Simple tips about how to deal with anxiety from the mental-health experts who know best.
Everyone gets a little anxious now and then, whether it's over a work deadline, a new relationship, or a dwindling bank account. Even psychologists.
And just like in regular folks, that anxiety can get out of control and become a bigger problem. "Mental-health professionals are not immune to having true anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder, and should seek professional help if symptomatic," says David L. Dunner, MD, director of the Center for Anxiety and Depression in Mercer Island, Washington.
But whether the anxiety is occasional or qualifies as a true disorder, psychologists know that they if they aren't able to dial it back, they won't be effective in helping patients get a handle on anxiety either. "The ability for the practitioner to perform well and provides services to a patient or client really requires that that individual themselves is managing their own mental wellbeing," says Todd Farchione, PhD, research associate professor at the Boston University Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders.
So what do mental health experts do to switch themselves out of panic mode? We asked four to share the habits that help them deal with anxiety, so you can try their strategies yourself.
Accept that anxiety is normal
When you're already worried about something, berating yourself by saying "I shouldn't feel anxious!" or "This is such a stupid thing to worry about!" isn't going to make you feel any better, says Steven D. Tsao, PhD, co-founder of the Center for Anxiety & Behavior Therapy in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. "It seems like a no-brainer, but accepting that anxiety is normal gets me away from unhelpful thoughts."
Unplug before bed
We don't have to tell you that between incessant email checking and social media scrolling, your phone stresses you out. Constant connection, however, can also fuel anxiety, especially when you're about to turn in for the night. "I find I get anxious at bedtime (I've had sleep issues since I was a child), so I turn off my phone an hour before I want to go to sleep," says Larry D. Rosen, PhD, professor emeritus in the psychology department at California State University, Dominguez Hills and author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. "I'll read a book, preferably on paper, so I'm not getting the blue light from screens that turns off melatonin and releases awakening cortisol."
Put anxiety in perspective
Anxiety is a signal telling you something is lurking that you're afraid of, says Franklin Schneier, MD, co-director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. To diminish it, "I try to pin down the fear to something as specific as possible," he says. "For example, I'm anxious about an upcoming work meeting because I may be asked to present information on a project, and the project is not going as planned, so people may think I'm incompetent."
Getting down to that level of nitty-gritty detail gives you an opportunity to put your anxiety in perspective, says Dr. Schneier. In that same example, for instance, he could tell himself, "My longstanding colleagues are not likely to judge me incompetent based on this one particular project, which is actually not fully under my control."
Keep up healthy habits
Slacking on healthy habits, like eating nutritiously and working out, can also trigger anxiety, says Tsao. When he's anxious, Tsao examines his lifestyle to find the cause. "Have I been sleeping well? Have I been eating well? How physically active have I been?" To this point, Farchione says that if he doesn't stick to his usual Jiu Jitsu schedule of three to four classes a week, he's "considerably more anxious on a daily basis and less confident in myself," he says.
Reason your way out of it
It's all too easy to spiral into anxiety when we're convinced that someone is, say, upset with us, even if we don't have any actual proof they're ticked off. "For instance, say I have a book chapter I'm writing and I'm behind on it. I might think [the editors] are upset with me and they'll never ask me to write a chapter again," Farchione says.
In the moment, he tries to think of the opposite of that anxiety-riddled emotional reaction. "If I really think it through, do I know that those people are upset? If they were, wouldn't they have followed up with me? I teach my patients to think about things in a different manner, to consider the alternatives, as a way to manage their own anxiety."
Sing to yourself
If racing thoughts keep him awake, Rosen has another trick: He sings himself back to sleep. "If I wake up at night and my brain starts going places that make me anxious, I hum in my head a snippet from a familiar song over and over," he says. "Usually, my song snippet is 'Hotel California.' That works most of the time."
Singing with a group, like in a local community choir, has been shown to boost feel-good brain chemicals and lower stress and anxiety, so it's worth a shot on your own, too.
Find a go-to coping strategy
As much as we'd all like to live anxiety-free, it just doesn't work that way. "Anxiety is a fluid state that ebbs and flows for all humans," Tsao says. "My job is not to eradicate [anxiety], it's to find a helpful way to tolerate it without inadvertently fueling it."
Your goal is to learn to cope with anxiety rather than worsening those anxious thoughts and feelings. Tsao recommends some simple life-hacks, like setting clear work boundaries (for example, only allowing yourself to check your office email once or twice on weekends), taking a mind-clearing walk in the middle of the day, or talking things out with a loved one or colleague.
Says Dr. Schneier: "I try to think about what I can do now about the situation at hand," he says. Referencing his example of the anxiety-provoking work presentation, he explains that his coping strategy would be either to "prepare an explanation of what is going wrong, or I can plan to use the meeting to gather ideas about solutions."
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It's a commonly recommended anxiety-buster—but that's because it works. "When I'm feeling unusually strong anxiety, or if I'm having trouble falling asleep due to worries, I'll do a simple exercise of meditating on my breathing," Dr. Schneier says. You don't need any kind of meditation experience to benefit from the soothing practice. Just sit quietly and focus on your inhales and exhales rather than your racing thoughts. If your mind does start to wander, gently remind yourself to bring your focus back to your breathing.
Go to therapy
Psychologists aren't superhuman, so when their usual anti-anxiety tactics aren't cutting it, they too seek professional help. Farchione says he personally has treated a number of patients who are mental-health practitioners themselves. "I see that as a good thing," he says. "These people are willing to come in and receive care that will help them be more effective."