Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
While it might feel like everyone you know is in therapy, more than a third of Americans live in an area with a shortage of mental-health professionals; plus, the need for therapy has only increased during the pandemic. Aside from that, so much goes into actually finding a therapist that we often breeze over — including the time needed to find one and the money that it takes to continually attend, especially if it’s an out-of-network provider — it’s easy to see that not everyone who needs therapy actually has access to it. So what can you do when systemic barriers stand in the way of therapy, especially when it comes to managing anxiety?
Instead of fighting our anxiety, Dr. Wendy Suzuki, a psychology professor at the Center for Neural Science at New York University, believes we should better understand it. “Anxiety, at its core, is protective. It is actually critical for our survival,” Dr. Suzuki tells me. Her recent book, Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion, is devoted to reconsidering the role of anxiety in our lives and what we can do to live with it. Here are the five tools Dr. Suzuki recommends to cope.
In moments of distress, when a panic attack may be setting in, slowing down your breathing is critical. “The science behind deep breathing is that it is activating your natural de-stressing part of your nervous system,” says Dr. Suzuki. It’s called the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest and digest” system. This is the counterpart to the more well-known “fight or flight” part of our nervous system. The best way to activate it? Deep breathing. While there are many different breathing patterns, Dr. Suzuki suggests a box-breathing method because of how simple it is — four counts in, four counts hold, four counts out, and four counts hold. You can do breathing exercises anywhere — even if you’re in the middle of an anxiety-inducing situation — without anyone knowing.
You’re probably tired of hearing this, but exercise really does work. (A lot of other people apparently need to hear it, too: Dr. Suzuki’s 2018 TED Talk about how moving your body can boost your mood has over 31 million views and counting.) “It’s like giving yourself a wonderful neurochemical bubble bath,” she says. Even if it’s just a walk around your home or outside, you release chemicals that help your mood. These could be dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline, and endorphins, which help make you feel happier, less stressed, and less anxious. “It’s not a magical thing. This is neuroscience that you are taking advantage of here,” says Dr. Suzuki. Especially when you feel anxious and you can remove yourself from the situation, it’s helpful to step out of your mind and focus on your body.
Something that therapy offers is the chance to talk and have someone really listen. Even without it, we can teach ourselves and others that same skill. Practicing mindful listening (and having someone mindfully listen to you) is the easiest recommendation that Dr. Suzuki can give — “sometimes just being able to vent to a good friend that will really listen to what is going on in your life can be so relieving for you.” Starting this practice takes little more than reaching out to a friend and asking to chat. Explain that you will listen to what they’re feeling, without interrupting or offering advice, and that you think they can do the same for you.
“It is an act of caring, to listen deeply and without judgment. You are there as a sounding board and to be supportive. You don’t have to solve their problem. That is not the point,” says Dr. Suzuki. “The point is to listen and to take in their situation so they feel heard.”
One way to better manage your anxiety is to understand what provokes it. Most of the anxiety-inducing situations we deal with are not out-of-the-blue surprises, but situations that have been stressors in our lives for a long time. “That’s great because we can prepare for them and identify them,” says Dr. Suzuki. In doing that, you can better prepare yourself to encounter them and have tools already in place. If you tend to get anxious whenever you have a job interview, it could be helpful to look back and try to find the moment when your anxiety began. Was it before the interview, during, or after? By understanding when and why your anxiety started, you can go into the experience next time with a plan to mitigate the stress.
“You can apply those kinds of approaches to every single anxiety-provoking situation in your life. You might think, Oh my God, that takes a lot of preparation. Yes, it does. But once you do that, you start to learn those approaches, and they become more automatic for you,” says Dr. Suzuki. “And they are powerful.”
Dr. Suzuki’s book is called Good Anxiety for a reason — she wants us to understand that anxiety isn’t always bad. It can inform us of our values and offer protection, but it takes self-analysis and time to do so. “A mind-set is just a belief. So how do you shift your mind-set? You have to believe in what you’re shifting it to,” says Dr. Suzuki.
Think of it this way: You might feel overwhelmed trying to make sense of the new Omicron variant, but your anxiety about it can also help keep you safe. Your anxiety doesn’t have to be your enemy in this situation. Dr. Suzuki suggests using it to your benefit by researching the best way to protect yourself. “Shifting your mind-set includes a wonderful opportunity to mitigate the fear of Omicron by educating yourself as much as you can, with sources that you trust, for what your best strategies to travel safely are,” says Dr. Suzuki.
While tools for dealing with anxiety on your own can be helpful, there are times when you might need outside help. Hotlines like the Samaritan Helpline, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline, or the 24/7 Crisis Texting Line can help you during a crisis. For less urgent situations, there are warmlines, service lines that offer emotional support and are staffed by volunteers who have experienced mental-health struggles on their own. Other free resources come in the form of apps, such as Mindshift for meditation and mindfulness exercises, iBreathe for breathing exercises, and Moods for tracking how you feel each day.