Once upon a time, anxiety helped us survive. Like fire from gods, it was the spark that kept us on our toes when danger came around the corner.
“[Anxiety] comes from our forebears in prehistoric times who needed to get out of trouble in a hurry,” explains Professor of Counseling at Bradley University Nancy Sherman, PhD. “Hence, the “fight or flight” response occurs when danger is sensed. Changes in the body prepare the person to flee from the danger or fight the foe.”
Some situational dangers, like saber-toothed tigers, may be gone now but our fear response is still there. It’s in the elevator before a job interview, on the train during rush hour, or at the dinner table with your new partner’s parents.
For close to 20 percent of us, anxiety is a chronic issue. And when left unmanaged, it can derail how we enjoy life. Which is why it’s so important to learn how to deal with the symptoms.
Whether you need to soothe your anxiety right now, before tonight, or in the long-term, we got you. Because there are all kinds of anxiety and what works for you one minute may be different from what works down the line.
Use the following techniques if your anxiety is peaking as we speak.
Deep breathing is like the little black dress of coping techniques: it’s helpful in virtually all difficult situations. That’s because inhaling and exhaling deeply is a way to rein in our fight or flight response.
“Diaphragmatic breathing is the basis for most relaxation techniques and meditation,” says Sherman. “It lowers blood pressure, slows the heart rate, and helps people relax, among other benefits.”
How to do it
There are many breathing techniques that help with anxiety but one of our favorites is a simple sequence called box breathing. To do it, follow these steps:
- Inhale through your nose and into your belly for a count of 4.
- Hold your breath for a count of 4.
- Exhale through your mouth for a count of 4, pushing all the air out of your belly.
- Hold your breath for a count of 4.
Imagine a place you feel calm
Imagery visualization is a meditation technique where you focus on a calming scene or memory to guide your mind away from what’s causing your anxiety. The idea is that once your mind calms, your body will follow.
How to do it
- Find a quiet, comfy place and take a seat.
- Close your eyes.
- Now file through all your wonderful memories and pick a scene or time you felt calm and content.
- You want to imagine as much of the sensory experience of that special place as you can. What does it smell like? Was it sunny that day and if so, what does the sun feel like on your skin? What do you hear?
It’s normal for this to feel challenging at first. As with any meditation, it’s a practice. The more you do it, the easier it will be to train your brain to a peaceful place.
Get started with a meditation app
Meditation apps are great for getting your mindfulness feet wet because they offer guided sessions and suggest ways to structure your routine.
Call up your closest friend
If your first reaction is to bury anxiety and try carrying on, reaching out to someone you trust completely might be the answer you need.
Anxiety can be extremely isolating, like a storm raging inside your body that no one else can see. But without an outlet, the storm just grows stronger and more volatile.
The act of putting your feelings into words can release some of that pressure. It doesn’t have to be some well-crafted soliloquy. It can be as simple as, “I feel bad right now and I’m having a hard time explaining why.”
You might be surprised to find how therapeutic it is to be vulnerable like this with another person.
Listen to some tunes
You know that feeling when you turn on a song you love and something inside of you lights up? That pleasure response is actually hardwired in all of us.
Research has found listening to music activates the same parts of our brain as sex and drugs.
Because of this, listening to music may be a great way to find somewhat immediate relief from anxiety. One study with over 2,000 people showed listening to music before going into surgery significantly lowered anxiety levels.
For those who experience social anxiety, crowded spaces and circumstances with lots of socializing can be a battlefield of anxiety triggers.
Social anxiety often includes the acute fear that everyone is judging you or having to deal with the awkwardness of your mind going blank from nerves every time someone tries to talk to you.
Sometimes, it can be beneficial to try to work through this discomfort. But if you’re reacting strongly to a certain setting, there’s really no shame in leaving.
In fact, taking the initiative to remove yourself from an uncomfortable situation can be incredibly liberating.
Try the “Facts vs. fiction” writing exercise
If you’re anxiety is spiking, try grabbing a pen and paper and simply writing down the facts of what’s happening. Make sure you stick to the facts. “I’m behind on my deadline at new job.”
Then write how you feel about the facts and what you fear will happen. For example, “I’m worried that if I don’t get everything done on time my manager will think I’m not worthy of this job and may decide to replace me.”
As you write your feelings, reflect on how many steps it will take to get from fact to fear. Sometimes doing this can help reveal how to alleviate uncontrollable fears and help you focus on what can be done in the moment.
If you have more time to spare, use these techniques to settle your body and mind.
Move your body
The brain loves exercise. Running has been shown to help the hippocampus manage anxiety, while exercise in general increases the availability of feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin.
Not to mention, it helps relieve the muscular tension brought on by anxiety.
All the ways to do it
Where do we even start? There are SO many ways to exercise. First off, find something you don’t hate doing. If you absolutely abhor running, then it’s going to be pretty hard to make yourself do it.
Exercise doesn’t have to mean training for a triathlon. There are tons of fun, low-key activities that can get your body moving. Here are some of our faves:
- Dancing. Yes, dancing alone in your room counts! Or, try going out to a salsa club or maybe it’s finally time to take that pole dancing class.
- Hiking. Not only is this exercise, research suggests being in in nature can improve your mood. If you aren’t familiar with hiking trails in your area, check out the Alltrails hiking app.
- Yoga/stretching. You don’t need to pay a bunch of money at a fancy studio to get the mental and physical benefits of yoga. Try this beginning-friendly morning yoga routine.
- YouTube workout. There are a bazillion totally free workout videos online for every level of difficulty. Here’s a roundup of our 20 favorites.
Journal it out
Journaling is about taking that blizzard of negativity swirling inside your body and putting it into words in order to understand why you’re feeling the way you are.
It’s also a great way to remind yourself of the difference between the facts/reality and what you perceive through your anxiety.
“By writing down fears and worries in a journal, it removes them from the mind, “says Sherman. “Journaling can be a way to get things off your mind and to examine what was written and examine it when feeling calmer.”
Research suggests journaling could be a longer term strategy for dealing with stress as well. In one study, journaling was shown to effectively help participants cope with the stress of an upcoming presentation.
How to do it
- Make it a habit. This doesn’t have to be every day but the more regularly you write down how you’re feeling, the better you’ll be at articulating yourself.
- Reserve judgement. No one ever has to read this journal! Don’t get hung up trying to craft a piece of literature. This is for you and only you.
- Splurge on a nice pen and journal. Trust us, these things help!
Soak in a bath or take a shower
If you’re stressed, a warm bath or shower not only loosens tense muscles, it’s a nice way to get some peace and quiet. Plus, sometimes the physical act of getting clean has a way of purifying the mind.
And if you’re having trouble sleeping, you may want to take a bath before getting in bed. A 10 to 15 minute soak has been shown to help people fall asleep 10 minutes faster.
Other ways to cope
- Clean your room/house. Having a cluttered living space is associated with more life dissatisfaction. You don’t have to KonMari the place — stacking things so you can sit on the floor also works.
- Put on a funny show. The act of smiling may actually help you feel happier. We like the episodic kind, like “Schitt’s Creek,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “Superstore.”
- Spend some money on yourself. One study showed retail therapy did help raise people’s moods. Buy that matcha latte!
- Draw. Adult coloring books are a relaxing way to occupy yourself if you’re feeling anxious. Make doodles like you’re in school again.
When it comes to managing anxiety long term, Sherman says it can be super beneficial to eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and develop a meditation, and relaxation practice.
Of course, these types of good lifestyle habits are much easier said than done. Life is hectic, especially when your mental health isn’t even operating at 50 percent.
So, we kept ease and convenience in mind when we put together this list for simplifying life in preparation for surprise anxiety.
Food prep for support
Honestly, who has the time or energy to cook a balanced meal after working all day? And if you have anxiety, it might feel even more daunting to make space for cooking. Enter: meal prepping.
Alleviate some of the coming week’s stress by carving out a couple hours during the weekend to make a big pot of food. And if you depend on takeout to get you through the week, meal prepping can be a real money-saver.
There are also certain foods that may help your body manage anxiety.
- Eat yogurt and berries for breakfast. The probiotics in yogurt and the anti-oxidants in berries, are both thought to have anti-anxiety effects.
- Wake up with green tea. This caffeinated bev may have help curb stress.
- Snack on almonds. Almonds anti-oxidant rich and a super good source of vitamin E, a nutrient our bodies need to function properly.
- Incorporate omega-3- rich foods. Toss in ingredients like shrimp and kidney beans into your dinner. Taking omega-3 supplements is associated with a reduction in anxiety levels.
Best supplements for anxiety
Certain supplements may help counter anxiety, but keep in mind they’re meant to complement, not replace, a balanced diet.
It generally takes 3 to 4 months of taking a supplement regularly for effects to show. It’s always a good idea to check with a doctor before you start taking any supplement regularly.
- Vitamin A. One study showed people with generalized anxiety disorder were much more likely to be deficient in vitamin A.
- Vitamin D. Research has shown being vitamin D-deficient is a risk factor for developing anxiety.
- Fish oil and supplements containing omega-3. Taking supplements of this fatty acid may help reduce anxiety.
- L-theanine. Taking this amino acid may have anti-anxiety effects.
- Magnesium. A study using mice showed magnesium deficiency can lead to symptoms of anxiety.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, take a look at our sleep supplement guide.
Find a meditation practice that makes sense for you
Meditation doesn’t have to mean waking up at 6:30 every morning and sitting cross-legged on the floor. The point of meditation isn’t to force yourself to do something that’s inconvenient and uncomfortable, after all.
The point is to practice observing your thoughts in order to have more control over your state of mind. And you can practice doing this pretty much anywhere.
Maybe spend an extra 5 to 10 minutes in bed as you observe your thoughts. Or maybe you put on a podcast or listen to a session on your mediation app on your morning commute.
The most important thing is that you develop a routine that fits your lifestyle.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that’s commonly used to treat anxiety. CBT provides tools for identifying anxiety triggers and strategies to help you cope.
“Talking about your worries with a counselor and learning how to use cognitive-behavioral techniques to deal with negative thinking are very beneficial,” says Sherman.
Everyone experiences some degree of anxiety sometimes but there’s a point at which anxiety becomes a diagnosable condition.
“A diagnosable anxiety disorder includes the distinction that the anxiety significantly interferes with a person’s ability to function effectively in their daily lives,” says Sherman.
“The anxiety, worry, or physical symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”
If your anxiety is starting to appear chronic, start taking note of the following signs:
- feelings of nervousness, tenseness, or restlessness
- difficulty concentrating
- feelings of impending doom and danger
- sleep issues, including insomnia or oversleeping
- increased heart rate, shallow breathing, sweating, or trembling
- digestive issues
If they appear during certain events, such as a crowded train, or circumstances, like meeting new people, you can start learning your triggers and working with a professional on how to avoid them.
If you’re experiencing a panic attack
A panic attack is a sudden and intense response to fear or perceived danger when in fact no threat is present. Generally, it comes on abruptly and causes a host of mental and physiological responses, such as:
- racing heart
- a feeling of losing control
- trembling, sweating, shaking
- shortness of breath
- blurred vision and dizziness
- the sensation you’re dying
Anxiety attack vs. panic attack
Anxiety and panics attacks are experienced similarly. The main difference is that anxiety attacks usually have a trigger, or come about after a period of intense worrying. Panic attacks seemingly come out of the blue and are generally more intense.
Having a panic attack can be terrifying, especially if you haven’t had one before. The first step in coping with a panic attack is understanding what’s happening in your body.
“Tell yourself that although it may feel like it, you aren’t going to die from a panic attack,” says Sherman.“Find some privacy and don’t try to fight it.”
Sherman says that by paying attention to what’s happening in your body, like your heart rate, you can notice when your symptoms start to decrease. This will help you gain perspective and get your feet back on solid ground.
If your anxiety is getting in the way of daily life, seeking out a mental health professional can help you tailor an anxiety management program that makes the most sense for you.
This might come in the form of medication, regular therapy visits, lifestyle changes, or a combination of all three.
When it comes to mental health, there’s great benefit to explaining yourself to a neutral party, like a therapist. We’re all so close to our own life stories we may not be able to see how one event connects to another.
A professional has years of training to help identify what’s causing your anxiety, which is the first step in knowing what treatment to pursue.
Remember, anxiety disorders are extremely common! It’s likely people you love are also dealing with similar struggles. When you decide to open up about your experience, you take an important step forward for improving the quality of your own life, and also for destigmatizing views surrounding mental health.
Ginger Wojcik is an assistant editor at Greatist. Follow more of her work on Medium or on Twitter.