MSU faculty offers tips to calm your own anxiety

October 10, 2019 - Caroline Brooks

Managing symptoms of anxiety doesn’t need to require a trip to a therapist or an expensive yoga class. In fact, it doesn’t need to involve anything but time with yourself.

While it’s important to seek help for mental health, Michigan State University psychology professor Jason Moser’s research uncovers effective strategies to bring anxiety levels down on your own.

Moser, who directs MSU’s Clinical Psychophysiology Lab, focuses his research on the ability to regulate cognition, emotion and behavior, and how this plays a role in treating anxiety and depression. Moser explained that not all mental health resources are available to the general public, which is why self-help tools are useful for those suffering from heightened stress, anxiety or depression. Below, you’ll find his top three tips.

Talk to yourself about yourself.

Something that we call, “third-person self-talk” can be used across the board: as your anticipating a stressful event, as you’re feeling anxiety in the moment, or when you’re dealing with something that caused stress and anxiety in the past, like rejection or failure.

To do this, you talk to yourself about the stressful experience, referring to yourself in third-person. This could be a series of questions; for example, I don’t like taking airplanes. Before boarding, it’d be something like, “Jason doesn’t want to get on the plane. Why? Because Jason is scared about the plane crashing. Isn’t that unlikely? Yes, but it still happens. Doesn’t it happen infrequently? Yes. So should Jason be afraid? Maybe not.”

In a nutshell, what happens is that you’re creating a psychological distance between you and the issue you’re facing. When you’re using your own name, the brain switches to another mode as if you’re talking to someone else.

We’ve done experiments in our lab where we’ve been able to capture neuroimaging while participants go through this self-talk and see brain activity shift dramatically, changing how people feel and how they ruminate on something. It’s as if they’re giving advice to a friend, or what we call “reframing” an issue in a different light.

This is one of my favorite methods because of the flexibility element – being able to use it in-the-moment for past, present or future situations. A really exciting feature of this strategy is that our neuroimaging data also suggests that it’s not as effortful as other strategies used to regulate emotions.

Take a minute to take a breath.

If you’re not one of those people who can roll with living your life “completely present in the moment” as all the mindfulness people preach, it’s not for you. People get wrapped up in the process of “being mindful” and if you’re one of those people whose head is always racing, it’s intimidating, and you might get frustrated trying and getting distracted.

But, we found that there’s a simpler and more effective way that isn’t as intimidating as becoming mindful – it’s simply meditating for 15 minutes.

The nice thing about mediation is that, much like self-talk, it’s flexible and there are so many online resources and apps to guide you. If you can just sit for 15 minutes a few times a week – uninterrupted and paying attention to your breath – it can be helpful.

If you can find an audio that works for you, sit for a short block of time, practice deep breathing, let whatever thoughts come and go (but don’t chase them or get stuck with them), it’s so helpful. Doing this, you’re disengaging from negative emotions. It’s also helpful for processing mistakes and moving on.

There are great examples available online for free.

Something that I use with a lot of clients is diaphragmatic breathing – so what we mean by “taking a deep breath.” It’s simple and the focus is on the exhale, not the inhale as many people think. When we inhale deeply, you fill all your muscles with oxygen which tells your body it needs to mobilize – it’s essentially activating the fight or flight response.

So instead, take a normal breath in and exhale for a very long time. This tells our body that we’re in a safe place.

I tell people to put one hand on their chest and one hand on their abdomen, then make sure that the breath from you belly comes out before your chest.
This is really what the core of mindfulness is teaching us. If you can’t be mindful and you can’t meditate, you can take some of this diaphragmatic breathing in-the-moment to help you focus and center yourself.

Take notes…and toss them.

We’ve done something called “expressive writing” that is flexible too, but is most helpful when you’re anticipating something.

Our recent research showed that, if you tend to be a worrier or anxious person, sit down before your test, your date, your stressful work day, your presentation, whatever it is, and write down on paper all the things you’re worrying about. Get them out of your head – this is basically “giving yourself a brain dump.”

Five to 10 minutes before whatever anxious event you’re anticipating, write all those things out as much as you can.

The idea is that all the negative stuff in your head is clogging your ability to stay focused on the moment, be in the moment, perform well or focus. With all those anxious thoughts in your head, if you can write them down on paper, you’re essentially getting them out.

It’s freeing up your mind to be more present on what you’re doing in the moment.
Many people use journaling after-the-fact – which can be very helpful for processing trauma or stressful events.

This new research that I find very exciting is that you can use the idea of journaling ahead of time in anticipation of such events.

Some recent research was on middle schoolers taking a math exam. They were asked to expressively write about their feelings about taking their test and performed better than students who were asked to write about unrelated things.

This is much newer and we’ve only done this in a testing environment but it’s easily translated to any negativity in your head that interferes with your ability to focus in the moment.

It sounds cheesy, but “get it out of your own head, get it all on paper – and even go throw it away.” The science says it works though, including brain imaging findings that back it up.