How to Relieve Anxiety and Move on With Your Life

GOT ANXIETY? THEN you've also got company: Anxiety disorders, which include phobias, social anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, are the most common mental illnesses in the U.S., affecting more than 19 percent of the population each year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Then, there are the rest of us who may not have an disorder, but are quite familiar with feelings of anxiety, stress or depression – normal emotions that can still get in the way of living certain parts of our lives the way we wish to. Maybe you're reluctant to approach new people, get healthy or take risks that may elevate your well-being. As sport psychologist Jeff Bond recently said in response to Jack Steven becoming the latest Australian Football League player to step away from the game because of mental health concerns, "We all suffer from depression. It's a matter of whether it's debilitating or not."

Fortunately, anxiety disorders are highly treatable and "normal" experiences with it and other negative emotions are quite manageable. Try these research-backed strategies the next time you feel your mental health head south.

1. Practice self-compassion.

Research has shown that self-compassion is related to higher levels of physical and mental health, and we now understand why. People who take time to think kind thoughts about themselves and loved ones not only report more self-compassion and deeper connections with others, but they also may experience physical benefits. That's because self-compassion can produce a "relaxation and safety" response in the body, or a lowered heart rate, variation in length of time between heartbeats (a healthy sign of a heart that can respond flexibly to situations) and a lower sweat response. A critical inner voice, meanwhile, tends to lead to an increased heart rate and a higher sweat response, which can be physically damaging in the long run.

Don't wait until you're pleased with yourself to practice self-compassionate thinking. We are capable of experiencing inner struggle and still be kind to ourselves. Approaching your negative thoughts and feelings with compassion is a powerful way to remind yourself that those thoughts are not facts, notes psychologist Willem Kuyken, co-author of new research on compassion, in a press release.

Practicing self-compassion can take many forms. For instance, you might listen to recordings that guide you to attend to bodily sensations with an attitude of interest and calmness, as participants in Kuyken's study did. You can also aim to reframe difficult moments as opportunities to practice being kind to yourself. Or, you might try documenting kind moments in a journal or sending loving thoughts to yourself or someone else through meditation.

2. Visualize your negative emotions as clouds.

Simply accepting your dysfunction isn't exactly, well, accepted in our culture, where constant self-improvement and unwavering productivity are prized traits. But doing so can change your relationship with your own emotions for the better. Try, for instance, considering your anxious or sad thoughts as clouds – momentary. When we view emotions in this way – accepting each as it comes, without judgement; viewing them as adaptive responses to situations we encounter; and understanding they'll run their course and organically pass on their own – we encourage them to move along faster.

It's when we get caught up in ruminating – mulling a thought over and over without letting it go – that the natural process gets disrupted. As my sport and performance psychology colleague Matt Cuccaro has said, "You don't have to believe your own immediate thoughts and feelings, much less anyone else's. Let yourself sit with them for a moment and find your truth."

3. Write a letter to your fear.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert has shared the role fear plays in her life, and how she's learned to survive alongside it. Fear, says Gilbert, accompanies virtually every new creative literary project on which she embarks. Most artists and performers rarely start something new without being anxious about something – maybe it's if they can really "do it" or the judgements of others.

Instead of following your reflex to avoid or eliminate fear, consider writing a letter to your fear, which is a more passive, more nonjudgmental, more compassionate and arguably more realistic approach, since you'll never fully get rid of fear. In your letter, you may want to acknowledge fear's presence, and then set boundaries. Gilbert, for instance, invites fear on her "road trip" with creativity, but warns it that it won't be allowed to make any decisions. "I recognize and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities," she writes, "but still – your suggestions will never be followed."

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