How do you calm down and focus? Strategies for coping with anxiety.
April 24, 2014 8:28 AM   Subscribe

Do you suffer from anxiety or severe depression? What are some coping strategies you have developed that help you overcome and push forward? When medicine and therapy alone aren't enough, how have you stiffened up the sinews, summoned up the blood and conquered?

Hello lovely mefites!
I need some solid suggestions for dealing with anxiety. Specifically, my anxiety is linked to my inability to finish up my final classes to get my B.A., and I really need some help focusing and settling down enough that I’m not panicking when I try to work. I know I have the ability to write well and I have the knowledge, my confidence is just so low. I have had moderate to severe clinical depression since I was a sophomore in high school and have been on Zoloft since that time. In the last year and a half my anxiety has really picked up to the point where I have been prescribed buspirone to use “as needed” to help manage it. Sometimes it helps and but sometimes I’m too far into the cycling thoughts and despair that it can’t help me calm down enough. I have been to a counselor before, but haven’t had much success. There have been times I have gone to class or intended to go into a store and been so apprehensive I cannot exit the vehicle. Sometimes when I am particularly stressed I notice my breathing becomes shallow or I feel extremely stifled. Tension headaches are a fairly regular occurrence.
I am an intelligent, mildly attractive young woman with burning curiosity and a strong work ethic. I know I can do this, I just struggle a lot. What are some good ways to banish the anxiety and focus? Sometimes doing nice things for people makes me feel a little better. Like I sent flowers to a dear lady who has had a wonderful impact on my life but lives several states away from me. I also decided to buy my best friend clothes as a gift because he will soon be looking for a job. Other strategies I have had is going for a drive or trying to work out a bit, but more often than not I lack the time to be able to utilize those options.
Just looking for some suggestions from others struggling with depression and anxiety and have found methods that work for them!

Thank you!
posted by Driven to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
posted by amro at 8:32 AM on April 24, 2014

I've learned, through talk therapy, to allow the anxiety to happen, acknowledge it, and then move on. Whenever you find yourself feeling anxious, don't fight it, because then it becomes somewhat of a "background process," where it's always churning just off to the side. Instead, pull your anxiety to the front and examine it. See what you're actually anxious about and pull that apart.

I like to use, "What then?" So if I think, "My bosses don't like the work that I'm doing!" I'll think, "What then?" Then I'll answer myself, "I'll work harder and see if that helps. But it won't!" "What then?" "They'll fire me!" "What then?" "Then I'll be homeless and die alone!" "Really?" " I'll probably just do this project and maybe have to change one or two things."
posted by xingcat at 8:34 AM on April 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Buteyko Breathing. It is fantastic for anxiety - you just have to remember to do it.

posted by Tullyogallaghan at 8:48 AM on April 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I too struggle with anxiety and the tension headaches and lack of focus that can result. This is a short-term solution and you hear it all the time, but once I "mastered" it, it made a great difference for me in-the-moment: Breathing.

I am a visual person so it helps for me to picture a little scene in my head that represents my breathing. I picture a suitcase tied to a big balloon (no idea how I landed on that one--it's just my go-to). I close my eyes, breathe in slowly and as deeply as I physically can, and picture that balloon rising up and up and up--the higher the better--the goal is to get it as high as I can. I pretend the deeper I breathe, the lighter that suitcase gets (helping me breathe deeper). Then I breathe out as deeply as I can--I picture the ground far below, and I want to deflate that balloon as much as I can, with the goal of getting the suitcase to actually touch down on the ground. I pretend that the closer it is to the ground, the heavier it is (helping me exhale deeper). Whenever I start to get upset, I just go to my little balloon and suitcase and breathe up-and-down, up-and-down. I tend to be a shallow breather anyway so I realize this can be difficult at first. But it's made a difference for me when I really start to lose my cool about something, because the breathing calms you down physically while the visualization forces your brain to take a break from its panicked thinking.

On preview, I also agree with xingcat's approach to letting yourself work through the anxiety. Use your head's 'what-if' tendencies for good (rather than destruction!). Writing it down might help to organize your thoughts a bit instead of letting them run all willy-nilly throughout your consciousness.
posted by lovableiago at 8:50 AM on April 24, 2014 [7 favorites]

I deal with anxiety by staying as physically active as I possibly can. Hiking, snowshoeing, swimming, yoga, kettle bells, and my personal savior, hula hooping. The latter especially because it fosters such creativity. When I start to feel anxiety building up, I grab a hoop and hoop through a few songs and it's rare that doesn't calm me down immensely. Some people feel the same way about running, biking, team sports, etc. You have to find the thing that works for you.

So in short, keep moving. Make yourself sweat. Bonus if you can do it outside while soaking up the sunshine. As a former couch dweller, I can say this changed my life completely. I'm still anxious, but boy do I manage it more effectively now.
posted by futureisunwritten at 8:57 AM on April 24, 2014 [10 favorites]

Exercise helps me immensely, both as an immediate way to help dispel anxiety/depression and in the long run. Ideally you should have a regular workout that you enjoy, but if you really don't have the time, do something brief and challenging like twenty pushups or a few sets of tabata squats.

Additionally, you mention having been in therapy, but are you seeing anyone now - either a therapist or a psychiatrist who manages your medication? It sounds like your current treatment is a holdover from a while back, and if your anxiety is still severe enough that it interferes with your ability to do things you want or need to do (like go to the store), it's time to reevaluate your treatment plan. A change in medication or a different style of therapy could do the trick.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:03 AM on April 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Exercise. Not even vigorous I-have-to-plan-for-it exercise, but "when my anxiety rears up I take a twenty minute walk" exercise. Or even just "pardon me I have to go into the handicapped stall in the bathroom and do ten wall pushups" exercise. It can help mediate the fight-or-flight response to anxiety, because see! look! my muscles are making lactic acid, I am clearly either fighting or fleeing! Or put on music you love and dance, or do a yoga Sun Salutation. Anything to get your brain back into your body.

To do lists. Sometimes my cognition shuts down to the point where I can't hold a whole process in my head; having a list helps me focus on one step at a time. If I'm too overwhelmed to even figure out where to start, I write the list backwards -- what does it look like when it's finished? Well, OK, so what's the last thing I will do before it's finished? What will I do right before that? etc. Sometimes attacking the problem backwards can short-circuit my brain's ability to run me into ruts.

20/10s. The Unfuck Your Habitat app has a 20/10 timer, where you alternate 20 minutes of work with 10 minutes of whatever you want. If your cognition is too broken up to support 20 minutes of unbroken work, you can do these as 10/5s or even 5/2s.

I have not used the Anxiety and Phobia Workbook but I have many friends who have used it to excellent success.
posted by KathrynT at 9:16 AM on April 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Meditation really, really helps. You don't have to do it perfectly, you don't have to wear special clothes or sit in a special place. It may take a while to learn to meditate for more than a few minutes at a time; that's okay.

Exercise, fresh air and sunshine help, so try to get outside and walk, run, bike, whatever. It's hard to get started, but the benefits are quite real.

Music. Find music that makes you feel good, and play it.
posted by theora55 at 9:17 AM on April 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

I recently started doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and it is has been so helpful for my anxiety!

Also doing guided breathing (i.e. meditation) is really helpful as well. I like the app

You mention that you have been on Zoloft for a while. SSRIs have a tendency to "poop out" and basically stop working. It might be worth trying to switch meds.
posted by radioamy at 10:16 AM on April 24, 2014

Let yourself sit with the anxiety some before trying to move on. Something as simple as checking the door when you thought you heard a weird noise helps so much -- it's saying, anxiety, you have a point and I will respond. It's amazing how much easier it is to calm down after that. (I find that if I try to talk myself out of anxiety that the breathing exercises don't work; if I acknowledge that some fear is valid, then the breathing helps afterwards.) For things like going to the store, don't tell yourself it's silly or just a store or anything like that. Acknowledge that going to the store is difficult and try to do other easy things before and after that with your day. If you find that grocery shopping is easier at one store than another, try to shop primarily there. (For me it's Trader Joe's because it's small, easy to find everything, and there aren't many brand choices.) For going to class, that might mean arriving at school twenty minutes early and walking around the campus a bit before class -- walking helps calm a lot of people down.

Also don't be afraid you use your medication. If you are really not supposed to use it often, make an appointment for medication adjustment. (Take some medication if it will help you call to make an appointment or to actually go; let them know that these things were necessary, if you do, so that they can see the level of difficulty you are having.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:17 AM on April 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Like others, I highly recommend meditation, but be aware that meditation alone does not stop anxiety. Meditation, in fact, often makes anxiety so much more painful and alive. It's cultivating the willingness to be with the anxiety and not turn away from it that eventually, over years of practice, takes the wind of of anxiety's sail.

Something much more immediate that I find helps me with anxiety EVERY TIME WITHOUT FAIL, and I've been struggling with anxiety for years, is this: I memorize poems and recite them out loud, and I sing songs I know and love. Sing, sing, sing, recite, recite, recite.

I work third shift as a med tech in a home for dementia patients, and much of my time is spent mopping floors reciting poems and singing. It's embarrassing sometimes, because there's another person working with me, and I can't carry a tune; but I've explained to her before that this is just how I cope, and she understands.

An abbreviated list of the poems I like to recite:
To A Waterfowl, W.C. Bryant
Mr. Flood's Party, E.A. Robinson
Metta Sutta (Buddhist poem about goodness)
Stopping By the Woods On a Snowy Evening, Robert Frost
Because I Could Not Stop For Death, Emily Dickinson
The Raven, E.A. Poe
To Be or Not To Be soliloquy from Hamlet
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow soliloquy from Macbeth
and so on.

Songs I like to sing:
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, The Band
The Frug, Rilo Kiley
Rocky Raccoon, The Beatles
That's Why I'm Here, James Taylor
Smackwater Jack, Carol King
Bridge Over Troubled Water, Duncan, Love Me Like a Rock (I sing "Loves me like Barack Obama, she loves me..."), I Am a Rock (I sing "I am Barack! Barack Obama! Barack feels no pain, and Joe Biden never cries..."), Slip Sliding Away, American Tune, America, Celia, and a dozen or so other Paul Simon songs, Paul Simon

There are more songs and poems in my routine, but you get the idea. Just going over them again and again puts me in a good mood even in the midst of crisis, calming anxiety and alleviating the effects of depression.

I wish you luck, friend. If you ever want to talk to someone about your anxiety, there's that MetaFilter email contact thing; feel free to contact me.
posted by jwhite1979 at 1:16 PM on April 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

I really feel for you - I know how disabling anxiety can be. I've had it forever really, but have had two or three very bad bouts of it and here is what has got me through:

- Admittedly Citalopram but also
- exercise (I know, I know..) Running out my worries on a treadmill really helped me
- somehow coming to accept uncertainty. This is a huge thing, I know, but it's what pretty much 'solved' my anxiety. I had sort of obsessive anxiety (lots of 'what ifs' and internet searching for imagined symptoms and reassurance seeking ) I read a book that I can't find the title of but will post when I do, that helped me to live with not knowing.
-Cognitive analytic therapy did so, so much more for me than CBT

I hope you find your solution. It honestly can get better, I never thought I would be free from anxiety but I (mostly) am now x
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 1:21 PM on April 24, 2014

focusing and settling down enough that I’m not panicking when I try to work

Meditation and exercise are so helpful in the long run. But a short-term solution is to not actually focus very hard. Give yourself treats that distract you somewhat from the work, but only while you do the work.

For example, have the TV on and a bowl of popcorn to snack on while you slap down a hasty rough draft of your paper, or lazily edit a draft. If you stop writing, though, turn the TV off and sit and think about how great it will feel when your paper is finished until you decide to start writing again, and then you can have the TV and popcorn again.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 1:37 PM on April 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I highly suggest talking to your doc. ADs poop out and Buspar, while helpful for a few, is a pretty crappy antianxiety med, IMO.

And nthing what everyone else said.
posted by kathrynm at 3:33 PM on April 24, 2014

I've found that a lot of what I need to do to deal with anxiety is take a "so what?" approach:

I don't have time to do this perfectly, but so what? I'm going to get started and see how far I can get.

I don't know how to make this thing, but so what? I'm going to see what I can do because if it's worth doing, it's worth doing badly.

I will deliberately do something wrong on purpose when I start something in order to alleviate my anticipatory anxiety about messing something up.

I endorse eating right and exercising. Meditation is not something I find helpful because I am not good at holding still, but it's worth trying out.


Sometimes when I am particularly stressed I notice my breathing becomes shallow or I feel extremely stifled.

This sounds like the early stages of a panic attack. Talk to your doctor about adjusting your medication.
posted by bile and syntax at 5:10 PM on April 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is about papers? Yes, absolutely, I can relate. You can go to your school's learning skills advisor and get help breaking things down into steps, if it's overwhelming. Start with the easiest thing. Go somewhere new to write - a library or cafe (if you can do it there) - so you're not stuck in the same room you've been freaking out in.

As far as writing in a state, I've made use of many of the suggestions in these threads, which I've got bookmarked :)

Help me stop procrastinating, stop panicking, and get my schoolwork back on track

How do I write quickly and intelligently?

How long should writing a paper take, on average?

Essay writing for dummies

Two Papers Due Simultaneously, No Extensions, and Utterly No Will to Work

Another thing you could try is ask at least some of your professors for extensions on medical grounds. Extra time might ease up enough of the pressure to let you approach your work in a more relaxed frame of mind.

(nb: this is something I am working on myself and haven't yet been able to completely crack.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:11 PM on April 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hug a dog. No, seriously... doesn't have to be your own.
posted by guy72277 at 2:34 AM on April 25, 2014

The technique and approach described in this TED talk by Kelly McGonigal (15 min) has turned out to be my number one most helpful way of dealing with stress.
posted by jessicapierce at 10:46 AM on April 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

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