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5 Steps That Can Ease Anxiety When It’s Happening

These in-the-moment strategies can help

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Have you ever shot out of bed at dawn, your mind instantly racing, only to realize that it’s the weekend and you can sleep in? Anxiety can be like that: a false alarm that tricks your mind and body into believing there’s an emergency when there isn’t one, says Debra Kissen, Chicago-based clinical psychologist and coauthor of Break Free From Intrusive Thoughts: An Evidence-Based Guide for Managing Fear and Finding Peace

Ordinary anxiety or worry protects us from a range of real hazards, says psychiatrist Ramaswamy Viswanathan, M.D., president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association. It’s why we look both ways when we cross the street or remember to pay the mortgage on time.

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But sometimes anxiety brings on fear out of proportion with the actual threat. Such anxiety not only takes over your brain but can also be felt in the body, with symptoms such as a pounding heart, stomach in knots and sweating.

So how should you react when a wave of anxiety washes over you for less-than-compelling reasons? Face it directly rather than turning away from it, Kissen says. That is one of the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, says Kissen, who specializes in this approach. Working with a therapist trained in CBT — the gold standard for anxiety treatment — can be incredibly helpful if you’re experiencing ongoing or severe anxiety. 

It’s also a good idea to have a few tools to pull out when you’re in an anxious state. “I believe a lot in self-help,” says Viswanathan. Part of what therapists do, in fact, is “teach people self-help techniques,” he says. The next time you’re feeling anxious, you can experiment with these steps, drawn from CBT as well as mindfulness practices and relaxation techniques — all of which have been shown to help ease anxiety.

1. Lean in

Rather than ignoring the anxiety or trying to make it stop, “you have to face the anxiety and then stay with the anxiety,” Viswanathan says. This allows for healthy coping mechanisms to kick in.

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Turn toward the discomfort. “Acknowledge what is happening. ‘This is me feeling anxious,’ ” Kissen says. Close your eyes and pay attention to what is happening in your body: Starting at your feet and slowly moving upward, notice any sensations you’re experiencing, from muscle tension to tingling or numbness to rapid breathing. Next, do the same thing with your mind: What are your thoughts telling you? Are they coming fast and furious, or are you having one persistent thought? Examining your experience instead of avoiding it “sends a signal to your brain that says, ‘I can handle this,’” Kissen says.

2. Check the facts

“Anxiety is a fear response,” Kissen says, about a future event — something terrible that you’ve convinced yourself is looming. “You have to examine your perceptions … then ask how likely is it to happen?” says Viswanathan. Give your thoughts and feelings a reality check: What are you afraid will happen? Is there an actual danger right now? If the answer is no, reassure yourself that what you’re experiencing is a false alarm. It’s OK if you don’t believe it yet; you’re practicing more rational, flexible thinking. Other helpful questions to ask yourself: Can I be sure [insert fear here] will happen? Are my thoughts helping me?

3. Ground yourself

Next, “anchor yourself in the present,” says Kissen. “Be in your body. Feel your feet on the ground.” Try an exercise called 3-3-3: Name three objects you can see — for instance, a book, a table, a tree. Next, name three things you can feel, like a breeze, the glasses perched on your nose, the couch you’re sitting on. Finally, name three things you can hear — say, a truck rumbling by, music, your breathing. The goal here isn’t to relax but rather to shift your attention away from your thoughts. Your anxiety may still be present, but you’re signaling to your brain that you can choose where to put your attention, Kissen says.


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4. Move your body

Anxiety is marked by physical and mental tension, and changing posture may help to release it. Simply shifting your physical position can help you get “unstuck” and feel better, Kissen says. If you’ve been sitting stiffly with your arms crossed, stand up and stretch them out. If you’ve been slumping, try sitting up straight.

Viswanathan recommends breathing exercises to help downshift your nervous system. Try “box breathing”: Inhale through your nose for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and repeat for three to five minutes total.

5. Get back to your day or night

As you get back to your day, pay attention to any lingering anxiety. If it’s nighttime and you’re having a hard time getting to sleep, a warm bath with lavender essential oil or listening to relaxing music may help. The important thing is to learn that you can experience anxiety without being controlled by it, Kissen says. With practice — and treatment, if you need it — you may be able to limit your internal alarms to the times when you truly need them.

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