Whether you suffer from a clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder or just get really, really stressed from time to time, we’ve all had those moments during which our worries take hold of us.
And when an anxiety tidal wave hits us in public — while we’re stuck in a meeting or even in an elevator — it can be all the more nerve-wracking to experience such overwhelming emotion in front of other people.
Thankfully, you don’t have to suffer in silence or excuse yourself in an effort to make a quick escape. Here’s how you can keep calm and curb those anxious feelings ASAP.
Sometimes, stopping anxiety is as easy as taking a deep breath. Certified meditation and mindfulness teacher Kathy Vandenburg says that our breath is an effective way to calm the nervous system when we’re stressed. “Becoming aware of the breath and taking some long, slow, deep breaths [allows us to] shift from the sympathetic (fight/flight/freeze) response and activate the parasympathetic response (rest and digest),” she says.
Certified hypnotherapist and meditation guide Jasmine Smith agrees, suggesting the four-six-eight breathing technique — inhale for four seconds, hold for six seconds, exhale for eight seconds — to combat the shallow breathing an anxiety attack typically brings.
“The inhale and hold saturates your body, bloodstream, organs and tissues with cleansing fresh oxygen, energizing you and your cells,” she explains. “The long exhale expels as much carbon dioxide as possible, releasing toxins from the body. Use this breath anytime anxiety hits. The chemical reaction in your body will immediately lower your stress hormones, leaving you feeling at ease.”
To give yourself an extra de-stressing boost, carry lavender oil with you and breathe in the calming scent: It has actually been shown to be as effective as medication for those with generalized anxiety disorder.
2. Change Your Position
According to professional coach and hypnotist Scott Schmaren, changing how you’re sitting or standing can change your mood. “Neuroscience has taught us that the physiology of our bodies effects our emotions and that, when the two are in conflict, physiology will override your emotions and change to match your physiology,” he explains. “So by changing your physiology to that of someone who is confident, strong and powerful you will effect a change in your emotions and behavior.”
He suggests striking what he calls a “power pose” as an effective technique for combatting anxiety. “Stand in a posture of strength. For example, hands on hips, elbows out, legs shoulder-width apart — like Wonder Woman. Or just sit tall and straight in a chair,” he says. “Many of my clients suffer with anxiety, and this simple and quick fix can be used any place and at any time.”
Another physiological tactic, according to Joy Rains, author of “Meditation Illuminated: Simple Ways to Manage Your Busy Mind,” is to concentrate on your feet. “Focus on where you connect with the ground, as if you are ‘rooting’ into the earth and drawing strength into your body,” she advises
3. Ground Yourself
“Grounding” is a technique that helps you redirect your focus from what’s going on inside your head to the physical space you’re in. It can be a very helpful way to release anxiety’s grip.
"Start by deliberately focusing on something around you — the grass, the countertop, a candle, the fabric of your jacket — and then switch your attention from your worries to this physical object,” says professional counselor Stephanie Adams, M.A., LPC, who specializes in anxiety in teens and young adults. “Contemplate its shape, weight, substance, form. Think about whether it is smooth or rough, what uses there are for the object. If you put your whole energy into this, you won’t have any energy left for your anxiety.”
If it makes sense for the situation, Adams also suggests engaging someone else in helping you calm your anxiety — without the person even knowing it. “Just choose an object that might potentially be of interest to him or her and ask some questions about it,” she says. “Focus on the answers and on the object, not on your anxiety.”
4. Carry a Special Object
Rather than find an object in a given room, you may opt to carry one with you. Choose something like a piece of jewelry, a keychain or a rock, suggests therapist Krista Verrastro, M.A., RDT, so that when you feel anxiety rise you can hold the object while you use positive self-talk, saying things like “I will be OK” or “I can get through this.”
“Since I am a creative arts therapist, I often help people make their own grounding objects to carry with them,” Verrastro adds. “Sometimes my clients make jewelry or decorate a pen, and other times we make credit card-size cardboard collages of images and words that bring them strength and comfort that are small enough to carry with them.”
5. Feel It
For some people, riding out their anxiety is a useful way to get through it. “The more you resist panic and anxiety, the more it keeps coming back,” says energetic health expert and success coach Heather Strang. “Why? What’s happened is that there is a buildup of emotions that have not been able to be felt — often emotions that you’ve absorbed from others, from previous traumas and so on.”
She suggests excusing yourself to go to the bathroom or your car and just feeling what you feel. (Or, if you can, go sit outside while you take a moment — vitamin D has been linked to easing depression, and a little sunshine may help lift your mood.)
“It will never last longer than 60 to 90 seconds, even though we fear that once we start feeling it, it won’t stop. Fear is irrational like that,” she says. “On the other side of allowing the panic or anxiety wave to flow through your body is tremendous peace, because what was all clogged in your system has been released.”
6. Analyze It
Another tactic that Rains suggests is to investigate your feelings in a nonbiased way. “Rate your anxiety on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest,” she says. “The act of rating helps bring the mind from an anxious state to more of an analytical state.”
Wellness expert Jamie Price, co-founder of Stop, Breathe & Think, even suggests going a step further to really examine where your anxious thoughts are coming from. She says that when you are in the grip of a particular fear, worry or anxiety, ask yourself two questions: “Is it really true?” and “Am I OK right now?”
“Remember that our thoughts aren’t facts. They are like the weather, passing through and changing all the time, so you don’t have to attach to them,” she says. “And often our anxiety has to do with concern about the past and worry about the future, so it can be helpful to focus on what’s happening right now in the present.”
"Counting is a classic tactic for curbing anxiety because it helps distract your mind from whatever is causing you to panic and focus it on a specific task. Count the straps on a shoe, the objects on the desk, the stairs and so on,” says otolaryngologist Murray Grossan, M.D.
“Counting is nonstimulatory — like counting sheep for sleep — and the act of counting puts your brain into a nonstimulatory mode. Your amygdala is informed that there’s no need for adrenalin.”
Therapist Jenny Giblin agrees, noting that most of the things that we are anxious about are not actually happening. We experience anxiety solely based on our thoughts about what might happen.
“Counting the objects in the room that we are in literally can take our mind off of the anxiety by focusing on a task that works the logical side of our brain and brings us back into the present moment by making us even more aware of our surroundings,” she says. “Once we are feeling more centered into the present moment the anxiety can often begin to subside.”
8. Drink Water
Sometimes, getting hydrated is all you need to stave off an anxiety attack. “Dehydration is one physical factor that contributes to anxiety, as well as to a number of symptoms like fatigue. So drinking water — as opposed to something with a lot of sugar or caffeine, which can worsen anxiety — will address that fairly quickly,” says mindfulness coach and psychotherapist Allison Abrams, LCSW. Drinking water throughout the day can also prevent an attack from happening in the first place, she adds.
Another reason that drinking water can be helpful? It refocuses your mind on the task at hand: getting the water, feeling the coolness of the glass and noticing the sensations you feel as you drink it. “This centers you and brings you back to the present, rather than being engulfed by negative thoughts,” Abrams says.
Read more: 21 Stress-Reducing Techniques
What Do YOU Think?
Have you struggled with anxiety attacks? What do you do to calm yourself down? Which of the above tips will you put into practice?