Your heart’s racing. Your mouth’s dry. It’s hard to focus. It’s hard to do almost anything except think about your anxious thoughts.
These are just a few of the tell-tale signs of anxiety. If you’ve ever experienced one (or more), you know how overwhelming it can be. But take heart. There are tools that can help you make it to the other side.
Take back control
Use the following techniques anytime and anywhere to manage feelings of anxiety. If you find one that works especially well for you, consider adding it to your mental health emergency toolkit.
Redirect your senses
When your senses are overwhelmed by anxiety, focusing on something else, like your surroundings, can help loosen anxiety’s grip. The 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique, or grounding mechanism, can help with this.
To do it, mentally acknowledge or write down:
- 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can touch
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste
Ease muscle tension
Anxiety has a hard time manifesting when the body is fully relaxed. To help your body unwind, try progressive muscle relaxation. It’s a technique that involves tensing or tightening one muscle group at a time. Here’s how to do it:
- Sit somewhere comfortable or lie down.
- Inhale while simultaneously contracting one muscle group, like your feet and toes, for 5 to 10 seconds.
- Exhale and completely relax that muscle group.
- Rest for 10 to 20 seconds.
- Repeat steps 2-4 with a different muscle group, moving up the body and finishing with the face.
Each time you exhale and relax a muscle group, try picturing the tension melting. If visualizations aren’t your thing, just focus on the feeling of your muscles relaxing.
Practice deep breathing
Many of us “chest breathe.” This means we take air into the lungs by expanding muscles within the rib cage. It usually results in shallow breaths.
Diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” on the other hand, involves breathing deeply “into the belly.” When you do this, a dome-shaped muscle at the bottom of the lungs called the diaphragm moves downward. This allows you to fill your lungs to their full capacity.
Research shows belly breathing can help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and improve attention.
To practice, try this 4×4 breathing technique. When doing it correctly, you should feel your belly rise and fall with each inhale and exhale.
- Gently inhale through your nose for a count of 4.
- Hold the breath for 4.
- Slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of 4.
- Hold at the bottom of the exhale for 4.
- Repeat steps 1-4 for as long as you need, whether that’s 4 breaths or 20 minutes. You decide.
Distracting yourself when you’re feeling anxious may feel like avoiding the problem. But when done intentionally, it can help reduce anxiety and get you to a place where you can decide what to do next.
The type of distractions that work for anxiety is often very personal. They can be anything from watching animal videos to playing puzzle games. Know what works for you. If your chosen tool requires internet access, download it in advance so you can access it at any time.
Reframe your thoughts
Not all thoughts are true or helpful. And while it’s normal to have these types of thoughts, it can be helpful to learn how to recognize them as just that — “thoughts.” Not something that has to have power over your emotions and behaviors.
At AbleTo, we recommend using the “3Cs framework” — Catch It, Check It, Change It — to do this.
For example, let’s say you have a road trip coming up and you feel the familiar flutter of anxiety. Here’s how you would use the 3Cs to address the situation.
First, slow down and use self-reflection to Catch any thoughts you’re having. This can be hard if the situation is stressful. Start by taking a few deep breaths. The first couple of times might be challenging, and that’s okay. The more you practice, the more you’ll be able to build up this skill.
For the sake of this exercise, let’s say you notice that you were thinking about your car breaking down, leaving you stranded on the side of the road.
Next, you’ll want to Check this thought. Ask yourself, is this thought accurate? Is it helpful?
Through this process, you may realize that you’re falling into a “thinking trap.” Thinking traps are thought patterns that can prevent us from seeing things how they really are. In this case you may be “catastrophizing,” or focusing on the worst possible outcome.
Once you’ve determined that your thought is either inaccurate or unhelpful (or both), you’ll work to Change It. To do this, ask yourself if there are other ways to look at the situation. Examine your thoughts and see if you can tone down any extreme language. Or, ask yourself what you would tell a friend in the same situation.
By doing so, you may land on a more helpful and accurate thought. For instance, My car was recently serviced in the shop and is unlikely to break down. But if it does, I will have my cell phone with me and know whom I can call for help.
When you use the 3Cs, you tap into your resilience, strengths, and problem-solving skills. This allows you to address any situation in a healthier, more controlled way.
Help is available
No matter what your strategy is for managing anxiety attacks, know you’re not alone. The World Health Organization estimates that 615 million adults suffer from depression and/or anxiety. Treatment is available, and AbleTo is here to help you get through.
By Teressa Carter, MSW, LCSW
Teressa Carter has nearly a decade of experience in behavioral health as a licensed clinical social worker, specializing in mental/behavioral health counseling. She specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, while utilizing the “strengths perspective” — calling upon our innate capacity of mindfulness and resiliency to navigate our paths with the stressors and challenges in our life. When not seeing clients, Carter enjoys karaoke and baking. She finds socializing and expressing herself in creative ways helps to maintain a positive mood.
Clinically reviewed by Hayley Quinn, PsyD, Manager of Clinical Program Development at AbleTo.
Photo by Koldunova Anna/Adobe Stock. Individuals in photographs do not represent AbleTo participants.