When anxiety strikes, my thoughts can feel like a runaway train, screaming away down a track that quickly arrives at Destination: Panic. Or maybe they’re a hamster on a wheel, running in circles around the same imaginary problem until I’m exhausted, having gotten anywhere but further along my own futile spiral. I find myself stacking metaphors when I try to put into words how anxiety feels in my head, to say nothing of my quivering hands, racing heart rate and overall clamminess that can take hours to subside.
For the estimated 40 million adults in the U.S. who live with an anxiety disorder like I do, this situation might sound familiar. But everyone feels anxious sometimes, and even those without an official diagnosis can sometimes find themselves caught up in the cycle of anxious thoughts that just won’t quit, especially with all that’s going on in the world right now. Everyday things like work obligations, family scheduling snafus, worries about kids succeeding in school or spats with a partner or friend can trigger anxious thoughts; when there are lots of issues outside of our control — like current events or the state of the world as a whole (like the ongoing global pandemic, climate change, the doomsday clock ticking steadily toward midnight, you get the picture).
And unlike slapping a bandaid on a cut or taking some ibuprofen to soften a headache, quieting anxious thoughts can require careful calibration of treatment, often including therapy, medication and figuring out what’s started you down the worry trail in the first place so you can address the root cause of your anxiety.
But there are also DIY tools you can use when you find yourself clicking “buy” on six tubes of tomato paste because what if they stop making it (how will you recreate grandma’s lasagna in the future?!). Here are a few ways expert psychologists advise we yank the emergency brake on the runaway thought train and keep it chugging along at a more measured pace.
How to Stop Feeling Anxious:
You may have heard that the best medicine is prevention, and that’s true for keeping anxiety from getting overwhelming, too. Getting enough sleep, fitting in some physical activity and ensuring you eat a balanced diet will all establish a solid baseline, day-to-day. But in addition to a healthy lifestyle, there are also specific anxiety-combatting techniques that can help keep your mind calm and focused. Starting your morning with intention can help, advises Catherine Athans, Ph.D., a certified trauma and marriage therapist in Los Altos, California. Instead of diving into the news or the latest drama on social media the moment your eyes open, take a few moments to quietly set an intention for the day ahead. Something like, Today I intend to take things as they come; or Today I have a lot of work and I will do the best I can; or perhaps, Today I will try and be patient with myself and others.
Break Out That Day Planner
Once you’ve set your intentions, block out your day on a calendar or planner, including time to exercise and relax. Having a list of tasks to cross off gives your brain something concrete to latch onto, and less to think about. Keeping your brain focused on a set of activities can quiet rising anxiety, as well. “Racing around with thoughts going every which way sets the stage for feeling anxious about what you have to do,” she explains. “When you write things down, it helps you get a better view of what you're doing so you don't become overwhelmed.”
Schedule Your Worries, While You’re At It
For people like me who can lose whole hours to invasive anxious thoughts, penciling in some time to sit with our feelings can actually help keep them from taking over, says New York City clinical psychologist Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, Ph.D. “It may sound counterintuitive, but scheduling your worry time will allow you to have some control of your anxious thoughts,” he explains. Because anxiety can prevent us from staying present in the moment, telling yourself that you’ve set aside time later to stress can help your brain let those anxious thoughts pass through.
Start by setting aside five minutes a day to give in to your anxieties. As those thoughts arise throughout the day, remind yourself that you’ve scheduled time to address them later. When that moment arrives, write down anything that’s bothering you. Then, allow yourself to ruminate on it for five minutes – no more, and no less. You may even find that once you get to your designated worry time, an idea that felt catastrophic earlier holds less power than before.
Fact-check Your Brain
Seeing the things that worry you there on paper can also help with another technique Athans recommends: Fact-checking yourself. “Anxious feelings can also come from thinking about worst-case scenarios,” she explains. Gently ask yourself if what you’re anxious about is realistic. Then, replace those anxieties with gentler, more realistic ones.
For example, maybe your anxious brain says, “I was late for work today! My boss is going to give me a negative review and then I’ll get fired.” When you look at it, that seems unlikely — even if lateness is an ongoing problem for you, she’d probably talk about it with you first and give you a chance to improve it. Try replacing it with, “Even if I get criticism, I can absorb it and use that to improve.”
Identify Negative Patterns
Writing out your anxieties can also help identify any patterns or themes in those thoughts. “Increasing our awareness about our negative thinking patterns can help us recognize them much more easily when we are feeling anxious,” de la Rosa adds. Some of those patterns include:
Negative predictions: Telling yourself you’ll get that poor performance review
Making negative assumptions: Jumping right to the worst-case outcome if you do
Underestimating your own ability to cope: Thinking a negative review is the end of your career
Thinking in terms of shoulds: You “should” be able to make it on time without effort, and running late makes you a flaky person
Once you identify these negative patterns, you can see them for what they are: Just anxiety rearing its illogical little head. Replacing those patterns with more reasonable, logical thought patterns can help take away their power.
Tell Yourself: You Got This
As you’re writing out your anxieties, take it one step further by creating what de la Rosa calls a coping history. By reminding yourself how you’ve handled similar situations before, you’ll talk back to that little voice that says you can’t hack it. To convince yourself that you really do have the tools you need, create two columns: “challenging situations” and “how I coped.” Then, think back to situations in the past that made you anxious and write down what you did to deal with them. “This exercise helps us introduce more logic when we are caught in an emotional mind with our anxiety,” he says.
For example, if you once met your new partner’s mom and called her son by your ex’s name in front of her (okay, yes, this was me!), think about what happened after that. She didn’t think you were the worst thing that ever happened to her pride and joy, right? The next time you find yourself worrying over flubbing a first impression, you can remind yourself that you’ve survived it before and will do so again.
What Is the 3-3-3 Rule for Anxiety?
If you're looking for tools to help stamp out anxious tendencies in the moment, many therapists prescribe to what's known as the 3-3-3 Rule. Its a technique that clinical psychologist and media advisory group member for the Hope For Depression Research Foundation Michelle Goldman, PsyD, also calls the 5-4-3-2-1 rule.
Whatever count you use, the principle is the same: “Look around the room and name five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste,” she explains. Using your five senses will ground you in the present and bring your brain back into your body and out of your anxious ruminations. If you’re not in public, Athans suggests even naming the things you can notice out loud, to really remind yourself that you’re here, now.
If you believe you're experiencing an anxiety attack or are concerned about your health, please call 911. If you have anxiety, you may need to speak with a mental health professional. You can find help and learn more about anxiety by visiting the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
How to Calm Your Anxiety Fast:
When you need to stave off an anxiety attack or pull yourself out of spiraling thoughts, you need immediate interventions. “Sometimes, our worries can intrude on our everyday tasks and can take us out of the present moment,” de la Rosa explains. When that happens, these techniques can help break the cycle.
Categorize Your Thoughts
Another technique Goldman likes is listing objects in a category; say, 80’s bands, ice cream flavors or any topic that gets your brain whirring. “The more you enjoy the category, the more it will help shift the anxiety and distract from the triggering situation,” she says. Because you can do it anywhere, this technique works well for anxiety that strikes in public or when you can’t physically remove yourself from a situation.
Get Rid of an Anxious Feeling By Replacing It
If you’ve ever found yourself hysterically laughing after an intense crying jag, you know the healing powers of a good chuckle. Switch on an absorbing podcast, crack open a spine-tingling thriller, or hit play on a gut-busting YouTube video to swap out anxious thoughts for more pleasant ones. “When we genuinely laugh, we will feel less anxious, even if just for a moment,” says Goldman. Sometimes, even a brief hit of levity can stop anxiety from carrying you away. The same principle applies when redirecting your emotional energy into something that really captures your attention, whether it’s comedy or true crime.
Walk It Out
Physical exercise can help diffuse that anxious energy, as well as release the tension we hold in our bodies, de la Rosa explains. Research shows that moving your body can significantly reduce anxious symptoms in the moment, distract your brain from whatever you’re anxious about and can make you more resilient to difficult emotions over time. Even a 10-15 minute lap around the block helps.
“Focus your attention on what you see, hear, feel, the buildings, trees, people around you, the weather, and any sounds you hear,” he advises. “As you do this, you may notice anxious thoughts come across your mind. Just notice each thought and bring back your attention to the present moment.” With practice, you’ll find it’s easier and easier to refocus your thoughts, making the exercise even more effective over time.
But taking a walk in nature can also help. A walk through the forest lowered feelings of tension, anger and hostility, depression and increased positive feelings compared with a city stroll, reported participants in a 2018 study published in the international journal of environmental research and public health. If you have the option to get outside and “touch grass,” your mental health will thank you.
Use Cold Water to Calm Yourself Now
For those moments when your anxiety has really taken the reins, a shock to your system can help wrest them back. Both Goldman and de la Rosa recommend taking a cold shower, holding some ice cubes or even running some ice water over your wrists to help bring your body back from the brink. Think about how plunging into a cold pool takes your breath away; the same principle works here. “This is helpful with intense and very physical manifestations of anxiety,” Goldman notes, as it forces your body to focus on the cold – and away from the imagined stressors.
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