Anxiety is awful.
It is one of the worst mental and physical feelings in the world.
You literally want to jump out of your own skin. Inhabiting your body is like living inside of a live-wire suit with no means of escape. You are buzzing, overstimulated, and filled with a vague sense of dread.
Living with anxiety feels like that moment when you see a speeding car headed straight at you — only that moment lasts for what feels like an eternity. Your “fight or flight” systems are in full activation mode.
There's a heaviness in your chest. Your palms might sweat. Your heart is racing. You feel the urge to pace the floor, shake your foot uncontrollably, or rock back and forth just to dispel some of the anxious energy.
You might try to take some deep breaths to calm down, only to feel the anxiety rush back in like a tidal wave.
You may have other physical symptoms, like digestive problems, headaches, trembling, and insomnia.
Internally, your world is pinwheeling out of control.
You can't stop ruminating and worrying about phantom problems and unseen boogeymen. To add to your worry, you fret endlessly about your anxiety. “How long will this last? Why is it happening? How can I make it stop? Please just let it stop.” You feel out-of-control and helpless.
Concentrating on the most basic tasks feels like a Herculean effort. All of your focus is devoted to not falling on the floor in a quivering heap of tears and panic.
When so much energy is devoted to just getting through the day, you don't have much left over for work, relationships, and the things that normally bring you pleasure.
Everyone feels some anxiety from time to time. But when anxiety becomes your constant companion, when you find it looming larger and larger in your daily life, then you must take action before it becomes completely debilitating.
If you want to know how stop anxiety before it spirals out of control, here are ten strategies to help you:
1. Be honest with yourself.
If you've been feeling anxious for more than a week or so, pay attention. Acknowledge to yourself (and to those close to you) that you are having difficulty coping. Don't try to hide it or stuff it down. This will only make it harder to function.
The sooner you address the situation, the easier it will be to treat it and feel more like yourself again. Left unaddressed, your anxiety can trigger panic attacks or depression.
It does feel embarrassing to admit you're having problems with anxiety. Your feelings of shame or discomfort about having it can add a second layer of stress that makes your anxious feelings even more pronounced.
But according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety affects 40 million adults in the United States. You are not alone with this challenge, and in all likelihood, those around you have either dealt with it themselves or have someone close to them who has.
2. Avoid self-medicating.
When you feel anxious, you'd do just about anything to escape the cluster of agonizing symptoms. You may feel compelled to drink alcohol or take recreational drugs to calm down and quell the emotional suffering.
But self-medicating with these substances is not useful or healthy in the long run. Even though it may have sedative effects at first, alcohol is a depressant which can make you feel worse after the alcohol wears off. Alcohol actually changes the levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in your brain.
According to recent studies on anxiety and substance abuse, those with anxiety who self-medicate are much more likely to develop a drug or alcohol problem.
Self-medicating also increases the chances of an anxiety problem turning into a much more serious anxiety disorder, like having panic attacks or social phobia.
3. Exercise daily.
Study after study has shown that regular exercise can be as effective as medication in treating anxiety. Exercise releases endorphins in your brain, which play a role in regulating mood and relaxing your mind. Exercise also reduces cortisol (the “fight or flight” stress hormone) in your brain.
Inactivity can contribute to anxiety, as your body has a build-up of unused energy that creates tension. Exercise helps expel that energy and release the pent up tensions that contribute to anxious feelings.
Exercise also improves your sleep — something that can be negatively impacted by anxiety. Having adequate sleep is so critical to your mental and physical health.
If you are really suffering with anxiety or you're new to exercise, start by just walking for short distances or even walking in place while listening to music. Yoga has also proven to be a great exercise for relieving anxiety and depression, as well as hiking, biking, and swimming.
Running has been touted as a highly effective treatment for anxiety. Running increases your aerobic capacity, and it normalizes heart rate and blood flow, helping with some of the worst symptoms of of anxiety. The “endorphin high” created by running can offset the effects of cortisol in your body.
If you are new to running or fear that it will be too much for you, try the Couch to 5K app that slowly and steadily helps you run five kilometers or thirty minutes in nine weeks.
4. Try cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) emphasizes the way our thinking impacts our emotions. Your thoughts about situations, not the situation itself, is the main cause of your feelings.
CBT is one of the most widely-used and effective treatments for anxiety disorders available. Depending on the severity of anxiety symptoms, treatment generally takes just a few months to reduce or eliminate the symptoms.
When you have anxiety, you often have looping, negative thoughts about yourself, your relationships, your life situation, or any number of things that contribute to feelings of stress and agitation. Your thoughts about your anxiety, such as, “I'll never feel better. I'm can't escape these feelings,” also increase your feelings of anxiety.
With CBT, a trained therapist teaches you the skills to challenge your thoughts and reframe them more positively. They help you use your rational mind to focus on a more realistic attitude toward your concerns or life problems so that you don't react in ways that trigger anxiety.
Once you learn the skills of identifying your negative thoughts, challenging them, and replacing them with more realistic thoughts, you develop the awareness to do this on your own. With practice, you'll find you have more control over your anxiety as you sidestep the trap of irrational thinking.
5. Practice meditation.
Another way to deal with the racing, negative thoughts that produce anxiety is through a regular practice of meditation. With meditation, you learn to “train your brain” so that your thoughts aren't so consuming and intrusive.
Numerous studies have confirmed the powerful benefits of meditation for those with anxiety and other psychological disorders.
During meditation, you allow yourself to be fully present and grounded in your body through attention to your breathing. When intrusive thoughts enter your mind, which they will surely do, you simply observe them without judgment. You notice the thought and then return again to your breathing.
Initially, you may do this dance many times during your meditation session. You may find that thoughts flood your mind, especially when you are anxious. Your job is to notice them and return to your breathing, even if you must return to it dozens of times during your meditation.
Over time, you'll see that your thoughts become less and less intrusive and that the time in between intrusive thoughts gets longer.
If you feel too restless or anxious to meditate on your own, begin with short, guided meditations to help you stay focused.
6. Take a social media and news detox.
Being on social media might make you feel more connected to family and friends, but it can also have negative, anxiety-producing ramifications.
The “compare and despair” effect in which you look at the posts and images of others enjoying their lives can lead to feelings of agitation, stress, and sadness. You might feel a sense of personal failure or inadequacy because your life doesn't seem to match up.
If you see a friend's post from a party or event you weren't invited to, you might feel left out and fret over your social status or likability. Negative, aggressive, or politically-charged social media posts can stir up feelings of stress and anxiety. And certainly bullying or harassment on social media is a huge cause of anxiety and stress.
Social media also has an addictive quality that can make us anxious and restless if we don't get our “fix.” When we aren't tuned in, we can experience a fear of missing out and being “left behind” in some way.
This anxiety-producing effect also can occur when reading, watching, or listening to the news. Most news stories are about frightening, negative events presented in a sensational manner. Tuning in regularly and absorbing all of this dire information is bound to add to your anxious feelings.
If you are dealing with anxiety in any form, removing yourself from these anxiety-provoking sites is one of the best actions you can take. Rather than spending time on social media or watching the news, do something fun, soothing, or mentally challenging instead.
7. Keep a journal.
Journaling is a highly-effective way to manage stress, explore your thoughts and emotions, and solve problems. It is also an excellent support tool if you are engaging in CBT.
As you write down your thoughts and feelings, you can more easily see where you need to challenge your thoughts and what positive actions you can take to help yourself feel better. You will have a feeling of relief and release as you get your thoughts out of your head and on to paper where you can see them in the light of day.
As you write down your concerns and fears, you can develop an action plan for dealing with them. This gives you something in writing you can refer to when your anxious feelings creep back in.
Journaling about the things that are positive in your life can help you shift your focus away from your anxiety producing thoughts. Try keeping a gratitude journal where you write about the people and circumstances in your life that are valuable and important to you.
Simple the act of writing in a journal, which requires focus and intention, can help you feel less anxious. When your mind is engaged, you aren't as aware of your anxiety and worries.
8. Educate yourself.
There are a variety of different anxiety disorders, from social anxiety and phobias to generalized anxiety disorder. Understanding exactly what you are dealing with, what your thought triggers are, and how those triggers contribute to your particular form of anxiety is critical to your recovery.
One of the best actions you can take to help yourself is by reading books (by established experts) that give you insight and strategies to use with your recovery.
Check out The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, by Edmund Bourne PhD, as well as Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook: Proven, Step-by-Step Techniques for Overcoming your Fear by Martin M. Antony PhD and Richard Swinson, MD.
If you are dealing with panic attacks, read When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life, by David D. Burns, MD.
Taking your recovery into your own hands by educating yourself will give you a sense of control over your destiny. Feeling helpless and hopeless about your anxiety makes you feel more agitated and depressed.
9. Connect with a support system.
You may feel some embarrassment or shame about your anxiety, but as I mentioned earlier, you are not alone. Millions of people suffer from some anxiety disorder, and most everyone has experienced brief bouts of anxiety and understands how difficult it is to live with.
Isolating yourself and stuffing your emotions is one of the worst things you can do when you are feeling anxious. Even if you are working with a therapist, you need the support of friends and family to help you cope.
The energy required in hiding your anxiety or pretending everything is OK when it really isn't can exhaust you and make you feel more stressed and fretful.
Allow others to be there for you and give you support. Talk about your negative thoughts and how they are impacting you and your emotions.
A loving friend or family member can have perspective on the situation that you might not have because you are looking through the negative filter of your anxious feelings.
Just spending time with people who care about you can distract your from you anxious feelings for a while and give you a sense of connection and hope.
10. Try medication.
If your anxiety is so debilitating that you can't function, you find yourself unable to sleep, or you feel like you are slipping into a depression, then it may be time to consider medication.
There are a variety of anti-depressant medications that have proven to provide tremendous relief from anxiety.
Most of these medications take a few weeks to fully enter your system and take full effect. In the meantime, there are short term anti-anxiety medications that can relieve some of your worst symptoms.
Be sure to speak to your family doctor or a psychiatrist about your specific anxiety symptoms so he or she can help you find the right medication. You need a doctor to monitor you while on these medications to ensure you are getting the help you need.
Studies have shown that medication in conjunction with therapy provides the most successful outcomes for anxiety and depression. Don't rely just on medication to ease your symptoms. Learn the skills discussed above to empower yourself and change your perceptions about your thoughts.
Anxiety is a very treatable disorder, but it requires your active intervention on several fronts to ensure you get ahead of it before it takes control of you.