When you’re anxious, your body undergoes a “fight or flight” response with increased heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle tension, and other changes. Chronic anxiety can have negative health effects, so managing it is important for both your mental and physical well-being.
Everyone feels anxious at times, just like everyone experiences self-doubt, fear, and nervousness. Many people experience these moments without serious damage to long-term health.
But if these negative thoughts become a constant hurdle, you may need to find better ways to cope with your anxiety. If they are persistent and get in the way of life, you may need to talk to a mental health professional.
Let’s look at how to calm your anxiety and keep it under control.
What is anxiety, and where does it come from?
Medical professionals define anxiety as excessive worrying about a real or perceived threat. This “threat” could be a presentation at school, a meeting with your boss, or traveling somewhere new.
For people with anxiety, the response may be out of sync with the situation. Plus, the anxiety isn’t fleeting — it lingers.
Often, anxiety is the result of a new or unfamiliar situation. Sometimes, events in our past can trigger it.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) only 1 in 4 people suffering from anxiety seek help to manage it.
Symptoms & signs of anxiety
Research from the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) shows that approximately 6.8 million Americans are affected by generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). This is one form of anxiety. Others include social anxiety disorder and separation anxiety disorder.
Some of the main mental and physical symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Rapid breathing
- Sweating and trembling
- Feeling weak or tired
- Having a sense of impending danger or panic and the urge to avoid things that trigger these feelings
- Panic attacks
What is the 3-3-3 rule for anxiety?
The 3-3-3 rule is a simple grounding technique that can be used to manage anxiety and bring your attention back to the present moment. It involves the following steps:
- Acknowledge three things you see: Look around and identify three objects or items in your immediate environment. Describe them in your mind, paying attention to their colors, shapes, and textures.
- Acknowledge three things you hear: Listen carefully and identify three sounds you can hear in your surroundings. It could be the sound of birds chirping, traffic, a fan running, or any other noises.
- Acknowledge three things you feel: Focus on the sensations you’re currently experiencing in your body. Identify three things you can physically feel, such as the texture of your clothing, the warmth of the sun on your skin, or the pressure of your feet on the ground.
The 3-3-3 rule helps you ground yourself in the present moment, diverting your attention away from anxious thoughts and into your immediate sensory experiences. It can be a helpful tool for managing anxiety and regaining a sense of control.
10 tips for how to calm down anxiety
It’s possible to learn how to calm anxiety and relax yourself. Below are 10 tips to help you control anxiety and get relief.
1. Do a quick reality check
In moments of intense anxiety, remove yourself from your surroundings by closing your eyes and taking some deep breaths. Repeat in your head: inhale, exhale.
Square breathing is a breathing exercise that can signal your nervous system to calm down. To practice this mindful breathing, inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and hold for four seconds.
Repeat this pattern for 5-10 minutes for an improved mood, lower heart rate, and improved sense of well-being.
Ask yourself simple questions like:
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely is it that the thing I’m anxious about will happen?
- Do I have a good reason for believing something will go wrong?
- Could I just be overly worried?
Thinking about your responses may help calm you down.
2. Talk to someone you trust
This could be a family member, close friend, teacher, or coach. You don’t have to deal with your anxieties alone. This individual can provide a new perspective on whatever you’re dealing with and help you work through the problem without getting overwhelmed. A BetterUp life coach can be a valuable resource if you feel vulnerable about discussing your anxiety with loved ones.
3. Remind yourself that you’re safe
When anxiety flares, we typically feel scared and helpless. Our minds immediately jump to every catastrophic outcome, however unlikely they may be.
4. Redirect your nervous energy into physical activity
Stand up and move around. Go for a walk for some fresh air, do some sit-ups, or pace around your room a little. Anxiety usually leads to a build-up of excessive energy. Safely releasing that energy will ease your feelings of uncertainty.
Exercise also releases endorphins that will boost your mood.
5. Take a break
There’s nothing wrong with taking a break. We all need time to recharge.
Try these simple ways to rest or take a break:
Allowing your mind to wander will leave you feeling more relaxed and in control.
6. Write down your anxious thoughts
One of the more common aspects of anxiety is that we don’t know why we’re worried in the first place. Writing out your thoughts is a great self-care practice as it gives you the freedom to explore your thoughts without judgment. Studies have shown that jotting down how you feel reduces stress.
Something like a gratitude journal can also ground you in the positive elements of your daily life, and you can look back on it when you’re feeling most negative.
7. Practice a healthy lifestyle
Regular exercise and consuming healthy food let your body recharge and help you think more clearly. According to the CDC, as little as 30 minutes of moderate daily exercise can yield mental health benefits.
Try to avoid caffeine and alcohol if you’re experiencing anxiety. Both drinks interact with the serotonin in your brain — a chemical that regulates your moods and helps you sleep — to enhance your feelings of anxiety instead of alleviating them. A simple, refreshing glass of cold water can also help improve your overall well-being and will help reduce your anxiety.
8. Focus on your breath
We touched on the importance of breathwork earlier. Here are two more effective breathing exercises to help calm down anxiety:
- Deep belly breathing (diaphragmatic breathing): Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, allowing your abdomen to rise as you fill your lungs. Exhale slowly and completely through your mouth. Focus on the rise and fall of your abdomen, and repeat this deep, rhythmic breathing for a few minutes.
- 4-7-8 breathing: This technique involves inhaling for a count of 4, holding the breath for a count of 7, and exhaling for a count of 8. Sit or lie down, close your eyes, and inhale quietly through your nose for a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7. Exhale completely and audibly through your mouth for a count of 8. Repeat this cycle for several breaths, and it can help induce relaxation.
9. Use grounding techniques
Engage your senses by focusing on your surroundings. We already mentioned the 3-3-3 rule. You could also identify and describe five things you see, four things you can touch, three things you hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This can help anchor you in the present moment.
10. Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relataxation involves tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups in your body, starting from your toes and working your way up to your head. It can help alleviate physical tension while also giving your mind a break by focusing on your physical body.
9 lifestyle choices that help you manage anxiety
Anxiety can come on seemingly out of the blue. Oftentimes, though, there are ways to mitigate it with some lifestyle changes. Managing anxiety long-term involves a combination of ongoing strategies and lifestyle habits. Here are ten things you can do to help manage anxiety over the long term:
- Regular exercise: Engage in regular physical activity, as it can help reduce anxiety by releasing endorphins and lowering stress hormones.
- Healthy diet: Maintain a balanced and nutritious diet, as certain foods and nutrients can impact your mood and anxiety levels.
- Adequate sleep: Prioritize getting enough quality sleep, as sleep deprivation can exacerbate anxiety.
- Stress management: Practice stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga, or mindfulness to build resilience against stressors.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol: Reduce or eliminate excessive caffeine and alcohol consumption, as they can worsen anxiety symptoms.
- Time management: Improve time management skills to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed by daily tasks and responsibilities.
- Set realistic goals: Establish achievable goals and break them down into smaller, manageable steps to reduce feelings of pressure.
- Social support: Cultivate a support network of friends and family with whom you can share your feelings and experiences.
- Therapy: Consider therapy or counseling, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or other evidence-based treatments, to address and manage anxiety.
It’s important to recognize that managing anxiety is an ongoing process, and what works best for one person may not work for another. Try different routines to find one that works for you.
Panic versus anxiety attacks: what are the differences?
You’ll often hear people mention anxiety and panic attacks as if they’re the same phenomenon. That’s not the case.
Panic attacks are sudden and last a few minutes. They can cause extreme feelings of pain, trembling, and fearfulness. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Chest pain
- Chills or excessive sweating
- Increased heart rate
- Numbness (known as paraesthesias)
You can have a panic attack without suffering from a mental illness. They can be a feature of a panic disorder.
Unlike panic attacks, an anxiety attack isn’t formally recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). That’s the reference used by mental health professionals for diagnosis.
Although there isn’t a formal definition of an anxiety attack, people use the term frequently to describe the sensation of intense worry and anxious feelings. During an anxiety attack, you may struggle to concentrate, feel irritable or restless, or have trouble sleeping.
What not to do when dealing with anxiety
Just as there are things that can help your anxiety, there are things you should avoid that can make it worse. Here’s what to look out for.
1. Trying to do everything at once
If you’re anxious about a big project or a long to-do list, you might (understandably) want to make that project disappear — and that would mean completing it as fast as possible.
If you catch yourself doing this, remember that biting more than you can chew will hurt you in the long run. Instead, divide your tasks into smaller, realistic goals — they’ll feel a lot less overwhelming this way.
2. Fixating on things you can’t change
Life is full of things we can’t control. And, when one of them triggers your anxiety, it’s easy to be upset about it. Before you know it, you’ve wasted all of your energy hoping for the problem to disappear instead of calming yourself and planning a course of action.
Even if you can’t change a situation, you can control your breathing and behavior. You’ll think more clearly once you’ve calmed your mind.
3. Coping with substances
Using alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs to calm your anxiety can quickly lead to addictive behaviors. In the long run, this will do little to solve your anxiety. Plus, if left untreated, addiction can worsen your mental health and impact your significant relationships.
4. Telling yourself that you’re alone
Anxiety can feel isolating. It tricks you into thinking you’re the only one with these symptoms and that no one’s here to help you.
But that’s simply not the case. In fact, 6.8 million U.S. adults have a general anxiety disorder, but only a fraction of them are receiving treatment.
Try to remember that there are folks out there who care about you. They want to see you happy and healthy — they just don’t know how to help. Talking about your feelings with someone you trust can help you feel less alone.
How can you help someone with anxiety?
You might know someone affected by anxiety. When they have an anxious episode, it’s not always obvious how you can help. You don’t want them to suffer, but you also don’t want to say something that could exacerbate their worries.
Here are some ways you can be supportive:
1. Validate their feelings
Avoid saying things like, “Calm down. You have nothing to worry about!”
This communicates that they’re somehow wrong for feeling how they do. And it can lead down a spiral of shame in addition to their anxiety. Instead, try to be supportive: “It’s okay, you’re going through a lot. How can I help?”
2. Don’t solve their problems for them
It often seems like one way to help someone with anxiety is to remove the trigger of their worries. While this might seem like a thoughtful gesture, it prevents them from learning to cope with the problem. Many other options to support them don’t remove their agency.
3. Express your concern
There’s not much you can do to help shorten someone’s panic attack or lower its intensity.
But if you notice their anxious behavior, you can ask what might be behind it. This could open the door to a conversation about mental health and could encourage them to seek professional support. A clinical psychologist or other mental health professionals can offer medical advice and use techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help.
4. Don’t push them too hard
Anxiety requires a gentle touch. Pushing your loved ones into something they’re anxious about can break their trust in you. They’re already doing their best, and pressure might add to their stress.
They should unpack their fear with a therapist. This will take the burden off of you. It will also empower them to move at their own speed with an experienced professional.
You’re more than your anxiety
It may seem impossible to cope when you’re in the middle of a crisis. Your heartbeat increases, your mind starts to race, and the world feels like it’s closing in. When everything feels like too much, avoiding confronting whatever’s triggering your feelings is tempting.
Thankfully, with the right coping mechanisms, you can calm your anxiety. The first step is to accept that your symptoms are normal and natural. They’re a part of you, but they don’t define you. You have the power to cope with your anxiety and live a happy and vibrant life.
And it’s okay to ask for support if you need it. A therapist can help you get to the bottom of your feelings and develop new self-care techniques to bounce back even stronger and more resilient.
BetterUp is here to help you navigate your symptoms in the context of your work life. Our coaches can help you identify anxiety triggers and discover coping strategies to ease these effects. At BetterUp, we focus on human transformation, championing personal growth, social connections, and mental fitness, all in the name of positive, lasting change.