You have deadline pressures at work. Or your kid is having problems at school. Or a health concern is nagging at you. Suddenly, anxiety has taken over your life. “Anxious thoughts activate the limbic system — the fear center in our brain — and it’s on a hair trigger,” says psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
How does anxiety build up?
Anxious thoughts chase each other like a dog chasing its tail.
“Imagine a guy who thinks, ‘What if my hair is thinning?'” suggests Dr. Bea. “That creates anxious energy. He feels his head, checks in the mirror and asks his wife, who says, ‘You’ve got a nice head of hair.’
“That feels good for about 20 seconds, until he thinks, ‘She wasn’t really listening to me.’ Next thing you know, he’s online, searching for baldness cures. One of them looks good until he sees its side effects include ED and thinks, ‘That’s no good!’” Now he’s back to square one.
This is one small example of how trying to quell anxiety with reassuring thoughts, or to “fix” anxious thoughts with other thoughts, just doesn’t work.
It’s also exhausting. “Reassuring thoughts are like a short-acting drug; they wear off quickly,” says Dr. Bea.
What should you do if you’re anxious?
So what can you do if you notice yourself feeling anxious? Start by facing your anxiety, advises psychologist Susan Albers-Bowling, PsyD. Then try these 9 ways to calm yourself:
- Think of yourself as a firefighter. Put out the flames of anxiety with some cool breaths. Breathe in and out, deeply and slowly. “When you slow down your breathing, you trick your body into thinking you’re relaxing or going to sleep,” she says.
- Cool down anxious thoughts. “Thoughts like, ‘I can’t stand this; this is awful!’ fuel the fire of anxiety,” says Dr. Albers. Instead, think about what you can and cannot change about the situation. Then take steps to change what you can, and work on accepting what you can’t.
- Get some perspective. Anxiety can stem from needless worry about a lot of things that aren’t important in the long run. “Consider how this will really impact you in five minutes, five months or five years,” she says.
- Soothe your system. Try some yoga stretches, or take a tennis ball and rub it under your foot or behind your back. “Find gentle ways to calm your body,” says Dr. Albers.
- Talk it out. Research proves that simply naming your feelings can help to calm you down. “This is easier to do when you share your feelings with others,” she notes.
- Don’t ignore. Anxiety is like a red flag, telling you that something needs attention. “Don’t ignore this sign — contact a professional to help you through it,” says Dr. Albers.
- Rule out other causes. Sometimes medical issues can mask themselves as anxiety or mimic its symptoms. “Don’t forget to get your checkup each year,” she says.
- Wait it out. “Sometimes, you just have to let anxiety come and go, like riding a wave,” says Dr. Albers. Remember that it will fade and that “This, too, shall pass.”
- Be mindful. Stay in the moment instead of jumping ahead. To bring yourself back to the present, try this 5 senses exercise. Hold your fist out, and extend one finger at a time as you name: 1 thing you can taste; 2 things you can smell; 3 things you can touch right now (your skin against the chair, a soft sweater); 4 things you can hear; and 5 things you can see in the immediate environment.
Adds Dr. Bea, “When you take in a sensory experience, your fear sensations fall away — the chemicals flow out of your body.”
What makes anxiety worse?
Avoid soothing your anxiety with things that can lead to more anxiety, advises Dr. Albers.
“For example, stress eating is like putting a Band-aid® on a gaping wound,” she says. “You want to deal with your anxiety directly.”
Dredging up bad experiences from the past or imagining scary scenarios in the future will just heighten your anxiety. When this happens, realize what you’re doing.
“Remind yourself that bad things happen relatively sparingly and that our brains are well-equipped to handle a crisis, if one occurs,” says Dr. Bea. “Be engaged in your real life, not in imagined moments.”
The best way to begin is to work on developing a new relationship with your thoughts.
“Thoughts are like breezes. They’re not good or bad, they just come and go,” he says. “You don’t have to react to them — ‘Oh, wow,’ works better than ‘Oh, no.’ Being grounded in the present moment, without judgment, is the place to be.”