Anxiety can range from minor annoyance to paralyzing levels of fear. Every human has a basic anxiety response and it’s actually good for us. It keeps you alive by warning you of dangers and telling you how to react. The anxiety response is typically flexible and reacts to the true level of danger. It ramps up when danger is present and relaxes when the danger is gone.
Those suffering from clinical anxiety (general, specific phobia, social, etc) are experiencing a rigid anxiety response. It remains a strong presence even when there’s no danger. This is what leads to the rapid heartbeat, dizziness, heat flashes, and other typical anxiety responses. Your body’s fear response has activated because “there might be danger.”
There are many guides that can help with long-term anxiety coping and I’ll share those soon. It’s also highly suggested that you speak with a licensed counselor so that they can help identify and treat your specific anxiety (we’re all different, even in our anxiety).
This will give you several tips for stopping anxiety in the moment so that you can return to the present moment.
The Short Guide
- Three things you can see, feel, hear, and smell
- Breathing exercise
- Accept the feelings
- Controlling stance
- Question your thoughts
- *Ask someone else
The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points
This is honestly one of the most comprehensive books I’ve read about anxiety and it’s very accessible whether you’re curious about your own anxiety, learning about the condition, or working with clients. Dr. Alice Boyes talks about the various ways anxiety can manifest, gives you quizzes to see which aspects need the most work, and gives you exercises to ease and better understand the anxiety. It’s a wonderful read and it goes by very quickly.
Staying Here and Now
Anxiety is called a future-tense condition and it’s easy to see why. Your mind is thinking about danger that’s right around the corner. You can’t be around people because they might do something awful. You can’t try something new because who knows what danger might be lurking. You can’t talk in public because someone might notice you stammering or blushing, and who knows what will happen then?
That’s the thing. Who knows what will happen?
It’s this line of thinking that drives anxiety. Otherwise typical events cause your body’s fear response to ramp up to 100.
Let’s stay here and now, just for a moment.
Consider your body in the present. You’re safe, aren’t you? There’s no danger. We need to keep your mind in the present to help remind you that you’re safe (and that the fears playing in your head are imaginary).
One of the best ways to do this is to pay attention to your surroundings. There are many ways of doing this (so feel free to change the numbers), but find three things you can see, three things you can touch, three things you can hear, and three things you can smell. Three for every sensation except taste (unless there’s food nearby, in which case, what are three things you can taste?).
Box Breathing (or Any Breathing Exercise)
You probably don’t notice it, but almost everyone suffering from anxiety is either breathing too much or too little. This makes your heart race, drives up your blood pressure, makes you feel dizzy, and just isn’t good for you. Not only that, but it gives you an out-of-body sensation that isn’t healthy.
A breathing exercise will help regulate your heart rate, bring your breathing back to normal, and it will help you focus on the here and now.
Any breathing exercise will help, so if you have another one feel free to use it (and even comment below and tell me what it is). My personal favorite is Box Breathing. It’s very easy, you can draw something to help you focus, and it should calm your body down in just a few minutes.
Draw a square on any piece of paper. Just a standard, simple, four-lined square. You don’t even need to draw it if you don’t want to, but the visual representation might help.
Place your finger on a corner. Inhale slowly to the count of 4. While counting, move your finger to the next corner. Hold your breath to the count of 4. Move your finger to the next corner. Exhale to the count of 4. Last corner. Pause to the count of 4. Then restart.
Inhale for 4; hold for 4; exhale for 4; pause for 4. Repeat as needed.
Personally I find this works in about two or three rotations. Do as many as you need until your heartbeat returns to normal.
You’re anxious, and that’s OK. The natural reaction that most people go through is to wrestle with their anxiety, push it under the rug, force themselves to feel better (by ignoring, not by coping), and attempt to avoid the fearful situation.
That doesn’t really help, does it?
It’s OK to accept your feelings. Accept the situation and the anxiety that goes along with it. You’re afraid. You don’t have to tell everyone you know that you’re afraid and you don’t have to like it. But you do have to accept it.
This allows you to accept reality as it is. When we do that, then we can better deal with our feelings. It lets us get to the heart of the matter (what’s really bothering me?) and is extremely liberating. Yes, liberating.
You can cast off the illusions that your feelings aren’t really your feelings. Accepting what is actually happening is a huge step towards feeling better, both in the moment and long term.
Change Your Stance
Do you know what your body instinctively does when you’re in danger? You begin to hunch. You try to cover your vital areas like your chest and stomach. We can’t have those organs damaged. Your body knows what to do in the face of danger, but as we’ve covered, the danger isn’t real and only exists in the mind.
Changing your stance is so simple an idea it sounds like it wouldn’t work, but it really does. Right now you’re in a defensive stance, so how can we change that? Bring your shoulders back, open your chest, and sit with your feet apart. Or stand. Standing works great as well for this exercise.
Another benefit of this is that it may reduce the sore muscles often associated with tensing (another common anxiety symptom). This stance puts you in control of the situation and should reduce feelings of helplessness in the face of invisible danger.
Question Your Thoughts
Your thoughts are legitimate, don’t let me say otherwise. However, I want you to change how you relate to your anxious thinking. Really listen to yourself and what your mind is telling you. You’re likely hearing that the danger (whatever it might be) will kill you and is impossible to overcome.
This probably isn’t true.
If you heard someone else saying this to you, how would you react? Now’s the time to listen to your thoughts and then question them. For example, with social anxiety, you might be worried about a party or giving a speech. The truth is that the event would probably be fine. Even if a problem does happen, everyone will brush it off and go about their day.
Question the likelihood of your fears coming true, or of them being as dangerous as your mind is telling you. It’s best to do this after relaxing your body and heart rate because you’ll be in a better place to logically question the thoughts.
Optional: Ask Someone Else
This can be a great way to stop anxiety in the moment. However, I consider it an optional step because most people don’t want to openly talk about their anxiety. I believe we should all be there to support each other and that others should respect your fears and react appropriately.
However, since I cannot guarantee this, and because I understand how hard it is voicing your anxiety, I can see why this anxiety tip would be difficult. If you feel up to it, then I suggest giving it a try.
Talk to someone else about whatever you’re feeling anxious about. Does the other person think it’s a true threat? Not only can you hear someone else’s perspective (and maybe even a new way of coping with the anxiety, depending on the person), but this allows you to logically process the thought. It’s no longer trapped inside your head where anything can happen. You’ve said it in the real world and can apply real world logic to it.
Again, I know this can be hard, but it’s worth a try if you’re up for it.
Anxiety is difficult, I would never say otherwise. These steps can help you reduce feelings of anxiety in the moment. I highly suggest reading some guides on helping you with more long-term strategies and seeking out a counselor to pinpoint the exact cause of your anxiety (and to create a personalized treatment plan).
In either case, let me know how these steps worked for you. Were you able to calm your body and mind? Let me know in the comments and tell me if there’s anything else you can think of to help with this problem.
Take care, be well, and good bye for now.