Coping With Anxiety In The Moment

Long term the way to deal with anxiety is to change your attitude towards it, face your fears, and make lifestyle changes to improve your overall mood. This article embraces a contradiction: Anxiety is unpleasant, but it's not the end of the world, and you shouldn't rearrange your life for the worse to try to make it go away. But assuming your overall attitude towards anxiety is in order, nervousness still does feel unpleasant and there isn't a ton of harm in trying to reduce it in the moment.

This article will provide some tips on doing that. Again, if you only use these approaches in the absence of a larger change in perspective, you're just making your anxiety more powerful by trying to run from it. However, if you use these strategies as the occasional 'spot treatment' in the broader context of having a healthy view of your nervous feelings, then that's okay.

If you start to feel anxious, just ride the symptoms out

There are two viewpoints on handing anxiety when you feel it coming on. One approach is to try to actively reduce it. I'll cover that below. The other perspective says that trying to combat anxiety just makes it worse. An analogy I've heard before is that it's like a big wave that approaches you as you're out in the ocean away from shore. If you just stay calm and tread water the wave will pass under you. If you struggle and try to swim away from the wave you'll stay with it all the way, until it slams into land.

If you leave them alone your anxious symptoms will tend to dissipate after fifteen minutes or so, maybe even more quickly. Some of the points in the article I already mentioned on changing your overall attitude towards your anxiety help with this approach.

It also helps to 'stay' or 'be' with your anxiety and observe its effects on you in a detached way. "Oh, there goes my heart beat", "Oh, I have to go to the bathroom", "My thoughts are racing." Doing this is also facing your fear. When people struggle with anxiety they get a 'fear of fear', and this is staying with it and learning you can handle it, rather than fleeing from it and strengthening your belief that it's genuinely harmful.

The above ideas are rooted in Mindfulness Meditation and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I can't fully cover them in this short article, but if you're interested you can check into other sources.

Calm yourself with deep breathing

Now the 'actively reducing' approaches. Deep breathing puts your body into 'relaxation mode'. Since you can't be relaxed and keyed up at the same time, that will help cancel out the anxiety. Breathing works best if you can catch the anxiety early. If you're already fairly worked up it's less effective. I summarize some simple breathing exercises in this article:

Breathing And Relaxation Exercises For Stress And Anxiety

Distract yourself

To repeat myself again, you definitely don't want to use distraction as your only coping mechanism against anxiety. However, it can be useful in moderation. It gets you out of your head and focused on something other than your worried thoughts. It could mean putting on some music, going for a walk, throwing yourself into a mentally taxing project, or starting up a movie. If you're in a group it could mean paying extra close attention to the conversation, rather than focusing on what you're feeling in your body.

Put on some soothing music or guided meditation

This is another approach that isn't great if it's your only coping method. It's good in little doses though. If you're somewhere where it's possible, and you need to calm down, put on some relaxing music, or nature sounds, or play one of those guided relaxation meditations. You can find .mp3's of them easily enough. There are also tons of them on YouTube. Do a search for 'relaxation meditation' or 'rain sounds' or 'relaxing music'. Of course, if you get into a habit of relaxing or meditating regularly, it will also help lower your anxiety levels overall.

Exercise

Exercising over the long term is a very useful way to reduce anxiety. It can also help in the short term by boosting your mood and giving you a way to burn off some of your nervous energy.

Channel your nervous energy into something useful

Sometimes someone will get really anxious and worked up, and even if they handle it well they may still feel keyed up for a little while. Getting nervous has just chemically puts their body into an alert state. Some people take the attitude of, "Well if I have all this extra energy I may as well use it" and then clean their bathroom or organize their apartment's storage locker or whatnot.

Question and replace your unrealistic thoughts

When you're anxious all kinds of worst-case scenario thoughts are probably passing through your mind. It can help to catch them, examine the evidence for them, and replace them with more balanced, realistic alternatives. I cover this approach more in this article:

Challenging Maladaptive Thoughts

Get your worries down on paper

I guess you could say this is more of a long-term tactic too, but I'll throw it in this article because it can also provide some immediate relief. It seems like a gimmicky little trick, but you can often cut down your worrying by putting your problems into some physical form. Write them down on paper, or type them out on your computer.

Why this seems to work so powerfully is that by writing your thoughts somewhere, you're sending a message to your mind saying, "There's no need to keep dwelling on this over and over again. It's already on the record that I think it's a concern. It's been acknowledged and taken care of in a sense." Also, sometimes just seeing something on paper makes you look at it from a different perspective. Issues often seem a lot more mundane and manageable when they're not bouncing around in your mind.

Commit to worrying about something at a later time

This is another tactic that also helps in the long term. It can also seem a little corny at first. I think it works best when your worries are about legitimate concerns. What you do is tell yourself you won't worry about them right now, but you promise to do it at a pre-designated time in the future. Like you may tell yourself that from 7:30 to 8:00 in the evening you'll do nothing but worry.

This seems to work by acknowledging and satisfying your anxiety. You're not dismissing it or endlessly trying to brush it off. You're saying, "I hear you. These things you're bringing up are real problems that I do have to deal with at some point, and I will think about them, just not right now."

Sometimes you can combine the last two techniques. You could perform a little ritual where before you go to work you write down all the things you're going to worry about later and then put them in a box. It's a physical way of telling yourself, "I'm going to get back to this stuff later and not let it interfere with my day."