Everyone feels anxious from time to time. Occasional anxiety is a normal reaction to uncertainty about whats going to happen next, whether thats in the next few minutes, days, or months.
Mental health experts define anxiety as worry over a threat thats still in your future. Thinking about a conversation you dread, for example, could twist your stomach into knots days before it happens. Your heart may race before an exam or presentation. You might lie awake at night worried about whether youll catch COVID-19 at the grocery store.
Its also normal to want to get rid of those uncomfortable, pit-of-the-stomach feelings as quickly as possible. But that approach can make you more anxious, says David H. Rosmarin, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
When you worry about getting rid of your anxiety, youre signaling your nervous system that you have even more to be anxious about. And that makes your anxiety worse, he says.
Keep in mind that if your anxiety is long-lasting and interferes with your daily life, you could have an anxiety disorder. In that case, you may need treatment to overcome it.
Calm Anxiety by Accepting It
Its not what people expect to hear. But one of the most effective ways to ease occasional anxiety is to accept it, says Rosmarin, who is also founderof the Center for Anxiety in New York City.
When we let anxiety run its course in the moment without fighting it, ironically, that makes it less. On the other hand, fighting anxiety is what typically [triggers] a panic attack, he says.
And, if your only strategy is to distract yourself from your anxiety or to avoid things that cause it, youll always be afraid of it. Its always going to be the bully in the schoolyard because youve never learned to deal with it.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America puts it this way: The thoughts you resist persist.
Try these steps instead:
Recognize and understand your anxiety: Tell yourself, My nervous system is kicking into high gear because Im worried about [thing X].
Dont criticize yourself for those feelings: Instead, say, This is a normal, healthy response by my body to these circumstances, which are complicated, stressful, or difficult. Its OK to feel this way.
Know that you can have anxiety and still function well: You can perform very well with anxiety, and probably have done so before, Rosmarin says.
Think back to a time when you were anxious but did what you needed to do anyway. Maybe you were filled with anxiety before an event or a meeting. But later, someone said you did a great job.
How to Stop Anxiety
When your anxiety feels overwhelming, these techniques can give you quick, short-term relief.
Do a reality check: Ask yourself these questions:
- On scale of 1 to 100, how likely is it that the thing Im anxious about will happen?
- Do I have good reasons to think something will go wrong?
- Is there a chance Im overly worried?
Share your anxiety with someone you trust: Dont avoid your anxious thoughts, which can make them worse. Talk them over with a friend or family member, who can help you put them in perspective.
Remind yourself that youre safe: When anxiety kicks in you may feel scared or out of control, with your mind racing to all these uncertain future catastrophes, says clinical psychologist Debra Kissen, PhD, chief executive officer of Light On Anxiety CBT Treatment Centers in the Chicago area.
Ask yourself, Is there a real danger in front of me, or am I actually safe at home and worried about something thats no threat to me right now? she says. This thinking can ground you in the moment and reboot your brain and body so you feel less anxious.
Redirect nervous energy: Anxiety can be like a motor revving, says licensed professional counselor Lisa Henderson. Take control of that energy and put it somewhere else, says Henderson, co-founder and chief executive officer of Synchronous Health in Nashville.
If youre sitting there worried, for example, get up and walk or pace, she says. Take a few minutes to clean something. Go outside for 5 minutes. Shorts bursts of activity can release that anxious energy.
Take a mental break: Use a guided imagery app or simply daydream on your own, Henderson says. A brief mental vacation can break the cycle of anxious thoughts.
To try this on your own, set a timer for a few minutes, close your eyes, and picture yourself somewhere you feel peaceful or happy.
Just letting your mind wander can work well if your anxiety comes from feeling controlled or managed, Henderson says. If your mind returns to its anxious thoughts, notice -- without judgment -- that its happened and mentally tell your anxiety Ill be with you in a moment. Then go back to your daydream.
You may prefer an app that guides you through your thoughts to help you release anxiety. Find relaxation or meditation apps that appeal to you and give them try.
Just breathe: Inhale and exhale slowly, evenly, and deeply for several breaths.
Change your position: Whatever youre doing, do the opposite, Kissen says. If youre hunched over with worry, stand up and take a Wonder Woman pose. If youre under a blanket, go wash your face with cold water. Changing your sensory experience can change the channel from anxiety.
Use a mantra: A mantra can shift your mind away from anxious thoughts that play over and over in your head, Kissen says.
Two she likes are: These thoughts are uncomfortable, but not dangerous, and This, too, will pass.
Put your anxiety on a schedule: Pick a 15-minute window during the day to think about your anxieties. During that time, tell your brain to just go for it and let the anxious thoughts come, Kissen says. But when they arise outside that time, tell them Im willing to hear you, but come back tomorrow at 3 p.m.
If anxiety keeps you awake, get up: If youre lying in bed worrying about things for more than 5 minutes, get up and go to another room and write down your anxieties, Kissen says. Go back to bed when youre tired, but get up again if you feel anxious. It might take a few nights of going back and forth, but this exercise can train your brain that your bed is for sleep, not for anxiety.
Do I Need Treatment for Anxiety?
Theres a lot you can do on your own to relieve anxiety, but sometimes you need help. Psychotherapy and medication are the two main treatments for anxiety disorders.
Signs that its time to talk to a mental health professional include:
- Constant or nearly constant anxiety
- Anxiety that gets in the way of your daily activities, like work or social life
- Anxiety about things that dont actually threaten you
- Panic attacks
Check your health insurance policy to see what mental health services your plan covers. Then, review a list of your in-network providers to find one to connect with.
You dont want to add to your anxiety by paying big out-of-pocket fees, Kissen says.
Your primary care doctor may also be able to recommend a mental health professional with experience treating anxiety and anxiety disorders.
Rosmarin notes that its important to find a provider you click with and trust. He also says therapy doesnt need to go on indefinitely to be effective.
A course of cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety may be eight to 10 sessions, he says. Theres also data to suggest that people feel substantially better after just one therapy session for panic disorder.
Photo Credit:wagnerokasaki / Getty Images
David H. Rosmarin, PhD, associate professor of psychology, Harvard Medical School, Boston; director, McLean Hospital Spirituality and Mental Health Program, Belmont, MA; founder, Center for Anxiety, New York City.
Debra Kissen, PhD, chief executive officer, Light On Anxiety CBT Treatment Centers, Chicago area.
Lisa Henderson, LPC, co-founder and chief executive officer, Synchronous Health, Nashville.
Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience: A history of anxiety: from Hippocrates to the DSM.
Anxiety & Depression Association of America: Understanding Disorders: What is Anxiety and Depression? Myths and Realities.