The 40 million Americans who live with an anxiety disorder know how terrifying both the physical and mental symptoms can be. Issues like debilitating headaches, shortness of breath and persistent rumination make even the simplest daily tasks feel like impossible undertakings. For people without the disorder, acute instances of anxiety ― think job or financial stress ― can lead to the same symptoms and feelings.
However, there are ways to treat and manage the issue. We consulted experts on their go-to moves when it comes to mitigating anxiety, as well as their advice on when to seek professional help. Here are just a few anxiety tips experts swear by:
1. Put your anxiety on ice
Sheri Heller, a New York City–based psychotherapist, suggested literally dousing your stress.
She recommended plunging your hands into ice water or splashing some on your face. “Sensorial stimulation with cold water can break through dissociative feelings that often accompany anxiety and offer immediate relief from heightened cortisol levels,” she explained.
2. Clench your fists
While exercise is great for alleviating anxiety, it’s not exactly realistic to go for a run when you’re in the middle of a panic attack. However, a few physical activities ― even ones as simple as clenching and releasing parts of your body ― can have a positive effect, said Nicole O-Pries, a therapist based in Richmond, Virginia.
“Place your hands on or beside your legs. Ball your fists like you are really mad and tighten your hands as much as you can. Take a deep breath and loosen your fists a little bit at the end of the out breath,” she said. “Continue to take deep breaths and loosen your fists until your hands are completely open. Then stretch your fingers outward as much as you can. Now notice your body again and the lessening of the anxiety points you felt earlier.”
3. Repeat a calming phrase
Carol Howe, a spiritual psychotherapist in Orlando, Florida, said that when the body is under stress, we need to address our physical discomfort before we can calm down.
“Breathe deeply at least three times, in through your nose and out through your mouth,” she said. “Assure yourself with this language: ‘I am safe, and I am loved.’” Repeat slowly three times, and you should begin to feel more at ease.
4. Allow yourself to feel anxious
Yep, you read that correctly. Sometimes the more you fight it, the worse it gets, Howe said. Instead, acknowledge that you’re feeling anxiety and give yourself permission to feel uncomfortable.
“I know this sounds scary, but anxiety stays anchored into place when we resist its presence,” she said. “It can literally move through and beyond us the moment we decide to allow it.”
5. Let the tears flow
It can also be helpful to cry, Heller said. Research shows that crying can be therapeutic, and often it’s a sign that there are emotions that need to be released.
“Often anxiety is a response to trapped or repressed grief,” Heller explained. “In these cases, giving oneself conscious permission to cry can offer the catharsis needed to calm the nervous system.”
6. Shut down your social media apps for a bit
Those suffering from anxiety can often feel overwhelmed by external expectations, including cultivating the perfect image on social media. Lauren Rose, a psychotherapist in Rye, New York, suggested that people feeling anxiety based on their newsfeeds (FOMO, anyone?) take a timeout.
“Social media ― and the internet in general ― often heighten anxiety and fear, sometimes through encounters with inaccurate information or information not relevant to the particular situation,” she said. But the World Wide Web isn’t all awful. Online support groups can help anxiety sufferers feel less alone, she added.
7. Take stock of your surroundings
Not thinking about your symptoms entirely is frivolous advice. (How can you not think about feeling as if your world is crashing?) That said, distracting your mind by focusing on something concrete in front of you can help you to avoid spiraling out of control, said Julia Colangelo, a licensed clinical social worker based in New York City.
“Count different colors, numbers or items in a room. If you’re feeling panicked, this can be a way to ground yourself and manage distress and anxiety while also not checking out,” she said.
8. Jot down your feelings
Putting your worries and triggers in writing can help you manage your symptoms and challenge negative self-talk that’s often associated with anxiety, said Karen Whitehead, a licensed counselor based in Atlanta.
“Write down two to three words or bullet points that describe your biggest worries at that moment. Take them one at a time and ask yourself if it is a fact or your opinion,” she said. “Often what feels 100 percent true in the moment is actually our opinion, and when we recognize it as such, we can diffuse its intensity.”
9. Face what’s causing your anxiety in the first place
It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s one of the most effective strategies. Robert Duff, a licensed psychologist and the author of Hardcore Self Help: F**k Anxiety, said it’s important to face specific fears you have and not practice avoidance tactics.
“Anxiety is fed by avoidance. When you feel anxious about a given scenario, one of the most common reactions is to avoid it,” he explained. “Even though logically there may be no real danger in these situations, anxiety makes you feel like you actually dodged a bullet by avoiding the potentially upsetting situation rather than pushing through. That just makes anxiety bigger.”
When you are in a possibly anxiety-inducing situation, try not to retreat. “Challenge yourself to stay in it for five minutes,” he said. “You can tolerate just about anything for five minutes. If you can handle it after five minutes, push it to 10, then 15, etc. Eventually, your body will regulate itself, and the anxious feelings that you have will become easier to tolerate.” Heads up, though: This approach is best undertaken with the support of a therapist, Duff said.
10. Seek help from a professional
Speaking of support from a therapist and talking things through with a mental health professional can be hugely beneficial and keep you safe from a progression to more dangerous anxious behaviors, said Heidi McBain, a licensed counselor based in Flower Mound, Texas.
“Seeing a therapist who specializes in anxiety can help people break the unhealthy patterns in their lives and learn new, healthier ways of coping with their anxiety,” she said.
Although experiencing anxiety isn’t always within your control, taking care of your mental and physical health can limit the chances that it will become overwhelming. Making sure that you eat well, exercise and get enough rest, along with watching the way you talk to yourself, helps ensure that you’re more resilient against negative feelings and thoughts.