How to Tame Your Anxiety: A Guide Based on Science

Article by Dr. Kyler Shumway

I’m from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere in Idaho. As a kid, I was a lot like most other kids. I grew up on a farm out in the country.  I had a mom and a dad, three younger sisters, a younger brother, and a puppy.  I loved playing video games and fantasy adventures, and I used to go out into the woods near my house with a broom handle (which I pretended was a sword) and I would pretend I was a brave, valiant knight protecting the realm.

So yeah, I was a bit weird. 

But one thing made me different from most kids.

Starting from a really young age, I quickly realized that people terrified me.  I used to get so bunched up, tense, and nauseous when I needed to do anything social.  I’d do whatever it took to avoid going to school, church, or even sleepovers and those sorts of things.  I even played sick so that I could skip out, which led to my parents not believing me, which led to me puking all over the place during worship at church one Sunday.  Although anxiety does run in my family, things became so much worse for me because of the bullying I experienced growing up.  

See, what I didn’t know then that I know now is that I was suffering from unmanaged, out-of-control social anxiety.  Each interaction felt like a performance, like I was being judged and criticized by everyone around me. 

This impacted my life in so many ways.  I was an athlete, and a pretty good one – good enough to get a full ride at Duke University to throw shot put.  But each time I needed to perform in front of a crowd, I would panic.  My mind would race faster than my frantic heartbeat, and all those years of practice would suddenly leave me, causing failure over and over and over again.  I never reached my full potential as an athlete because my anxiety held me back.

I didn’t reach out and make friends.  I spent most of my time alone, playing video games or lifting weights.  And in those moments of isolation, my anxiety would fade and be replaced by loneliness.  The more I withdrew and avoided, the worse things got for me.

Fast forward a few years.  Here I am now, a licensed psychologist and leader of one of the top therapy practices in Texas. My day job involves talking to people for hours on end.  I’ve given a TEDx talk and spoken at conferences all across the nation.  I have a wife, awesome friends, and so many fond memories of togetherness and connection.

How did I get from then to now? 

I had to learn to begin to face my fears in order to have the life I wanted.  I went to therapy and began to understand my anxiety for what it was.  I learned that avoiding the situation reinforces the fear – each time we avoid, we feel relief, which causes our minds to amplify the anxious feelings the next time the situation arises. 

What worked for me will also work for you. 

Have Anxiety without Anxiety Having You

You have to learn to have the anxiety without the anxiety having you.  This means choosing to do the things that you value (or that will help you get there eventually), even if it’s uncomfortable.  Just like going to the gym and exercising your muscles, you have to experience the strain of being social in order to get stronger and better at it.  And just like how it’s easier to work out with a buddy, consider working with a therapist who can support you along the way. 

And this is hard work!  You have to purposefully put yourself in situations, over and over and over again, where your anxiety will show up. 

Does this mean signing up to start giving presentations in front of large crowds?  Not necessarily.  You have to start small.  If all you can handle is 5 minutes of small talk with a stranger each day, start there.  As you build up a tolerance for those anxious feelings, you’ll quickly discover that not only do the feelings tend to fade, but that you are capable of doing more than you thought.  And even if the anxiety doesn’t fully go away, at least you can live the life you want to.

How to Tame Your Anxiety, Using Science

Anxiety is a natural and universal emotion that we all experience from time to time. It can be a useful signal that something is important or challenging, and it can motivate us to take action. However, sometimes anxiety can get out of hand and interfere with our daily lives. It can make us feel overwhelmed, fearful, or nervous, and it can affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

When this happens, we may try to avoid the things that trigger our anxiety, hoping that it will go away.

But this only gives anxiety more power and makes it grow bigger.

So, how can we deal with anxiety in a healthy and effective way? The good news is that there are many strategies that can help us not just cope with anxiety, but learn to accept and make choices based on values, rather than comfort.

In this article, we will explore some of these strategies and how they can help you tame your anxiety and live a more fulfilling life.

Tip #1 – Focus on Maslow’s Bottom

If you’ve taken courses in psychology, then you’ve probably heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

Maslow proposed that your needs need to be met in a certain order of priority. For example, if you are surviving a zombie apocalypse, you may need to feel physically safe a tad bit more than you might need to feel good about yourself.  

The bottom of the hierarchy includes our physiological needs – sleep, food, water, and shelter.

These are the most basic and essential needs for human survival and well-being. Without fulfilling these needs, people may experience physical and mental distress, such as hunger, thirst, fatigue, illness, pain, depression and, you guessed it, anxiety

If you aren’t taking care of yourself at a very basic level, you’ll never overcome the overwhelm of anxious thoughts and feelings. If you aren’t sure what you are missing, consider the following:

  • Eat a balanced and nutritious diet that provides enough energy and nutrients for our body. Avoid skipping meals or eating junk food that can harm our health. If we have any dietary restrictions or allergies, we should consult a doctor or a nutritionist for advice.
  • Drink water. Water helps regulate our body temperature, flush out toxins, lubricate our joints, and support our brain function. The recommended amount of water intake varies depending on our age, weight, activity level, and climate.
  • Improve your sleep hygiene. If nothing else, focus on waking up at the exact same time every day, even on the weekends, even when you feel exhausted. Your body will get in a rhythm, but only if you teach it to do so. 

Tip #2 – Broaden Your Awareness Through Mindfulness

One of the best ways to manage anxiety is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to the present moment, without judging or reacting to your thoughts, feelings, or sensations. By being mindful, you can learn to accept your anxiety as a normal part of life, and not let it control you. You can also learn to calm your mind and body and focus on what matters to you. 

When people think of mindfulness, they tend to picture meditation and yoga poses. While those things can help you focus and be more present, there are so many other ways to be mindful:

  • Lift weights – try to focus as intensely as you can on how your body feels in every movement
  • Try a sensory deprivation chamber (one of our favorites in Houston) – if you have the resources, this is a great way to get into your body
  • Journal – journaling offers so many benefits, one of them being that you can actually see your thoughts on paper
  • Slow down – take time to notice small things, little details
  • Talk to a therapist – therapists and counselors can help you with anxiety, but they can also guide you through mindful practices that will pay dividends in all areas of life

Tip #3 – Avoid the Avoidance

 One of the main goals of ACT therapy is to help people avoid avoidance, which is the tendency to escape or avoid unpleasant thoughts, feelings, or situations. Avoidance can be a coping mechanism that temporarily reduces anxiety, but it can also prevent people from facing their fears and living a fulfilling life. According to ACT therapy, avoidance can be overcome by practicing the following steps:

  • Acceptance: This means acknowledging and embracing the full range of your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Instead of trying to change or suppress them, you can learn to observe them as they are and let them pass without reacting to them.
  • Cognitive de-fusion: This means distancing yourself from your thoughts and seeing them as mental events rather than facts. You can use techniques such as labeling your thoughts (e.g., “I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough”), repeating them in a silly voice, or imagining them as clouds in the sky. This can help you reduce their impact and influence on your behavior.
  • Being present: This means focusing on the here and now, rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. You can use mindfulness skills such as breathing exercises, meditation, or body scans to bring your attention to the present moment and notice what is happening in your body and environment.
  • Self-as-context: This means recognizing that you are more than your thoughts, feelings, or roles. You can use techniques such as writing a personal mission statement, creating a self-portrait, or using metaphors (e.g., “I am the sky, not the weather”) to connect with your sense of self that is constant and stable regardless of your circumstances.
  • Identify your values: This means identifying what matters to you and what gives your life meaning and purpose. You can use exercises such as ranking your values, writing a values statement, or creating a vision board to clarify your values and how they guide your actions.
  • Committed action: This means taking steps that are consistent with your values and goals, even if they involve facing your fears or discomfort. You can use strategies such as setting SMART goals, breaking down tasks into manageable steps, or using rewards and incentives to motivate yourself and track your progress.

Tip #4 – Don’t Wait for Anxiety to Go Away… Start Living, Today

You don’t have to let your anxiety stop you from living the life you want.

You also don’t have to do this alone. Therapy can be a helpful and effective way to cope with your anxiety. A therapist can provide you with guidance, support, feedback, and tools to help you face your fears and achieve your goals. Therapy can also help you address any underlying issues that may contribute to your anxiety, such as trauma, depression, or low self-esteem.

If therapy makes you feel a bit anxious, now is your chance to avoid the avoidance. Take the first step. 

Want to work with the best anxiety therapists in Texas? Contact us today.

Deep Eddy Psychotherapy hires the best anxiety therapists in the state of Texas. Our counselors can treat social anxiety, generalized anxiety, posttraumatic stress, self-esteem and self-worth issues, and more.

Become a part of our Deep Eddy community, and contact us today. 

Go deep with one of our therapists.