Everyone feels anxious from time to time. Occasional anxiety is a normal reaction to uncertainty about what’s going to happen next, whether that’s in the next few minutes, days, or months.
Mental health experts define anxiety as worry over a threat that’s still in your future. Thinking about a conversation you dread, for example, could twist your stomach into knots days before it happens. Your heart may race before an exam or presentation. You might lie awake at night worried about whether you’ll catch COVID-19 at the grocery store.
It’s also normal to want to get rid of those uncomfortable, pit-of-the-stomach feelings as quickly as possible. But that approach can make you more anxious, says David H. Rosmarin, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
“When you worry about getting rid of your anxiety, you’re signaling your nervous system that you have even more to be anxious about. And that makes your anxiety worse,” he says.
Keep in mind that if your anxiety is long-lasting and interferes with your daily life, you could have an anxiety disorder. In that case, you may need treatment to overcome it.
Calm Anxiety by Accepting It
It’s not what people expect to hear. But one of the most effective ways to ease occasional anxiety is to accept it, says Rosmarin, who is also founder of the Center for Anxiety in New York City.
“When we let anxiety run its course in the moment without fighting it, ironically, that makes it less. On the other hand, fighting anxiety is what typically [triggers] a panic attack,” he says.
“And, if your only strategy is to distract yourself from your anxiety or to avoid things that cause it, you’ll always be afraid of it. It’s always going to be the bully in the schoolyard because you’ve never learned to deal with it.”
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America puts it this way: “The thoughts you resist persist.”
Try these steps instead:
Recognize and understand your anxiety: Tell yourself, “My nervous system is kicking into high gear because I’m worried about [thing X].”
Don’t criticize yourself for those feelings: Instead, say, “This is a normal, healthy response by my body to these circumstances, which are complicated, stressful, or difficult. It’s OK to feel this way.”
Know that you can have anxiety and still function well: “You can perform very well with anxiety, and probably have done so before,” Rosmarin says.
Think back to a time when you were anxious but did what you needed to do anyway. Maybe you were filled with anxiety before an event or a meeting. But later, someone said you did a great job.
How to Stop Anxiety
When your anxiety feels overwhelming, these techniques can give you quick, short-term relief.
Do a reality check: Ask yourself these questions:
- On scale of 1 to 100, how likely is it that the thing I’m anxious about will happen?
- Do I have good reasons to think something will go wrong?
- Is there a chance I’m overly worried?
Share your anxiety with someone you trust: Don’t avoid your anxious thoughts, which can make them worse. Talk them over with a friend or family member, who can help you put them in perspective.
Remind yourself that you’re safe: “When anxiety kicks in you may feel scared or out of control, with your mind racing to all these uncertain future catastrophes,” says clinical psychologist Debra Kissen, PhD, chief executive officer of Light On Anxiety CBT Treatment Centers in the Chicago area.
“Ask yourself, ‘Is there a real danger in front of me, or am I actually safe at home and worried about something that’s no threat to me right now?’” she says. “This thinking can ground you in the moment and reboot your brain and body so you feel less anxious.”
Redirect nervous energy: Anxiety can be like a motor revving, says licensed professional counselor Lisa Henderson. “Take control of that energy and put it somewhere else,” says Henderson, co-founder and chief executive officer of Synchronous Health in Nashville.
“If you’re sitting there worried, for example, get up and walk or pace,” she says. “Take a few minutes to clean something. Go outside for 5 minutes. Shorts bursts of activity can release that anxious energy.”
Take a mental break: “Use a guided imagery app or simply daydream on your own,” Henderson says. “A brief mental vacation can break the cycle of anxious thoughts.”
To try this on your own, set a timer for a few minutes, close your eyes, and picture yourself somewhere you feel peaceful or happy.
“Just letting your mind wander can work well if your anxiety comes from feeling controlled or managed,” Henderson says. “If your mind returns to its anxious thoughts, notice -- without judgment -- that it’s happened and mentally tell your anxiety ‘I’ll be with you in a moment.’ Then go back to your daydream.”
You may prefer an app that guides you through your thoughts to help you release anxiety. Find relaxation or meditation apps that appeal to you and give them try.
Just breathe: Inhale and exhale slowly, evenly, and deeply for several breaths.
Change your position: “Whatever you’re doing, do the opposite,” Kissen says. “If you’re hunched over with worry, stand up and take a Wonder Woman pose. If you’re under a blanket, go wash your face with cold water. Changing your sensory experience can ‘change the channel’ from anxiety.”
Use a mantra: A mantra can shift your mind away from anxious thoughts that play over and over in your head, Kissen says.
Two she likes are: “These thoughts are uncomfortable, but not dangerous,” and “This, too, will pass.”
Put your anxiety on a schedule: Pick a 15-minute window during the day to think about your anxieties. “During that time, tell your brain to just go for it and let the anxious thoughts come,” Kissen says. “But when they arise outside that time, tell them ‘I’m willing to hear you, but come back tomorrow at 3 p.m.’”
If anxiety keeps you awake, get up: “If you’re lying in bed worrying about things for more than 5 minutes, get up and go to another room and write down your anxieties,” Kissen says. “Go back to bed when you’re tired, but get up again if you feel anxious. It might take a few nights of going back and forth, but this exercise can train your brain that your bed is for sleep, not for anxiety.”
Do I Need Treatment for Anxiety?
There’s a lot you can do on your own to relieve anxiety, but sometimes you need help. Psychotherapy and medication are the two main treatments for anxiety disorders.
Signs that it’s time to talk to a mental health professional include:
- Constant or nearly constant anxiety
- Anxiety that gets in the way of your daily activities, like work or social life
- Anxiety about things that don’t actually threaten you
- Panic attacks
Check your health insurance policy to see what mental health services your plan covers. Then, review a list of your in-network providers to find one to connect with.
“You don’t want to add to your anxiety by paying big out-of-pocket fees,” Kissen says.
Your primary care doctor may also be able to recommend a mental health professional with experience treating anxiety and anxiety disorders.
Rosmarin notes that it’s important to find a provider you click with and trust. He also says therapy doesn’t need to go on indefinitely to be effective.
“A course of cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety may be eight to 10 sessions,” he says. “There’s also data to suggest that people feel substantially better after just one therapy session for panic disorder.”