How to get control of the anxiety tornado working its way through your body.

By Karen Pallarito
October 29, 2018

Maybe anxiety to you is a worry loop in your head that heckles you as you lie in bed waiting for sleep. Or it's the crazy-intense jitters that hit right before you're slated to give a work presentation. Or the way your palms sweat and your stomach lurches when you find yourself at a social event without anyone to chat with.

Everyone experiences anxiety, which psychologists say is just our own perception of worry and stress. No matter what the anxiety stems from or how it manifests, anxious feelings tend to snowball. So it’s always helpful to have a few tricks up your sleeve to get yourself out of panic mode before it gets too intense. With this in mind, we asked psychologists to give us their best advice on how to gain control of the runaway anxiety train fast.

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Breathe anxiety away

When anxiety activates your fight-or-flight response, you know it; you heart rate accelerates, and you become shaky and flushed. The best way to counteract those panicky feelings is to slow your breathing.

Alicia Clark, PsyD, a Washington, D.C.-based psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety: How to Make Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love, and All That You Do, says deep belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from your brain to your gut and plays a pivotal role in calming your nervous system. Here's how: breathe slowly and deeply, all the way down to your belly button, for up to four counts if possible, Clark tells Health. Then hold it for two counts and exhale: 4-3-2-1. Repeat the pattern for a few minutes.

Ride it like a wave

Imagine your anxiety is a wave in the ocean. “You don’t just stand tall and fight the wave,” says Clark. “You dive into it so it doesn’t knock you over.” In other words, instead of resisting your anxious feelings, remind yourself that they won’t harm you. Tell yourself you can handle it, she says, then let the wave wash over you. Stressing over your stress can make your anxious feelings even worse, and they’ll last longer, she adds.

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Break big responsibilities into smaller tasks

People can become so anxious about studying for a test, for example, that they dodge the task altogether. “When we avoid those things, our anxiety actually gets bigger,” Heidi DeLoveh, PhD, a private practice psychologist in Columbus, Ohio, tells Health.

Her advice? Break the activity into smaller pieces or shorter lengths of time. Anxious about driving? Start by just sitting behind the wheel. Test anxiety? Instead of a four-hour marathon study session, work for 10 minutes at a time.

Skip your afternoon Starbucks run

You crave that morning latte, we get it. But going back for another or multiple refills at your office coffee machine isn't a great idea for managing anxiety. “If you’re anxious, caffeine can be a real anxiety accelerant,” Clark explains. Why's that? Caffeine has a dose-dependent affect on mood. A little can perk you up—and too much can leave you anxious and irritable. Plus, some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others. Stick to one cup a day, maybe two, and watch how it affects you.

Use your senses to center yourself

People tend to worry about things that haven’t happened yet, like when you're prepping to speak at a work conference yet the actual event doesn't start for another hour. Focusing too much on future events can work you into an unnecessary panic.

Instead of allowing your mind to race to the future, try focusing on what’s happening right now, DeLoveh suggests. Do this by training your brain to focus on your five senses. Ask yourself, what do you hear in the room, what do see in front of you? You’re not standing before the microphone; you’re just working on your PowerPoint slides. That five-senses exercise can thrust you back into the moment and “bring that physical piece down a notch,” she says.

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Take a break to meditate

You probably hear a lot about the powers of meditation. But practicing it really can help you become mindful of how your body is physically reacting to your thoughts, Shreya Hessler, PsyD, owner and founder of The MINDset Center in Bel Air, Maryland, tells Health. That, in turn, allows you to focus on slowing your breathing or relaxing a muscle group, she says, which dials back anxiety.

A 2014 review of 47 randomized trials involving more than 3,300 people suggests that mindfulness meditation can improve anxiety after eight weeks of practice. “Even just doing meditation two to three minutes with a guided app can be a game-changer,” says Hessler, author of Bianca Finds Her Bounce.

Put your anxious thought in a text

Instead of ruminating over a troubling thought, write it down in a text message you send yourself. You might say something like, “I’m worried about a deadline at work” or “I’m freaking out over a first date planned for tonight.” Then set a reminder to revisit your thought later on.

“If we can actually get it out of our head, it helps the hamster wheel to slow down a bit,” Hessler explains. When it's actually time to revisit the issue, you’re often in a better place mentally to process how you’re going to problem solve, she says.

Exercise it out of your system

Exercise can be a great way to burn off stress that leads to anxious feelings. Working out boosts levels of endorphins and other mood-boosting brain chemicals, and it helps with sleep. Aerobic exercise also stimulates production of a protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor).

BDNF is “like a brain fertilizer that bathes our neurons and makes our connections better and faster,” Clark explains. And that’s important, she adds, because a well-functioning brain is better equipped to understand, manage, and moderate emotions. 

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Remove yourself from the anxious environment

The brain chemical dopamine gets activated when we’re anxious, and that motivates us to take action to avoid a perceived threat, Clark explains. Instead of letting those anxious feelings swell up, channel that energy. Excuse yourself to the restroom to slap some water on your face, or just take a 10-minute walk outside or to another part of the building. Doing something that gets you away from the situation you're in will help you mentally get away as well.

Do this muscle-relaxing technique 

Progressive muscle relaxation is one of several mind-body techniques designed to slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure, which wipes out anxiety. Here's how to do it: Starting at your toes and ending at your head, or vice versa, tense each muscle group in your body one at a time, and then relax those muscles. “That’s so you can feel the tension and then feel yourself letting go,” DeLoveh says.

Keep your hands busy

Do stress balls and fidget cubes really work to release stress? They can help, psychologists say, unless, of course, those toys become just another distraction. “Some people, if they’re squeezing a stress ball, their concentration is better. They’re giving that nervous energy a place to go,” DeLoveh explains. It's a good argument to keep on hand some small object to fiddle with or toss around, like a beanbag, rubber ball, or fidget spinner.

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Cuddle your furry friend

Who’s the least judgmental member of the family, the one who loves and comforts you even when the Mack truck of anxiety is hitting you hard? Your furball pal, of course. Studies show human-animal interaction reduces self-reported anxiety and decreases heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

“I have patients with pets of all kinds, not just warm, fuzzy ones,” Hessler says. “That connection with another being can just be extraordinary for someone who’s experiencing anxiety, in particular for those who feel more socially anxious,” she adds. 

Pick up your knitting needles

What's so special about knitting? One theory has it that manipulating needles and yarn distances troubling thoughts and feelings. In a small study of women recovering from anorexia, 74% of participants given knitting lessons reported that the activity provided a welcome distraction. Likewise, 74% said knitting was relaxing and comforting, while 53% said it gave them a sense of pride, satisfaction, and accomplishment.

Limit your alcohol intake

We’re not saying you should skip happy hour; plenty of people drink alcohol to unwind and relax at the end of the day. But do so in moderation. “If you’re going to drink, less is more because too much of it can really give you an anxiety rebound,” says Clark. Plus, an evening of imbibing can mess with your sleep, and quality sleep on the regular helps keep anxiety in check.

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