Coping with anxiety

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teen boy relaxing

You can help yourself cope with anxiety by:

  • calming your body’s anxiety signals
  • recognizing and challenging unrealistic thoughts
  • doing a behaviour rehearsal, if you are anxious about a particular situation or event.

Calming the body’s anxiety signals

When you notice your body’s anxiety signals, it is important to use deep breathing and relaxation techniques to help shut-off the alarm mode.

Deep breathing involves taking slow, deep breaths and often repeating a calming phrase, such as “I’ll be ok” or “relax”. If you notice that your muscles are tense, try to relax those parts of your body and picture your muscles getting loose and soft.

Sometimes it is helpful to imagine that your muscles are like a piece of wax that is softening in the sun or like an elastic band that is getting looser and looser. At first it is very important to practise these approaches when you are not in a lot of pain. Once you have a lot of practice in using them without pain, it will be much easier to use them when you have more pain.

Try listening to the audio clips on the pages about relaxation and distraction in the section on psychological therapies. In each clip, the narrator will guide you through the steps needed to relax your mind and body. Try to find a quiet place where you can listen and participate.

Recognizing unrealistic thoughts

When we get anxious, our thoughts may become distorted, unrealistic and extreme. For example, we might have the thought “I am stupid because I didn’t know the answer to a question my teacher asked me in front of the class.” However, a few hours later, when you feel calmer, you might think, “I actually do really well in that class and other students also didn’t know the answer to the teacher’s question - so, I’m not stupid – I just didn’t know the answer.”

If you find yourself having stressful or worried thoughts, try writing them down on paper. Then, imagine the advice you would give your best friend if they had the same thoughts. Usually, we tell our best friend they are overthinking things and that the situation isn’t half as bad as they think.

Being able to recognize unrealistic thoughts and have ways to talk back to our anxious thoughts are a part of an anxiety treatment called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). If you are having anxious thoughts most days and they are starting to really affect you, you can talk to your family doctor about what you are experiencing. They will be able to discuss options with you and direct you to a psychologist or other healthcare worker who can help.

When to speak to a doctor

  • Speak to your doctor if your levels of anxiety, stress or worry are becoming distressing to you.
  • Tell your doctor if you notice that your anxiety, stress or worry are interfering with important areas of life such as attending school or work, your relationships with others or your hobbies and interests.
  • Let your doctor know if you are avoiding important situations in your life because of your anxiety.

Your family doctor will be able to discuss options with you, and direct you to a psychologist or other healthcare worker who can help.

Behaviour rehearsal

Behaviour rehearsal helps you to prepare for an event that makes you anxious before it even happens. Behaviour rehearsal involves imagining the event before it happens while using relaxation methods​.

You can use behaviour rehearsal to prepare for a challenge by practising success in your mind.

Example scenario

Imagine that you are invited to a house party to celebrate the end of exams. You really want to go but are worried and stressed that you’ll have a flare in pain and be embarrassed that you can’t take part like everyone else. When you get nervous, your pain increases, and you worry even more that you won’t be able to fit in at the party.

What you need to do is break the situation into parts that you can imagine and control. Here, we can break it down into three steps that might make you nervous, and suggest how you might approach each one as a behaviour rehearsal.

Don’t forget to relax as you imagine each part. Pay attention to your thoughts and moods and be mindful of any tension you might hold in your neck.

Step 1: Taking the train on the night of the party

You might expect to be nervous as the train approaches the station because it means that the party is going to start in a very short time. You may have butterflies in your stomach or your heart may be pounding fast. Use belly breathing or mini-relaxation to imagine yourself sitting calmly on the train as you pull up to the station.

Step 2: Walking to the front door

Imagine how you will feel as you walk into the party. Imagine your heart pounding hard and fast. Imagine how it feels to have your thoughts racing. Now, use belly breathing or mini-relaxation to imagine yourself walking calmly and confidently into the party and finding a place to sit down.

Step 3: Hanging out with your friends and meeting new people

Imagine hearing your voice as you talk to the other people at the party. Now, relax your body as you imagine this conversation. Keep practising until you can think about this and feel relaxed at the same time. Remember that it is okay to find a quiet place to breathe if you get overwhelmed by the number of people.

Last updated: May 2nd 2016