Hello Lyss, and thank you for taking the time to reach out for help and support with regard to the distress you are experiencing. Significant changes in one’s life, especially when one is unable to engage in certain behaviors that once helped reduce anxiety and stress, can absolutely exacerbate the experience of stress in one’s life as you are presently experiencing from your message. That being said, I can certainly provide you with some tips to begin the healing process and through regular practice and even the use of additional support (be if friends, a family that you can and do feel supported by, and even regular therapy with a mental health professional), you can overcome the distressing symptoms of the anxiety and stress that you are experiencing.
Deep breathing is a simple technique that's excellent for managing emotions. Not only is deep breathing effective, it's also discreet and easy to use at any time or place. Sit comfortably and place one hand on your abdomen. Breath in through your nose, deeply enough that the hand on your abdomen rises. Hold the air in your lungs, and then exhale slowly through your mouth, with your lips puckered as if you are blowing through a straw. The secret is to go slow: Time the inhalation (4s), pause (4s), and exhalation (6s). Practice for 3 to 5 minutes. Progressive Muscle Relaxation is another technique that can help reduce and prevent distressing anxiety levels from occurring. By tensing and relaxing the muscles throughout your body, you can achieve a powerful feeling of relaxation. Additionally, progressive muscle relaxation will help you spot anxiety by teaching you to recognize feelings of muscle tension. Sit back or lie down in a comfortable position. For each area of the body listed below, you will tense your muscles tightly, but not to the point of strain. Hold the tension for 10 seconds, and pay close attention to how it feels. Then, release the tension, and notice how the feeling of relaxation differs from the feeling of tension. (1) Feet- Curl your toes tightly into your feet, then release them. (2) Calves- Point or flex your feet, then let them relax. (3) Thighs- Squeeze your thighs together tightly, then let them relax. (4) Torso- Suck in your abdomen, then release the tension and let it fall. (5) Back- Squeeze your shoulder blades together, then release them. (6) Shoulders- Lift and squeeze your shoulders toward your ears, then let them drop. (7) Arms- Make fists and squeeze them toward your shoulders, then let them drop. (8) Hands- Make a fist by curling your fingers into your palm, then relax your fingers. (9) Face- Scrunch your facial features to the center of your face, then relax. (10) Full Body- Squeeze all muscles together, then release all tension.
Challenging Irrational Thoughts is another excellent technique for addressing one's anxieties and assessing the irrationality of one's thoughts and challenging them to have more realistic, less anxiety-producing and more calming thoughts. Anxiety can be magnified by irrational thoughts. For example, the thoughts that "something bad will happen" or "I will make a mistake" might lack evidence, but still have an impact on how you feel. By examining the evidence and challenging these thoughts, you can reduce anxiety. Put thoughts on trial. Choose a thought that has contributed to your anxiety. Gather evidence in support of your thought (verifiable facts only), and against your thought. Compare the evidence and determine whether your thought is accurate or not. Use Socratic questioning. Question the thoughts that contribute to your anxiety. Ask yourself: "Is my thought based on facts or feelings?"; "How would my best friend see this situation?"; "How likely is it that my fear will come true?"; "What's most likely to happen?"; "If my fear comes true, will it still matter in a week? A month? A year?". Imagery is another excellent tool is addressing anxiety. Your thoughts have the power to change how you feel. If you think of something sad, it's likely you'll start to feel sad. The opposite is also true: When you think of something positive and calming, you feel relaxed. The imagery technique harnesses this power to reduce anxiety. Think of a place that you find comforting. It could be a secluded beach, your bedroom, a quiet mountaintop, or even a loud concert. For 5 to 10 minutes, use all your senses to imagine this setting in great detail. Don't just think fleetingly about this place--really imagine it. What do you see around you? What do you notice in the distance? Look all around to take in all your surroundings. Look for small details you would usually miss. What sounds can you hear? Are they soft or loud? Listen closely to everything around you. Keep listening to see if you notice any distant sounds. Are you eating or drinking something enjoyable? What is the flavor like? How does it taste? Savor all the tastes of the food or drink. What can you feel? What is the temperature like? Think of how the air feels on your skin, and how your clothes feel on your body. Soak in all these sensations. What scents are present? Are they strong or faint? What does the air smell like? Take some time to appreciate the scents.
Furthermore, based on what you have written in your question, it appears as if there was a lot of emphasis on the gym and that the gym was perhaps your only, or main coping skill or activity in which you enjoyed. This is the equivalent to “putting all your eggs in one basket” so to speak, and now that the “basket” has “dropped,” you have no “eggs” so to speak. By diversifying your interests and developing interests and finding joy in other activities in a more balanced way, you can alleviate the anxiety and distress you are experiencing by having a wide variety of activities to engage in in order to find joy and fulfillment in. Perhaps some of the suggestions below can serve as a good list of some ideas, or you can also develop your own.
In the spirit of giving you some additional quick tips as to help create some more emotional stabilization as, as well as to provide some suggestions for activities in which you can find pleasure and joy while you are unable to find those emotions through going to the gym, I will recommend Dialectical Behavioral Therapy techniques and resources for you to research and use. I have written here some of them to get you started to help by engaging in the activities when you notice yourself starting to feel one of those intense emotions to help decrease the frequency, intensity, and duration of the distress.
Distress Tolerance with ACCEPTS:
WHEN TO USE THIS SKILL: “When I’m so overwhelmed I can’t think or talk. I don’t want to do anything harmful to myself or anyone else, but what I’m feeling feels intolerable.”
HOW TO USE THIS SKILL: This skill focuses on the ability to distract through ACCEPTS to help decrease dysregulation (feeling emotionally out of control) and be able to tolerate distress.
A - Activity: What other activities can you think of that you can get involved in and distract yourself from your distress? Make a list of your activities and put it up on your refrigerator, so you can find it in a hurry. Here, we can call upon hobbies, chores, or other activities that serve to gain attention. Playing guitar, going for walk, organizing a closet, food shopping, or playing Frisbee are all good examples. If you choose to accomplish a chore, then you’re killing two birds with one stone – you’re effectively distracting yourself and completing a necessary task at the same time.
C- Contributing: Whether you choose to volunteer time for a community cause, help a friend who’s shorthanded at work, or babysit your nephew, you’re doing something productive that requires focus. Contributing to the needs of someone else can help us to feel good about ourselves too, and building self-esteem is always a good thing. Meanwhile, we’re accomplishing the goal of distraction, allowing us to calm down and make a higher quality decision.
C- Comparison: As human beings, we can’t help but compare ourselves to others. The point of this distraction technique is to gain perspective by making such comparisons. Sometimes all we need to do is compare our own situation now versus a previous time when we were considerably worse off in order to regain a healthy sense of gratitude. It may be enlightening to consider people who live in impoverished circumstances, or those who have limited access to friends and loved ones, to remember just how fortunate we are compared to those who have less.
E- Emotions (other): Read emotional books, go to emotional movies, listen to emotional music. For this to work, you need to read or watch or listen to things that have an emotion opposite to one you are feeling. If you are sad, watch a comedy. Watch a scary movie. Listen to silly music. I think that the reason this works is that it kind of jars your feelings loose. If you are sad or angry, watch a silly or funny movie, and bust up laughing, you have changed your emotion and put yourself in a different place.
P- Pushing Away: Build an imaginary wall between yourself and the situation. Imagine yourself pushing it away with all your strength. Block the situation in your mind. Each time it comes up, tell it to go away or put some other thoughts in its place, perhaps some more pleasant thoughts. Try putting the pain on a shelf, or in a box, to contain it and get it out of the way. “Pushing Away” allows you to put it away for a while so that you get a break and have a chance to live some part of your life without it.
T- Thoughts: Some examples are counting to 10 or counting the tiles in a floor or the panes in a window or the stars in the sky, anything to keep your focus on the counting. This is a good one to use in a sudden emergency when you need to pull something out of your bag of tricks really quickly.
S- Sensations: You might hold ice in your hand or apply it to the back of your neck, listen to loud music, take a hot/cold shower, or swim in very cold water. Any strong physical stimulus like this can jolt your connection to your pain and distract you from it. After you try one of these activities, you may want to go on to another distracting activity, such as one of the activities described in the last lesson.
Distress Tolerance with Self-Soothing:
WHEN TO USE THIS SKILL: “I am flooded, I want to find ways to escape or distract, I don’t want to do something harmful to myself.”
HOW TO USE THIS SKILL: This skill works by engaging mindfully with one of the 5 senses at a time. The goal is to bring a sense of comfort to ourselves that allows us to tolerate what might be going on around us that causes distress.
1. 5 Senses: Name your current experience through the 5 senses: “I see…, I smell...., I hear...., I touch…, I taste….”
2. Sense of Smell
a. Light a scented candle or incense
b. Keep a cotton ball of essential oils in your pocket.
c. Go someplace where the scent is pleasing to you.
3. Sense of Vision
a. Go through magazines and create a collage with pictures that you like.
b. Find a place or picture of a place that is pleasing or calming for you to look at.
c. Carry a photo or picture of someone you love or a place that is calming.
4. Sense of Hearing
a. Listen to soothing music.
b. Listen to audiobooks.
c. Turn on the television and just listen.
d. Open your window and listen to the peaceful sounds outside.
5. Sense of Taste
a. Enjoy your favorite meal or food item.
b. Suck on a piece of ice
c. Remember what your last meal tasted like and what you enjoyed most.
6. Sense of Touch
a. Carry something soft or velvety in your pocket
b. Take a hot or cold shower and notice how your body feels with the water.
c. Get a massage.
I hope these tips and techniques help alleviate some of your distress to a more manageable level, and please do not hesitate to reach back out if you need any additional support.