You know the feeling. You’re doing fine, when all of a sudden your car dies, your daughter tells you she’s dropping out of college, and you find out you need a new roof. Suddenly, you feel like you can’t breathe. Your chest hurts, and you’re convinced you’re having a heart attack.
More likely, you’re having an anxiety attack—an acute reaction to intense stress. Even if you don’t wind up with the full-blown attack, anxiety can leave you feeling apprehensive, uncertain and fearful, paralyzing you into inaction or withdrawal.
An anxiety disorder isn’t just a case of “nerves.” According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, an estimated 19 million Americans ages 18-54 (more than 13 percent of the population) experience debilitating bouts of anxiety. It is the most common psychiatric condition in the United States. Primary symptoms include a rise in blood pressure, a fast heart rate, rapid breathing, an increase in muscle tension and a decrease in intestinal blood flow, potentially resulting in nausea or diarrhea.
Sometimes your anxiety disorder will be serious enough to require medication and therapy. But quite often, learning to better manage stress can make a big difference. We’ve also come up with 17 tips to help you cope when anxiety hits so it doesn’t overwhelm you.
1. Get out your bike, pull on your walking shoes, or grab your gym bag. There’s no better therapy for the “I can’t breathe” feeling of an anxiety attack than to quickly escape the situation and get your blood moving and endorphins pumping through exercise.
2. Cut out all caffeinated drinks, foods, and medications. The caffeine only adds to that tense, jittery, anxious feeling, says Daphne Stevens, Ph.D., a clinical social worker and author of Watercolor Bedroom: Creating a Soulful Midlife. Sources of caffeine include chocolate, beverages like coffee, tea, soda, and some prescription and over-the-counter medications, like Excedrin.
3. Avoid conversations likely to increase your anxiety when you’re tired, overwhelmed, or stressed. For instance, tell your kids that you’re simply not available for problem solving after 8 p.m. Try to protect a “trouble free” time, especially before bed, when you don’t address difficulties but focus instead on pure relaxation.
4. Buy a white-noise machine and use it when you go to sleep. The soothing sound will help you fall and stay asleep. A good night’s sleep is critical when you’re stressed, since sleep deprivation fuels anxiety even as anxiety leads to sleep deprivation.
5. Choose one thing that is making you anxious. Now sit down and write out all the fears you have about that one thing. If it’s money, write down what would happen if you lose your job, if you can’t pay your bills. What is the absolute worst thing that could happen? Now look at each item and mark it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being highly unlikely it would ever happen, 10 being likely that it would happen. You’ll be surprised at how few items rank above a 5. This understanding should help reduce your anxiety. If something does rank higher than 5, you may want to develop a contingency plan for it. Nothing works better to calm anxiety than turning from pure worry to an action plan.
Learn how to relax, detach, and focus to deal with anxiety
6. Rent a comedy and watch it. Let yourself laugh out loud. The act of laughter stimulates endorphins that help blow stress hormones (which contribute to that feeling of anxiety) out of your system the way a good thunderstorm can blow away hot, humid weather.
7. Follow the Relax, Detach, Focus steps. Created by Marcia Reynolds, M.Ed., author of Outsmart Your Brain! Get Happy, Get Heard, and Get Your Way at Work, the routine goes like this:
- Relax your body from the toes up.
- Detach from your thoughts.
- Center yourself in the moment (e.g., feel your head upon the pillow, or your feet on the ground, etc., depending on where you are).
- Focus on who you want to be and how you want to feel.
8. Turn on the news and watch the disasters unfurl. It will help you put your own problems into perspective and realize it’s a large world, filled with both triumph and disaster. The challenges in your life that make you anxious may not seem as great when you put them in world context.
9. Don’t borrow future problems. Many people get into a cycle of predicting and worrying about future concerns, says Larina Kase, Psy.D., a psychologist at the Center for Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania and president of Performance and Success Coaching. Ask yourself, “Is this something I know can happen and is it something I can do something about right now?” If the answer to either of these questions is no, tell yourself you will revisit it later.
10. Simply experience your anxiety for 45 minutes. That’s usually all it takes for you to become used to it and for the anxious feeling to dissipate, says Dr. Kase. The worst thing you can do is try to ignore it, she says, because anxiety tends to fight back if you push it down.
Learn how to name your fears to deal with anxiety
11. Talk to yourself. Remind yourself of how you handled similar situations in the past, your strengths, and how long you will need to get through it. Show yourself that this anxiety is manageable and time-limited.
12. Go to the museum, see a movie, read a good book, or take up oil painting (or some other hobby). People who are bored tend to score higher on tests designed to measure levels of anxiety.
13. Keep a journal of what makes you anxious. Then revisit these same items when you’re feeling calm and develop plans to deal with them.
14. Name your fears. The most anxiety-producing thing of all is the unknown. So drag your worries out of the shadows. Worried about your son/daughter/spouse getting hurt or killed in a car crash? Discuss it—at least with yourself. Look up the statistics on driving and injury to relieve your mind. Do the same for whatever else makes you worry, whether that’s West Nile virus, bioterrorism, cancer, or plane crashes. Once you name your fears and learn about them, you can take steps to minimize your risk. You’ll also find the fears you name and tame are far less menacing than fears left to lurk in the shadows of your imagination.
15. Make sure you’re getting several servings of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables every day, along with healthy protein sources such as fish, poultry, lentils, soy, or lean meats. The combination helps your brain make serotonin, a chemical that induces a state of calm relaxation.
16. Watch a meditation, t’ai chi, or yoga video. They are all effective, nonmedical ways of dealing with anxiety.
17. Share your anxieties with a confidant. You need to find someone who can help you understand why you worry too much. Try to play the same role for that person. We are usually better at placing someone else’s worries in perspective than we are our own.