12 September 2022
The world is full of anxiety-producing situations and scenarios like paying monthly bills on time, meeting deadlines at work or experiencing a fulfilling social life. Although part of everyday life, the thoughts and feelings associated with anxiety can be frustrating and debilitating – especially when the anxiety isn’t handled well.
Here are tips on how to help deal with anxiety in the moment. As a bonus, many of these techniques also can help improve your overall mental health.
What does anxiety feel like?
Anxiety is best explained by feelings of unease, fear and an overall sense of worry. How anxiety presents itself will vary in each person. But, in general, the effects are both psychological and physical.
When you deal with anxiety, it is believed to stem from an imbalance of the emotional-processing center of the brain, also called the limbic system – the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus and thalamus. These areas of the brain are responsible for emotion, memories, and arousal.
As a result, constant anxiety tends to trick your brain into thinking threats are real. In other words, it can’t differentiate perception from reality. You may also find your brain has a difficulty settling down.
Here is what anxiety can feel like from a psychological standpoint:
- A sense of danger
- Avoiding certain situations
- Can’t focus
- Constant rumination
- Obsessive thoughts
- Persistent worrying
Anxiety affects your autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for automated bodily responses such as breathing, eye blinking and your heartbeat.
Here is what anxiety can feel like from a physical standpoint:
- Excessive sweating
- Frequent trips to the bathroom
- Increased heart rate
- Muscle tension
- Shortness of breath
Instant anxiety relief
Before we start, you should know there is no such thing as instantly stopping anxiety. In more severe cases, medication and behavioral therapy can take weeks or months to set in.
Instead, the focus here isn’t on stopping anxiety, rather, the idea is to help people calm their anxiety and provide constructive ways to cope with these overwhelming feelings in the moment. You should be wary of any claims you find that promise to “cure” or “stop” anxiety instantly.
The 3-3-3 anxiety rule
That said, if you find yourself overwhelmed with anxious thoughts and feelings, you can try the 3-3-3 rule to quickly calm your anxiety. The 3-3-3 rule uses sight, sound and touch to focus on breathing and being aware of your surroundings – two things that work to provide a sense of calmness and keep your focus on the present, not the past or future.
- Sight: As the anxiety creeps in, take a moment and look at your surroundings. Breathe deeply, look at your surroundings and identify three objects. Study each object in detail, taking mental notes of colors and textures. If it’s an animate object, such as a bird or insect, watch how they move.
- Sound: Continue breathing deeply. Once you identify the objects visually, the next step is to seek out three things around you that produce sound. It can be a car driving by, tree limbs blowing in the wind or a bird chirping on a fence. Make a note of the specific sounds you hear from each one.
- Touch: Continue breathing deeply. Engage your sense of touch by physically feeling three parts of your body. You can roll your shoulders forward and backward, rub your kneecap or tap your finger on a body part. Whatever you choose, be intentional with your movements and feelings.
This exercise should take just a few minutes, and you should be able to practice it anywhere.
How to calm anxiety naturally
Outside of the 3-3-3 rule, here are some other ways to help calm your anxiety.
Breathe: The act of deep breathing helps your nervous system slow down. Simply take a deep breath in and slowly exhale out. Count to 10 and repeat this as many times as necessary to help your mind reset.
Meditation: Meditation helps trigger the relaxation response, which reduces activity of the sympathetic nervous system to help lower stress and anxiety levels. There are several types of meditation you can try. Read more here about meditation techniques to get started. You can also find inspiration via several free meditation apps. Insight Timer and Smiling Mind are two free apps to try.
Yoga: The combination of breathing, stretching, and relaxing of yoga is one of the best ways to help calm anxiety. There is some research that suggests yoga can increase gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that blocks impulses associated with anxiety.
Go for a walk: Something as short as a 15-minute walk can release endorphins to help you relax and become less anxious. Try listening to music when walking, as this can help ease your mind even more.
Find a distraction: Anxiety tends to start a negative cycle, as the negative thoughts make you think even more and serve as fuel for harmful emotions. Finding a distraction can help move your focus away for a short time period, allowing your brain to reset. A distraction can be as simple as playing with your dog or rolling the windows down and taking a short drive in your car.
Start a journal: For some people, written words can help the brain reset. Journaling involves making notes of your emotions. Not only can you write down fears and anxieties, you can also focus on what you’re grateful for, a process known as gratitude journaling.
Positive affirmations: Since anxiety is typically fueled by negative thoughts and projections of fear and unrest, creating a positive environment is one way to comeback anxiety. More specifically, positive affirmations focus on repeatable phrases that help reset your mind. Here is an example: In the moment, you may say something like “This is a difficult time. I believe in my ability to get through this.” Read more about how positive affirmations can impact you.
Listen to music: Music can help lower cortisol levels, which in turn can improve anxious thoughts and feelings. Music can also calm anxiety by producing dopamine, a neurotransmitter released when doing something pleasurable.
Guided imagery: This visualization technique uses images guided by a qualified imagery provider. The idea is to find your happy place by imaging sights, sounds, smells, tastes and other sensations. While many guided imagery sessions are conducted in an office setting with a provider, you can also use guided imagery apps to calm your anxiety in the moment. Learn more about guided imagery.
When to see a doctor about anxiety
There is a distinct difference between anxiety and an anxiety disorder. Even the brightest minds and most successful people experience some form of anxiety each day. This is normal.
What isn’t normal is when anxiety becomes constant, uncontrollable and disruptive to your everyday life. This can look different in people, but usually it involves finances, work or relationships.
Typically, people have a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or social anxiety disorder (SAD), as these are the two most common types of anxiety.
As the name suggests, generalized anxiety disorder is a constant state of worry. This includes the inability to make basic decisions, such as buying a new TV out of fear that you’re making the wrong choice, or persistent thoughts of failure. Depending on how the anxiety manifests, you may notice you’re more irritable, have become more restless and have trouble sleeping. GAD is also sometimes misdiagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder because the anxiety can make it difficult to focus and concentrate.
Social anxiety disorder, on the other hand, is a specific type of anxiety that presents itself in social settings. For example, you may be unable to hang out in larger groups in public out of fear of judgment. Social anxiety disorder is more than just being shy in public. Symptoms include excessive sweating, increased heart rate, stomach pain or an inability to make eye contact. In more severe cases, people will avoid public places altogether.
If you or a loved one are having difficulties handling anxiety, you may benefit from a consultation with a mental health provider. For more information, contact INTEGRIS Mental Health. Our mental health division offers services for children, adolescents, adults and seniors.
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