By Kimberley Rodriguez, LMFT, CAP
With over 20 years of experience in the mental health field, 14 of those specific to addressing substance use, I am often working with patients with anxiety. I also moderate the Addressing anxiety while managing your drinking virtual support group for Monument. Anxiety is incredibly common for people who struggle with unhealthy drinking behaviors, and is a challenge that many people face at one point or another. In fact, 40-million American adults, nearly 18% of the population, have been diagnosed with some variation of anxiety. So, if you’re experiencing anxious feelings, you are not alone.
And with some direction, you can make significant progress in coping with those feelings. Here are tools for you to sharpen so that you’re prepared to intercept and manage signs of anxiety when they begin to creep in. The more we practice anxiety management, the easier it gets.
Let’s start by defining anxiety.
By the American Psychological Association’s definition, anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. However, anxiety can manifest in all sorts of ways. There is no single definition. If you’re looking to understand if you’re experiencing anxiety, a safe place to start is by asking yourself these questions:
- Does my mind frequently race?
- Is it challenging for me to sit still? Do I often feel like I have to do something?
- Am I a people pleaser? Is it difficult for me to say no?
- Do I frequently put myself down to boost others up?
- I am regularly asking myself, what if____?
If you’ve answered yes to any or all of these questions, you’re in the right place. Even if none of those questions ring true, cultivating tools to recenter and maintain groundedness can be useful for anyone, no matter what you’re working with.
For someone taking a close look at their unhealthy relationships, including their unhealthy relationship with alcohol, it’s crucial to build coping skills to have in your back pocket.
The first tool I’ll talk about is breath-work.
Yes, we’re breathing every second of every day. We don’t tend to notice it. When we’re anxious, however, our breathing can feel short, or our chest might feel tight. This is a common symptom of anxiety that you can tackle in the moment with some preparation and practice. Enter: breath-work.
What would happen if we paused and listened to our breath? Let’s find out. Think about slowing it down with as much patience and control as feels tolerable. Naturally, we’re not accustomed to this. But we can practice it, and add it to our toolbox.
Here’s a simple breathing technique to try out:
Inhale… 4 seconds
Notice if your anxiety levels have decreased — even a little bit. Breath-work is a deeply personal practice, and however it looks, or however long you go, is exactly as it should.
My second tool is ‘being here now’.
Anxiety is often fueled by worry. We worry about all kinds of future what-if scenarios. We wrack our brains for every single possible outcome (primarily negative ones!). Perhaps you worry about your relationships, your family, your career, health. I assure you you are not alone. This is an incredibly common symptom of anxiety.
When you’re starting to feel that overwhelming worry about the future, flag it. Taking a moment to allow yourself to step away from those thoughts is an act of self-love. Instead of focusing on the future, ground yourself in your present situation. Here’s a simple yet effective technique to do that: seek out immediate comfort via the five sense (and one bonus):
- Taste: Is there one that’s comforting to you? Have a bite.
- Sight: Is there an image that’s reminiscent of joy? Peace? Take a look.
- Touch: Is there a fabric that’s soft to the touch? A blanket? Feel it.
- Smell: Do you have a favorite scent? A candle or an essential oil? Smell it.
- Sound: Can you play an upbeat song or sounds of the ocean on loop? Hear it.
- Movement: Yoga? A run? Dancing around your living room? Get active.
If we work on grounding ourselves in the present, we can break the cycle of spiraling negative thoughts about future what-ifs. Instead of allowing our thoughts to take over, we can build new, healthy coping mechanisms that will ultimately become habitual.
Next up: more on self-care
In the throws of anxiety, we often neglect our needs. Tending to others before tending to ourselves becomes second nature. But it doesn’t have to.
Try this: Imagine yourself giving yourself a big, tight, warm embrace. This probably feels good and safe. This embrace can take many different forms. Think of those moments when you feel comforted. Is that when you’re taking a warm bath? Baking? Watching reality TV re-runs? Going on a walk with your pet or with a friend? Maybe it even looks like an actual, big, tight, bearhug. Giving yourself unconditional love in those moments of restlessness, fear, and worry decreases the intensity of anxiety. You deserve some compassion, and it may surprise you how relieving it feels.
And last but not least, the importance of ‘no.’
It is easy to fall into the pattern of compromising yourself to prioritize others.
It’s easier to say yes than no, even when that means self-sacrifice. However, the positive impacts of saying ‘no’ can span well beyond any immediate feeling of relief when saying ‘yes.’ Setting boundaries with confidence, compassion, and assertiveness can cultivate a more empowered you. When our decisions are aligned with self-love and self-care, we can show up for both ourselves, and for others better than we would have before — free of anger, fear, shame, and anxiety.
Think about your decisions, and how they align with your goals, values, and desires. Say yes to things that get you closer to your authentic self, and ‘no’ to those that do not serve you.
Anxiety is absolutely and completely normal. It’s to be expected. You are making some major changes for yourself, potentially for your family or community, and you are not alone in feeling overwhelmed. I understand that there will be moments when anxiety feels bigger than you, and I also know that it is absolutely possible to find balance — even in those moments where it feels unimaginable. My hope is that these tactics can provide relief. Each skill is a practice and takes practice itself. Nothing comes easy if it’s worth having. But you can do it.
About Me: I have been in the mental health field for the past 20 years. I have been licensed in Marriage, Family, and Addiction Therapy for the past 14 years. I specialize in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Crisis intervention Therapy, Motivational Interviewing, Compassion Focused Therapy, Solution Focused Therapy, Interpersonal Therapy, Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Systemic Family Therapy, Mindfulness Therapy, Group Therapy and Play Therapy. I have worked with ages 5- 85 who have had alcohol, gambling, and drug issues, low self-esteem, family and relational discord, PTSD, depression, anxiety eating disorders, grief and loss issues, anger and rage issues, domestic violence, sexual abuse, cultural issues, ADHD, abandonment issues, attachment issues, aging and geriatric issues, codependency, life-threatening health issues, communication issues, compulsive issues, elder abuse, and Family of Origin issues. I have worked with people diagnosed as Antisocial, Narcissistic, Bipolar, Dual Diagnosis, Schizophrenia, and other mental health issues.