You have a big presentation. You’re taking an important exam for your license. You’re defending your master’s thesis. You need to talk to your best friend about something that’s been bothering you. You need to talk to your boss. Or you’re about to do something else that’s making you nervous.
Either way, whatever the activity, task, or situation, the anxiety feels like it’s coursing through your veins. It feels big and overpowering and dramatic. And all you want is for it to go away. Understandably. Because anxiety is very uncomfortable. And who likes to feel uncomfortable?
According to Kimberley Quinlan, a marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Calabasas, Calif., anxiety “tends to show up around the things we value the most in our lives.”
It’s common for anxiety to arise in our relationships with family and friends, and in places where we’re forced to face our fears (because of our values), such as flying to visit a friend or giving a talk at work, said Quinlan, owner of CBTschool.com, an online education resource for anxiety and depression.
Many of Sheva Rajaee’s clients “get anxious about situations they fear will cause them social rejection, whether that be a fear they will mess something important up and be looked at differently, do something that makes them unlovable, or act in a way that gets them kicked out of the proverbial tribe.” Rajaee is the founder of The Center for Anxiety and OCD in Irvine, Calif.
For many of us, when anxiety arises, we act in unhelpful ways that actually amplify and feed our anxiety. We avoid the situation, which soothes our anxiety in the short term, but then only perpetuates it. We try to suppress our thoughts, but “the more we try not to think something scary, the more we actually think it,” said Quinlan.
We ruminate about all the possible outcomes and scenarios that could happen, she said. This just “increase[s] our chances of creating catastrophic stories in our head and then end up feeding ourselves back into a loop of having more and more anxiety.”
We might regularly ask others for reassurance, lash out, or make “I can’t” statements, said Kristin Bianchi, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating OCD, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and depression at the Center for Anxiety & Behavioral Change in Rockville, M.d.
We also might try to get out of doing certain things — such as staying home “sick” from school or work to avoid a potentially stressful interaction or task, putting off a doctor’s appointment, or asking others to do things for us (e.g., lie for us when we bail on a birthday party), Bianchi said.
If these things aren’t helpful and only boost our anxiety, what is helpful?
According to Quinlan, “The first thing to remember about anxiety is that it is a human experience and that fear and anxiety are meant to show up in our lives.”
Below, you’ll find other helpful mindset shifts, practices, and tools for coping with anxiety right now.
Shift your perspective on anxiety. When we view our anxiety as “bad,” “dangerous,” or “unwanted,” we increase “our own experience of its danger,” Quinlan said. Instead, “it is really helpful to try and frame fear as nothing more than ‘discomfort’ that is tolerable and temporary.” You can even keep a small index card in your wallet or bag with that phrase written on it—if you forget.
Practice acceptance and kindness. “Acceptance involves allowing the present moment, just as it is without trying to change it or manipulate it,” Quinlan said. She even encouraged readers to talk directly to your anxiety.
“Instead of saying, ‘Go away. I hate you, Anxiety,’ you may want to experiment with replacing that comment with, ‘Oh, hi there, Anxiety. I see that you are back. I know you want me to run away right now, but instead, let’s go get groceries together. I really need milk and eggs.’”
Similarly, you can address yourself with self-compassion, which also helps to instantly calm “your physiological response and mimics the nurturing we would get from a trusted parent or loved one,” Rajaee said.
She shared these examples: “Wow, I can see you’re feeling very anxious and fearful right now”; and “I know you really wanted things to work out, I’m sorry it didn’t go as planned.”
Slow down your breathing. This helps to calm our body’s stress response. Bianchi suggested this breathing exercise: Inhale through your nose to a count of 4 to 6 seconds, gently hold your breath for 1 to 2 seconds, and then exhale through your mouth to a count of 4 to 6 seconds.
“We encourage people to make certain to breathe out nice and slowly, perhaps imagining that you’re slowly blowing fluff off a dandelion, or blowing a slow stream of bubbles.”
You also can try apps such as Breathe2Relax, Bianchi added.
Similarly, Rajaee recommended taking deep belly breaths, along with “relaxing your muscles and allowing your body to adopt a ‘safe’ stance instead of a threatened posture.” This “will send a message to your mind that you are not in danger.”
Try to move your body. “It’s been well-documented that exercise releases endorphins, and that endorphins not only help us feel calmer, but also help to increase our concentration, mental clarity, flexibility of thought, and creativity,” Bianchi said. So if you’re able to, consider engaging in any kind of cardio, such as HIIT training or a brisk walk, she said. Plus, if you can notice the nature around you, this can help even more, she added.
Allow your anxiety—maybe even welcome it. When you find yourself feeling anxious, Quinlan noted that an effective strategy is to say “Bring it on!” First of all, this is empowering (instead of making us feel out of control, which regularly happens when anxiety arises). Secondly, “our goal in anxiety management is to always make decisions based on our values and beliefs, not based on fear.”
What does welcoming anxiety actually look like? According to Quinlan, it’s about allowing the scary thoughts we’re bombarded with to bombard us, no matter how intimidating or strange they are. It’s about doing the same with our physical sensations, reminding ourselves that they won’t hurt us, and will go away. Quinlan noted that allowing anxiety “will feel like a wave.”
Become a curious observer. Bianchi suggested adopting a similarly inquisitive, open mindset to “Jane Goodall, Buddhist monks, and artists painting nature scenes.” In other words, notice and name exactly what you’re experiencing when you’re anxious, without judging yourself, she said. For example, you might say: “I notice that my heart is racing. I notice that I’m thinking that I’ll fail and be humiliated.”
When we use language, it “forces us to use the areas of our brains that are associated with rational, logical thinking processes. This can help us to get a little bit of distance from the distressing thoughts that we’re having, and to react somewhat less intensely to unpleasant physical sensations associated with anxiety,” Bianchi said.
Come up with “courage statements.” Remind yourself that you can persevere through tough — yes, even excruciatingly anxiety-provoking — times. Bianchi teaches her clients to come up with these empowering statements, memorize them, and use them in stressful situations.
These are some of the popular ones, she said: “Courage isn’t how I feel; it’s what I do when I’m afraid”; “I can do hard things”; “I am stronger than my fear”; “Just because my anxiety is talking doesn’t mean I have to listen.”
Seek help. If your anxiety extends beyond high-stress situations and spills over into your job, relationships, and other areas of your life, Bianchi suggested getting help. “Luckily, chronic anxiety that interferes with a person’s functioning is highly treatable with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).” You can find a therapist who uses CBT or another scientifically supported treatment by looking at the directories of professional organizations, she said, such as: the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, International OCD Foundation, and the American Psychological Association.
Rajaee noted that the most important thing to know about anxiety is that it’s temporary and it’ll pass.
The key is to allow the waves of anxiety to rise and fall, she said. “While we cannot control the waves, we can learn to be an effective sailor. When we stop fighting, resisting, and trying to change the very natural rise and fall of anxiety, we create a healthier relationship to it and can allow it to pass through us more easily.”
This takes practice, and can seem really hard at first — and maybe really hard the second, third, and tenth time you do it. But it will get easier. We just have to give ourselves the chance (and chances) to try.