• Sarah Lyall-Neal PsyD

Anxiety SOS

This post is a straight up action plan for those days when your anxiety gets the best of you. We all have those days (for real). Some of us just have more of them than others.


You’ve been there, you are lying in bed in the morning after the alarm and it feels like the weight of the world has settled on you. Maybe you have nausea or a lump in your throat. You haul yourself out of the bed because that’s what you do. You get ready and start your day. Will things get better? Maybe, but only if you take action.



First Stop.


Do not try to power through this feeling. Severe anxiety affects you both physically and mentally. The world can wait for you to take a 10-minute pause to regroup and ready yourself to conquer the upcoming day.


Your Toolkit


Deep Breathing: Place a hand on your stomach, so you can physically feel your stomach going in and out. Take a deep breath through your nose and let your stomach push your hand out without moving your chest. Breath out through pursed lips (like a fish) and let the hand on your stomach push your stomach in. Do this from 3 to 5 times. Remember breath in slowly and breath out slowly, this is not a race. As you breath notice your shoulders coming down from your chin and the release of tension in your jaw. When we are experiencing anxiety, a lot of times we unconsciously hold our breath. This reduction in oxygen can lead to increased feelings of panic.


Happy Place Visualization Exercise: Visualization is an excellent way to calm down and lower your heartrate. I have been sharing the Happy Place exercise with my clients for years with excellent results. I use it myself from time to time (it’s a cheap vacation). The idea is to go to a place where you feel happy, the place can be real or imaginary, and take in the environment with all the senses.


Example Happy Place: The Beach at night, when there is a moon casting a glow over the water (Be specific)


Sight- The waves are rolling gently toward the shore and the moon is casting a glow over the water. In the distance you can see a large Ferris Wheel and tall hotels. Lights can be seen in the windows of the condos that line the shoreline.

Sound- The ocean has a light roaring sound. Seagulls can be heard searching about for food. There is the distant sound of music coming from a condo where the door is open onto the deck.


Smell- You can smell saltwater and the slightly cooler night air.

Taste- not eating in this scene, no taste.


Touch- Your feet are touching the packed sand down by the water and occasionally a freezing cold wave washes over your foot.


I’m guessing if you have ever walked on the beach at night, you went there in your mind as your read the sample happy place. I got the luxury of going there in my mind as I typed that for you. The fun part about the happy place exercise is that your brain doesn’t know you aren’t actually there. When you go to your happy place in your mind you get the exact same relaxation benefits as actually being there (for real). Another fantastic thing about the happy place exercise is that you can do it anytime you want for as long as you want. Sometimes all you need is a mini vacation to get yourself reset and ready to tackle the day.


Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)


The term Progressive Muscle Relaxation is all about releasing the tension in your body. Take a quick inventory of your body right now. Are you holding tension anywhere? Check your upper back? Your jaw? Your neck? Chances are you found some tightness and you are currently stretching it out. When you are experiencing severe anxiety, this tightness gets amplified. This is why this simple technique is super helpful in the battle against anxiety.


You will want to find a nice comfy chair or lie down on the bed or couch. Close your eyes (trust me this helps). Start with a few deep breaths, using the technique above. Now, go through each of the following muscle groups lightly tensing the muscles (3 to 5 seconds) and then releasing them.


Forehead- yep you have to start at the top


Jaw- squeeze and release, notice the release of tension


Neck and shoulders- For this one, you will simply bring your shoulders up toward your ears and hold it…then release.


Arms and hands- for this one you will want to slowly draw your hands into a fist and hold it…then release.


Buttocks- yep you can even store tension in your bottom, squeeze, hold…and release.


Legs- This is a two part one, first squeeze your thighs, hold it, and release, then squeeze your calves, hold it, and release.


Feet- squeeze the muscles in your feet as much as possible, hold it…release.


Enjoy the feeling of the tension releasing. Wrap up with three more deep breaths.


Grab your bible


I save this part of the article for last, not because it is least important, but because it is MOST important. This is the part of the process that is going to work on your mindset and give you peace, but to get here you have got to get your physiology under control. It’s hard to read a book when you are so wired you can’t concentrate.


This one requires a little prep work to be done before the moment of crisis. Get some sticky notes, a highlighter pen, or anything that can be inserted into your Bible to mark some verses. I know most of you already have some favorite go to verses, but in case you need a little assistance, here are three of my favorites.


· Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)


· Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)


· “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.” (Jeremiah 29: 11-13)


Keep these verses readily available and add a few of your own for when you need a quick reminder that you are not alone and God’s got this!


Look under the freebies tab on the website for a printable PDF of the tools mentioned in this post.










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