Tip Day: Getting out of the Worry Whirlpool

On this past week's Sunday Smorgasbord, one of my readers asked me for hints on breaking free from that maelstrom of worries that so often overwhelms people with eating and/or anxiety disorders.  I'm not saying that I'm an expert on this, because I frequently find myself sucked in to my worries, which never results in anything productive.  Nonetheless, I'm getting better at surviving the worry storms, and here are some of the tricks that I use.

1. Breathe.  It's a classic.  Take a deep breath.  Or several.  Deep breathing is very calming in and of itself.  Besides just breathing, pay attention to your breath as it enters and leaves your body.  Feel your lungs expand.  Feel the tiny hairs on your upper lip ruffle as you exhale.  It's called mindfulness, and it helps bring me back to the present moment and the present problem.

2. Take a break.  It was one of my homework secrets in high school and college: I always started the frustrating work first.  Not just to get it out of the way, but also so that I could take a break and work on something else if and when I got too anxious and frustrated.  Often, walking away from my physics or linear algebra homework, doing something else, and coming back to it after I had calmed down and regrouped made things go so much smoother.  So if balancing your checkbook is causing you to freak out, put the calculator down, do something else, and come back to it.  You will think more clearly and find the task much easier to accomplish.

3. Prepare for the worst.  Yeah, I know, much of The Advice out there is to tell ourselves that our worries are exaggerated and look at them rationally.  Which is a good thing, but often I find it more helpful to just bite the bullet and prepare for the worst.  If the ultimate worry is that I'm going to go broke and end up on the streets, figure out a plan.  What savings do I have?  What resources can I call upon?  What are my other options job-wise?  I don't spend a lot of time on this, but just knowing that even if the worst does happen, I can handle it calms me right down.

4. Animal therapy.  My cat or another furry friend always makes me feel better immediately.  It's like I can exhale just a bit.  Besides, how can a soft, purring kitty not make someone feel better?

5. Distract yourself.  This is a little different from #2, although it can be used as part of the "do something else."  Sometimes what I need isn't another task because I'm too frantic to concentrate.  I need something more distracting and mindless.  For me, watching re-runs of TV shows (I love House) or movies is calming.  They're familiar, as I've probably seen them before, which is soothing in and of itself.  And they get my mind off of whatever I'm worrying about.

6. Talk about it.  This is not something I'm good at.  I hate talking about my worries because what's the point?  Often, no one can help me, and I feel like a burden--or at least a neurotic basketcase.  But even if someone can't do anything about what's got my panties in a knot, just saying it out loud helps.  And many times, my friends and family will have a different way of viewing what's going on that can help, too.

7. Better living through chemistry.  I have a prescription for lorazepam (Ativan) for when I'm freaking out, panicky, and nothing else has worked.  Or I'm so wound up that using a coping skill is just ludicrous.  I resisted for a long time because I was afraid that benzodiazepenes were addictive, and I didn't want to just pop a pill.  But even just knowing that I have the pills in reserve helps me get through bad situations because I know I have something to make it better.

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hm said...

Great tips. I'm a big believer in yoga breathing- oxygen to the body and brain can do wonders- deep, slow breaths all the way down to the gut. Ever hear of alternate nostril breathing? It sounds strange, but is strangely effective and does wonders to "center" and soothe a racing mind. I also love "talk about it"- so true- shadows become monsters when kept in the dark- telling someone is like turning on a light and helps you to see things for what they are instead of as the monsters your anxiety would tell you they are. And "prepare for the worst"- that's got to be one of my favorite coping mechanisms. I LOVE picturing the absolute worst case scenario, and how I would cope with it. It helps me to feel capable and strong. And that lets me know I can handle the more probable, lesser outcomes. Very effective strategies. Great post.

Jen said...

Great tips, Carrie. I add "Mindfulness" (the practice of being present - one tool can be as simple as stroking your hand and focusing on that) to the list and rely on a couple of small paperbacks by Thich Nhat Hang: Present Moment, Wonderful Moment - Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living; and Peace is Every Step - The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. The first section of the latter focuses on "Breathe! You are Alive!".

Jen said...

Apologies! I misspelled this wonderful man's last name. It is Hanh. Too early in the morning to hit the right key.

Cathy (UK) said...

Animal (cat) therapy is very important to me :) I got two kittens in 2007 when I was a year into recovery. They were so cute, so beguiling and needed so much attention that I stopped thinking how anxious I was. They really took my mind off my worries. They're now big cats and less needy, but still absolutely therapeutic.

I must admit that talking to others (face-to-face or over the phone) about my problems is something I find really difficult. I have some wonderful friends who tell me "just call me if you need to talk", but somehow it's so difficult. I feel I'm burdening them and I hate showing my emotions in front of others. Sometimes I just call someone for a chat about something else, which is much easier. It means I'm not isolating myself, but also not having to do the 'emotion thing'.

hm said...

Cathy (UK)- You could try to get things out via email- I agree- face to face is horribly intimidating and the phone can be so awkward! But when you type you get to take the floor in the privacy of your own home, and then read responses also in private- much easier- it is the process of expressing fears and worries that is helpful, not the method. :)

EmilyH said...

I like to call my kitty "my therapy cat". Similar to how therapy dogs sense when their owner is panicky and in need of tactic stimulation, my cat senses my need and comes to my side. He rubs his head against mine, balls up in my lap, and demonstrates what relaxing looks like. He reminds me that I am needed because my lap is all he needs to be happy.


Anonymous said...

Great tips, thank you... and I wanted to add that POETRY is a great inspiration/help (either writing it or reading it depending on your interests--or both!)

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

from Dream Work by Mary Oliver
published by Atlantic Monthly Press
© Mary Oliver

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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