Whether it’s an overall feeling of fear or full-blown panic attacks, anxiety can come in a multitude of forms. And while things like therapy, exercise, and meditation can all help you get rid of anxiety for the longterm, what about combatting it in real time? What do you do when those feelings of dread, fear, and panic come rushing in unexpectedly?
Karol Ward, confidence coach, psychotherapist, and author of Worried Sick: Break Free from Chronic Worry to Achieve Mental & Physical Health, approaches anxiety from a body-mind perspective. "Anxiety is a fear reaction that affects us physically and mentally,” she tells TZR in an email. “The interesting thing is that our central nervous system can't tell the difference between real and imagined anxiety.” For example, you might have anxiety waiting to see if you got the job you applied for, which has a specific answer, she explains. You also might have anxiety about being let go from your job even if the fear is not based in reality. Either way, your body responds the same way.
Raina Wadhawan, licensed psychotherapist, tells TZR that the use of some simple, tried-and-true grounding techniques can be great coping strategies in calming your body and mind and helping you return to the present moment. “They help create space from distressing feelings or situations while becoming more present in the here and now,” she says.
Ahead, therapists share their easy tips for combatting anxiety in the moment so that you have control over your emotions and thoughts.
Wadhawan says one of her favorite grounding techniques to quell anxiety is to grab an ice cube (or ice globe!) or run your hands under cold water. “Focus on the water’s temperature and how it feels on your fingertips, palms, and the back of your hands,” she says. “Does it feel different on each part of your hand?” Take note of that and allow your mind to center and slow down as it focuses on the sensation.
Rebecca Tolbert, LICSW and founder of ConsciousStrides.com, agrees about activating your mammalian diving reflex. “This may sound wild, but our bodies slow our heart rate in response to cold water, and this can help calm you,” she tells TZR in an email. “You could splash cold water on your face for five seconds at a sink. Or use a cold washcloth or cover an ice pack in a hand towel, then sit down on a chair and place your head between your knees. Gently hold the washcloth or ice pack right below your eyes for a slow count of five.” If you have an ice roller or chilled beauty globes on hand, they could be useful in quelling your anxiety and giving your face a little mini facial while you’re at it!
Do Something Physical
Ward believes that anxiety can be reduced by working with both the body and the mind — and that doing something physical can help. "One of the best ways to reduce anxiety from a mental perspective is to do something to disrupt the fearful thinking,” she says. “I recommend consciously putting your attention on something else. This could be playing a computer game, putting on music, petting your cat, or playing with your dog — anything that requires you to focus on something else. For those feeling hyper, I recommend doing something vigorous, like dancing, fast walking, or running. For those feeling weighed down and sad, I recommend stretching, yoga, or easy walking.” Once your mind can't focus on what's making you anxious, it will start to relax. “This may feel artificial at first, but just allow yourself to do it and you will eventually feel your anxiety start to lessen,” she adds.
Focus On Your Breathing
“Anxiety is a way for your brain to keep you and your body safe,” Dr. Priscilla Hidalgo, a psychiatrist in Raleigh, NC and founder of Lux Psychiatry, tells TZR in an email. “From an evolutionary standpoint, anxiety or fear is what helps you increase the heart rate so your heart can pump more blood, allowing you to run away from a lion (or dinosaur). This, of course, allows you to stay alive. Anxiety disorders happen when your brain perceives threats where there is none. This could mean sweating, intense fear, increased heart rate (or palpitations), and so on.” One of her favorite techniques to deal with anxiety is to focus on breathing. “I teach patients to slowly breathe in (counting up to four), then holding the breath for two seconds, then slowly exhale,” she says. “One of the reasons this works is that holding your breath tells your brain to slow down — and you also focus on something else besides fear.”
Conduct A Body Scan
Therapist Sarah Belarde suggests doing a quick body scan as a starting point to combat your anxiety. “To do it, take a few moments to focus on each body part, starting at your head, neck, and shoulders, and ending with your calves, feet, and toes,” she tells TZR in an email. “Notice if any part of your body is clenched or tense, and focus on relaxing the body parts that have tension. As you take deep breaths, on your breath in, notice the tension; and on your breath out, relax that body part.” She says this is a quick and easy strategy you can use to slow down, connect with your body, and release tension. Plus, you can practice it anywhere and anytime you feel anxious.
Give Your Mind A Reality Check
Dr. Courtney Conley, therapist, author, professor, and founder of Expanding Horizons Counseling and Wellness, says what pushes your everyday concern, worry, or fear into the realm of anxiety is the disproportionate response you feel. “Anxiety is like a common worry on steroids,” she tells TZR in an email. “Someone with anxiety experiences a heightened state of fear and worry more frequently than others, and one of the most powerful things you can do is help give your mind a reality check.”
She says she encourages clients to think of what it is they are anxious about and decide where it would fall on a continuum from inconvenience to tragedy. “Once they can identify its true significance, they can decide how much mental and emotional energy it deserves,” she explains. For instance, she says if you only have 10 units of mental and emotional energy to use in a day before you reach complete stress, overwhelm, and burn out, how much of it do you want to dedicate to this situation or concern? “This is an empowering technique that helps people with anxiety stay grounded,” she says.
Do The ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1’ Grounding Technique
Dr. Monica Shah, a licensed psychologist practicing in New York City who specializes in mindfulness and acceptance-based cognitive behavioral therapies, is a fan of the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique. “Bringing our minds to the present can help us move away from these anxious thoughts and calm ourselves down, which in turn can ease the uncomfortable physical sensations that can come with anxiety,” she tells TZR in an email, explaining that the 5-4-3-2-1 technique uses all your senses to bring the mind to the present. To do it:
- Acknowledge 5 things that you see around you, in your current environment.
- Acknowledge 4 things that you can touch around you, and touch them if you can.
- Acknowledge 3 things that you can hear, including both external or internal sounds.
- Acknowledge 2 things that you can smell around you, and see if you can take in their scent.
- Acknowledge 1 thing that you can taste, either external or internal (i.e., the inside of your mouth).
Do ‘The Work’
Andrea Wachter, psychotherapist and author, says anxiety is living in a “what if” state rather than “what is.” She says it’s far too easy to believe every anxiety-provoking thought that pops up in our minds, but when we learn how to question them, it can literally be life-changing. “Or, shall I say, mind-blowing,” she says. “One thought-questioning process that is extremely helpful is called The Work. This simple yet powerful process was developed by author and teacher Byron Katie. (And I teach The Work in my anxiety relief course on [app] Insight Timer.) The bottom line: Don’t believe everything you think!” To do it, ask yourself these four questions:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
Shift Questions From ‘What If’ to ‘What Could’
“Our power to combat anxiety comes from a refocus on our agency, our ‘Self,’ and our ability to make changes in the now,” Oliver Drakeford, a licensed marriage and family therapist in West Hollywood, CA, tells TZR in an email. “‘What could’ questions might help with this reclaiming of our calmness. In the case of anxiety due to a job interview, instead of thinking: “What if they ask me really hard questions?” you can shift your focus to yourself: “What could I do right now to make me feel more confident in the interview?” “Keeping track of whether your thoughts are focused on ‘Self’ or someone/something else, ‘Other,’ is going to really help shift your feelings of anxiety,” he explains. “If your thoughts are consistently focused on the ‘Other,’ your anxiety increases because you ask a lot of ‘What if’ questions that lead your thinking into fear and unknown.”
Remind Yourself That You Are Safe
Therapist Carolyn Cole says that many anxious thoughts are truly hypotheticals, not the truth — the future has not happened yet. To relax, she recommends closing your eyes and taking a deep breath while putting one hand on your heart and the other on your belly. “Tell yourself, ‘In this moment, I am safe and everything is okay,’” she tells TZR in an email. “Repeat as needed until you feel a bit calmer. With excessive anxiety, your nervous system is in fight-or-flight mode. It feels you are in danger and does not know the difference between actual danger and perceived danger. With this technique, you are working to calm your physiology, which helps to reduce the feelings of anxiety.”
Know That The Feeling Will Pass
Amber Weiss, licensed psychotherapist and founder of TRANSFORMATIVE MINDSET, says it’s important to remind yourself that the anxious feelings will pass. “When you are feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and the panic sets in, it is important to just close your eyes, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that these feelings will pass like the clouds in the sky,” she tells TZR in an email. “Try and think of a time when it has happened before and how you got through it. Remind yourself that as scary it was, it passed — and you survived.” She says you can also try repeating a mantra like, “This will pass, I will be okay.” And as you calm your mind and nervous system, the physical symptoms will begin to subside, as well.