach pains or cramping
  • Feeling tense or restless

Everybody has different triggers that cause anxious feelings to arise. Meeting new people, giving a presentation, making a big purchase, dealing with conflict and disappointing outcomes are all common events that can provoke a state of fight or flight. And the current global pandemic situation (while not as commonly occurring) is also a potent trigger for many.

But by identifying your triggers, and the sensations that go along with them, you can become more equipped to handle your feelings and find the right way to cope.

Keep reading for some ideas for what to do when you start to feel overwhelmed.

Strategies for finding your calm

1. Focus on your breath (or relaxing your muscles).

Deep breathing and relaxation exercises have been documented to help bring your heart and breathing rates down, as well as help you to focus, and calm feelings of worry. Whether you have a minute or half an hour to spare, there are many different breathing and relaxation techniques to try.

If you’re just getting started with breathwork and relaxation, get a primer on deep belly breathing and progressive muscle relaxation with the Master relaxation program in Foundations.

Simon Rae via @​​​unsplash

2. Practise being mindful.

Mindfulness helps us become more aware and present in the moment. The American Psychological Association (APA) recommends mindfulness for managing nervousness. Not only can mindfulness help you focus, it can also help you become more grateful and positive in your daily life.

A centuries-old practice with roots in Buddhism, mindfulness has been shown in recent years to improve both physical and mental health.

Need help getting the ball rolling? Learn 5 different core techniques with our 5 steps to being mindful program.

3. Learn to examine your thoughts.

Often when we’re feeling anxious, negative thoughts are hanging around and making us worry. If these negative thoughts are repetitive and come up for us regularly, they can make us feel distressed.

Take the time to consider the thoughts you’re having as just that, thoughts (as opposed to objective truths)—it can help you see things in a more balanced way.

Find out how to identify repetitive thought patterns (and balance your thoughts) with Foundations’ Working with thoughts program.

4. Exercise your way into a better mood.

When your body is tense or you feel out of control and restless (thanks again, fight or flight), going for a brisk walk, dancing around the room, or just doing 15 minutes of yoga can help relax your mind and body.

Exercise has been scientifically proven to improve mental health and physical health as well as overall mood.

5. Get your thoughts out of your head (and into a journal).

Getting anxious thoughts out of your head and down on paper (or in your Thought record in Foundations) can help give you the distance and clarity you need to make these thoughts less overwhelming.  It’s been scientifically shown that writing down what’s in our heads can help us organise our thoughts, and look at them from a different perspective.

If you have anxious thoughts and worries going around your head that you're having trouble shaking, try Foundations’ Constructive worry program, to park your worries and revisit them when you have the time and feel calmer.

Anxious thoughts are going to happen. It’s how you handle them that makes a difference.

Having anxious feelings occasionally is only natural—it’s just your body, trying to protect you—it’s going to happen from time to time. And it helps to be able to recognise these sensations and know where they come from. By taking the opportunity to try some of the ideas mentioned above, you’ll already know which of them works best for you the next time that nervousness appears.

That’s why it’s essential to remember whether you have 1 minute to handle your anxious thoughts—or several—there are many things you can do to feel better and Foundations is here to help.

Are you already using your Foundations app when you have anxious thoughts or feel worried? Share your experience with us at foundations@koahealth.com.