Anxiety affects everyone from time to time. Experiencing a little bit of stress when in a tense situation like, for example, a job interview, is perfectly normal. But anxiety can also kick in when it’s neither appropriate nor helpful. This is a common problem that negatively impacts millions of people’s quality of life.
Anxiety is a physical response to danger. When your mind perceives danger, it puts your body onto high alert. Although anxiety is a mental health concern, it has very real effects in your physical world.
How can you calm an anxious mind?
Anxiety has two components. The here and now of when it becomes unbearable, and the long term aspect of being slightly on edge all the time. If you have problems with anxiety, you probably experience both of these. And both should be addressed. If you can get yourself feeling more relaxed in general, you’ll be less prone to anxious thoughts. And, if you can better deal with anxious experiences as they happen, you’ll probably feel more relaxed in general. Great!
Let’s talk about sudden anxiety attacks first. We’ll use the phrase anxiety attack quite loosely. It might be that you are just entering a stressful situation, or it may be that you’re having a looping thought that’s upsetting you. There are things you can do in either situation.
Be mindful and recognise your thoughts
The most important thing to do in this situation is to recognise that you are experiencing stress. Consciously identify it. Say to yourself “I am experiencing anxiety right now”. Make yourself aware of what’s happening. Thoughts tend to just run around on their own, so it’s important to involve your conscious mind in this process.
Recognising your thoughts is both very easy and very hard. It’s easy to do in the sense that once your attention is on your thoughts you can recognise them easily. However, it’s hard in the sense that remembering to do this is, well, hard! That’s OK. Don’t be discouraged when a thought builds unconsciously. It’s a skill you improve over time.
Once you have identified your thought, you’re in a pretty good place because now you can do something about it. Recognising the thought means you are now able to challenge it. Ask yourself if your fears are valid, if they are likely to come to pass, etc. Try to find more likely outcomes, or say “OK, supposing this does happen, is it really a problem? Are there ways I can work around it?”.
Breathe calmness into your body
Just as anxiety has an effect on your body, your body can affect your anxiety. As the purpose of a stress response is to prepare your body for physical danger, you can limit the response by showing your body that you are not in danger.
The big example is breath. Anxiety can lead to short, shallow breaths, as well as the feeling that you can’t breathe deeply enough. But the breath is often the focus in meditation practices, for good reason. Not only is the breath a constant whose presence you can rely on, it’s also a powerful tool to limit stress response.
The key is to perform slow, controlled exhales. Exhalation a little slower than the inhalation is perfect, but for simplicity, a technique called Square Breathing also works well.
Square breathing is a method where you take your breath through four stages: Inhale, hold, exhale, hold. Repeat. Spend around 4-5 seconds on each stage. You should find that after a few loops your heart rate slows down and you feel calmer. This method is famously used by US Navy Seals to remain calm in high stress situations.
Square breathing is an easy and safe way to relieve anxiety anywhere, almost immediately. The difficult part is just remembering to do it!
Be aware of stress and tension in your body
Breathing is a powerful way to reduce anxiety, but often people will continue to hold on to physical tension in their muscles. This can lead to annoying, nagging aches, as well as making it harder to relax.
When you are next feeling stressed, try to pay attention to your body. Perform a slow scan all the way through your body. Start at the top of your head and work downwards. You’ll probably find some areas that you’re holding rigidly. The jaw, neck and shoulders are prime spots and can lead to headaches and other aches.
Try to learn how your body reacts under stress and identify the areas that tend to seize up. Then, when you’re next feeling stressed, run through a mental checklist of those muscles and make a conscious effort to relax them. If you’re not used to being physically aware, this may be a challenge, but with practice you’ll get there!
Anxiety in the long term
Managing anxiety in the long term is a combination of managing it effectively in the moment, which we’ve just covered, and trying to be more resilient to it overall.
That kind of resilience comes only with generally being happier. Which is easier said than done! But there are things you can do.
Try to spend more time on things that you enjoy doing. Have things to look forward to. Reward yourself. Spend time outside (even in winter!). These are all things that will make you feel better in general.
If there are particular things in your life that cause you stress, you can try to reduce the importance of them. For example, if your work causes you a lot of stress, is it possible that having a more fulfilling life outside of work would make it seem less important? We have a special article if you are affected by Workplace Bullying.
The specifics of how you might make yourself happier are difficult to generalise. This article has focused on inner reflection and managing anxiety by changes within oneself. But sometimes life circumstances can cause anxiety and the healthiest thing to do is to change those circumstances. In these cases, if you feel you need more help, you may benefit from counselling.