The ultimate guide to ditching anxiety and getting your life back.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is that tightness in your chest when you look at your schedule.
Or the nagging worry you forgot something at home.
Or sometimes anxiety is the inability to sleep because you’re too busy rehashing all the things you did wrong that day.
Anxiety, stress, and worry are part of a biological response to outward triggers our body feels could affect our well-being. In cave-dwelling days, it let our ancestors know to stay in groups to avoid being picked off by predators, to prepare for the lean winter months, and to remember not to leave their children unattended for too long.
It serves much the same purpose for us today, only instead of keeping us safe from mountain lions, our stress helps keep us alive by reminding us to turn the oven off before we leave the house.
And while anxiety is uncomfortable, it is also a normal part of life. And everyone experiences anxiety at some point. But that doesn’t mean you should let it affect your ability to function, think clearly, or experience joy.
So how can you tell if your anxiety is normal, or something you should get help with?
Healthy vs Harmful Anxiety
Healthy anxiety serves as that biological reminder to keep yourself safe and prepare ahead of time for stressful events. It’s the feeling of pressure that inspires you to solve a problem, plan, and remember the things most important to you.
Harmful anxiety, on the other hand, overwhelms you, distracts you from what’s truly important, and clouds your judgment.
In short, healthy anxiety is a part of everyday life, while harmful anxiety disrupts everyday life.
What Are Anxiety Disorders?
When our worrying and stress become persistent, unceasing, and harmful, they are usually classified as a disorder. The most common anxiety disorders are:
- GAD: General Anxiety Disorder
- Ongoing worry and over-the-top stress over small things that shouldn’t matter.
- Example: Not being able to sleep because you couldn’t find the pen you were going to use for your presentation the next day.
- PTSD: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Intense anxiety and stress around particular triggers relating to previous trauma.
- Example: Having panic attacks in intimate situations with your partner because of abuse that happened as a child.
- OCD: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Stress and anxiety around certain triggers that can be relieved only through unwanted thoughts and obsessions or repetitive, compulsive behaviors.
- Example: Entering a large building and feeling an urgent need to count all the spaces between the tiles. This is followed by feeling relief only after the task has been completed.
- Social Phobia/Social Anxiety Disorder
- Anxiety and fear in social situations that go away when people are no longer around.
- Example: Mind going blank and body sweating when in groups of more than three.
- Panic Disorder
- Extreme bouts of anxiety and fear of harm or death that result in negative physical side effects like trouble breathing and dizziness.
- Example: A fear of water causing a beach-goer to collapse on the sand and hyperventilate.
The Top 19 Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety
So how can you tell if you’re experiencing anxiety?
According to Deniz Elimen, PhD, MsC, when people are exposed to stressful situations, “Psychological changes are unique to each individual and reflect a person’s baseline personality…”
In other words, everyone experiences anxiety in a way unique to them. That said, here are 19 common signs and symptoms of anxiety to keep an eye out for:
- The release of adrenaline
- Heart palpitations (fast or irregular heartbeats)
- Sweaty palms
- Flushed face
- Increased body temperature
- Clouded judgment
- Trouble Sleeping
- Lack of focus
- Tiredness and irritability
- Sore muscles
- Over-planning for the future
- Underestimating your own abilities to handle a situation
- Fear of the future
- Attempting to control other people and situations
- Increased blood pressure
- Lowered immunity
- Negative thoughts and feelings
- Lack of motivation
- Slow healing and recovery from wounds or illness
What Triggers Anxiety?
Now that we’ve looked at the effects anxiety can have on your body, mind, and motivation, how can we avoid feeling anxious?
First, we need to acknowledge that because anxiety can be a healthy part of life (no one wants to die in an oven fire, after all), not all anxiety can or should be avoided. In other words: you’ll have to be uncomfortable sometimes. And that means letting go of the things you can’t control.
It’s a bummer, I know. So in situations where you’re experiencing healthy anxiety, remind yourself that it’s your brain trying to make sure you remember to file that important memorandum before the deadline. Say thanks and tell yourself you got this.
That Said . . .
Identifying people, situations, or environments that trigger your anxiety can be a healthy and productive way to avoid feelings of anxiety.
To do this, you first need to assess whether the anxiety you’re feeling is healthy or harmful, as we discussed above.
Remember, healthy anxiety usually stems from life changes, busy schedules, taking care of others, illness, debt and feeling unprepared.
Harmful anxiety, on the other hand, is often linked with one of the disorders mentioned above. Avoiding triggers can be extremely beneficial in these instances. For example, if water is a trigger for you, declining an invite to the beach will save you a lot of heartache.
The trick to figuring out what your triggers are is to write them down. Anytime you feel the sweaty palms of anxiety, grab a pen and jot down a few sentences about what you’re feeling and what was happening before you became stressed.
Were you looking at a schedule of all the things you had to do? Talking to your partner? Taking care of the dog? Sometimes, what’s truly causing our anxiety can be hidden in mundane tasks. But when we take the time to write our triggers over a couple of weeks, a pattern emerges.
For instance, maybe you thought your stress came from taking care of the dog. But after writing down stress around chores, work parties, and making dinner in addition to the dog, you realize that your stress really comes from not having enough alone time because your schedule is too busy.
Learning How to Cope With Stress and Worry: “Do I Need Medication to Control My Anxiety?”
If you’re experiencing chronic anxiety and have identified your triggers, the next step is treatment. If you’re ready to find relief from anxiety, your next question may be “Is a medical or homeopathic approach the right option for me and my anxiety?”
This can be a difficult question to answer and largely depends on what your identified triggers are. Luckily, there are just as many doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and former anxiety-sufferers out there with tons of resources to help.
So, Can You Cure Anxiety Without Medication?
Yes! For a lot of people, resources other than medication can be very effective. And here’s the good news:
“Anxiety disorders are very treatable.”American Psychological Association (APA)
But because every person and situation is different, Dr. Seliman states that treating anxiety effectively “. . . necessitates a holistic approach to care.” A holistic approach includes taking into account a person’s personality, past trauma, life events, support-networks, genetics, lifestyle habits, and medical history and is the best bet for effective anxiety treatment.
By using a mixture of lifestyle changes, coping mechanisms, and sometimes psychotherapy and medication, most anxiety-sufferers can reduce or eliminate their symptoms altogether.
Keep reading to find out what the best tips and tricks are for managing your anxiety on your own.
“What Can I Do To Relieve Anxiety?” 12 Tips to Manage Anxiety and Stress
1. Identify Your Anxiety Triggers
We mentioned this before, but it’s so important, I’m going to say it again. To truly find relief from your anxiety, you need to know what’s causing it. So if you haven’t yet completed this step, go back and take some time to do the work. It will help immensely going forward.
2. Practice Breathing
Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
It’s as simple as that.
Or not. But the concept holds true: slow and steady breathing helps calm your nerves, relax your body, and improve productivity and focus.
What’s important with your breathing, is making sure that your exhales are longer than your inhales. Exhaling signals to your body that you’re not under duress (unlike exhaling which preps your body for action).
Counting, too, can help increase the relaxation you get from your breathing. It helps you focus on something specific and ensures you are exhaling the proper amount.
For starters try this:
Breath in slowly for a count of 4.
Hold for a count of 4.
Exhale for a count of 5.
Repeat until you are feeling more relaxed.
3. Treat Yourself Like a Child
I know, I know, you’re not 5 anymore. But sometimes grown-ups need to be force-fed their veggies and sent outside to play, too.
This means the next step to reducing anxiety should be implementing physical changes to strengthen your body and mind. These include:
- Eating a well-balanced diet. Make sure to get your vegetables and leafy greens in as they provide essential nutrients your body and brain need to function optimally. Missing out on vitamins like B12 and 6 and Vitamin D can cause depression and lack of motivation.
- Getting more sleep. It seems obvious, but it’s important to note: if you don’t get a lot of sleep, your brain is more easily stressed and overwhelmed. So make sure you’re getting your 7-8 hours and if not, prioritize your sleeping schedule.
- Exercising more. Exercise has been proven to elevate mood, and improve your health and outlook on life. So get in some walking, running, Zumba, or jazzercise. Whatever sparks your interest and gets your heart going.
- Doing Some Meditation or Yoga. Carve out some quiet time and focus on yourself. This can be helpful in assessing your triggers and why they impact you so much in your day to day life. It can also help bring some much-needed inner peace.
4. Take Earth’s Perscription
While not for everyone, many people have reported success with various vitamins (like mentioned above), supplements (like the plant pulsatilla), and essential oils.
5. Take a Time Out From Anxiety
Sometimes, however, no amount of lavender or crushed plant can stop your anxiety from feeling overwhelming. In these instances, it’s important to put yourself in time out. In other words, remove yourself from the stressful situation until you can sort out your thoughts. This is a great time to assess what might have triggered you and practice your breathing techniques as we mentioned above.
6. Say “No” More
Often, everyday stress is triggered by simply having too much to do. So before you agree to the next picnic, babysitting gig, or work assignment, sit down and decide if it’s worth it. Make sure you’re not agreeing to fill up your schedule just because you think it will make others happy.
In short, reducing your obligations will clear out your schedule and (hopefully) get rid of things that you don’t want to do or are stressing you out.
And know this, you don’t have to do everything by yourself. This is especially true if you’re going through a big life change. You don’t have to pack all those boxes on your own. Or watch new baby all the time. Or handle all the responsibilities of your new job without asking for guidance or help. In fact, it’s during life’s biggest changes and when you’re feeling extra overwhelmed that you should call on your support group to help lift the burden until your life settles down.
Remember, people love you! You’re amazing. And they want to help. So if you’re feeling anxious about something that someone else can help do, give them a call or text or email and ask! Right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
7. Solve Your Anxiety’s Problem
Okay, this one may seem like a “Duh!” but listen up, because one of the problems with intense anxiety is that it can cloud your judgment and make you feel like there’s no solution.
Sometimes, despite our best mental efforts, we can’t figure out how to solve the problem. We waste our time spinning wheels and going nowhere. If that feels like you and you’re emotionally drained and mentally stuck, follow the Six-Step Structured Problem Solving Technique below to find a solution.
Six-Step Structured Problem Solving Technique for Coping with Anxiety
- Identify the problem. If you practiced writing down your triggers above, you should be able to accomplish this step a little more easily than if you haven’t yet. Think about what’s causing you the most anxiety. Try to see past the trees to the forest. Are the reckless drivers on the road in the morning what’s causing you to stress, or is waking up late so you have to rush in the mornings the real source of your anxiety woes? Be honest and try to be specific.
- Write down all possible solutions. And I mean all possible solutions, even the terrible, no good, very bad ones. So go ahead. Grab some paper right now. You can put the name of your problem at the top of the page and write a list or in the center to make a bubble cloud; whatever feels most natural to you. Now brain dump any and everything you can think of as a solution.
- Think about each solution in realistic terms. Be practical. In the last step, your mind was free to run wild. Now it’s time to go through each solution and ask a) What is the likelihood this will actually work? And b) Will this add to or detract from my current anxiety levels? If a solution is either impractical or too stressful (or both!) nix it from the list.
- Choose the most practical solution. Look at the options that are left and choose the one that is easiest to implement while having the most desirable effect on the situation. It may not be perfect, but doing something about the problem will help boost your confidence and still make the situation better than it is now.
- Plan. Now that you’ve chosen what you’re going to do, plan it out. Will you need extra time in the morning to get ready? Do you need to call in ahead of time to ask a question? Or will you need to mentally prepare to get the courage you need? Whatever it is, write that down, too. As an anxiety-sufferer you know that the better prepared you are, the more comfortable you’ll feel when executing the plan.
- Do it! You brain-dumped it out, sorted through the refuse, picked the best solution and planned for it. Now you just need to make sure you do it! Focus on the positive results you’ll gain from following through. Imagine how you’ll feel when that stress is removed from your life. Will your chest be less tight? Will the knots in your stomach be gone? Will your head feel tension-free and relaxed? Now embody that and go! You can do it!
8. Stop Ignoring Yourself
This one may seem counterintuitive at first. You’re probably thinking, “I already can’t stop listening to myself and all the worrying going on inside my head!” But that’s not what I want you to listen to. I want you to listen to the logical, grounded thoughts still circulating underneath all that worry.
“The uncomfortable sensation [of anxiety] is not ‘out there’ but actually ‘in here’. So that’s step one. You own it. You own the uncomfortable thing.”Megan Murphy LMHC, psychotherapist in NYC.
In other words, you need to recognize that you’re having a panic attack and own it. Once you do that, Murphy says, “You’re standing courageously, sword at the ready. You notice. You own it. You care for it.” You’re ready to deal with the anxiety instead of letting it take over your life.
Say it Out Loud
To do this, start with the breathing we outlined above. As you’re breathing, try to put words to how you feel. What kind of worry is this? Is this being late worry? Fear of harm worry? Or is it unreasonable worry? Once you know where your anxiety is stemming from, say it out loud.
“I’m having an anxiety attack. I know it’s because I’m late and there’s nothing I can do to fix it right now. And that’s okay.”
Then you need to verbally acknowledge that whatever is making you anxious is not going to harm you in the long term. Remember to keep breathing slowly through this, focusing on the exhales.
“I know I’ll be late to my meeting and my boss won’t be happy, but I will still have a job. I will still have my health and my family and life will go on.”
9.Challenge Negative Thoughts
This tip, like the one above, can be utilized during an anxiety attack or before it begins in the first place. The focus of this coping technique is to challenge the negative thought seedlings that grow into anxiety attacks.
To start, mentally open up one of the nagging buds inside you. Maybe it’s the worry that you let someone at work or home down. You feel like you could have done more and that you’re the reason they’re not succeeding. Now stop. Breathe. Acknowledge what kind of anxiety this is: guilty worry.
Now challenge it.
Ask: Is this thought reasonable? In this situation, you would ask “Am I really responsible if the other person has a bad day?”
The answer: No. You cannot control the feelings of others.
Then ask, “What is the likelihood not doing X actually ruined the other person’s day?”
The answer: most likely very low. Forgetting to pack a lunch, pick up dry-cleaning, or turning in a project is not usually the end of the world.
“Often, a change of perspective can dramatically improve your outlook, increase motivation, curb excessive guilt and build healthy self-regard. By examining negative feelings, behaviors and habits of thought, you can develop insights that bring relief and improve all aspects of your life–love, work and play.”Sabina Tyrk, LCSW and Clinical Social/Work Therapist,
In other words, by calling your negative thoughts on their bluff, you can reduce anxiety and improve your mental health.
10. Think of the Present as a Gift
This coping technique is best done when your anxiety is starting or in progress and is used to de-escalate your emotions. The purpose is to focus on and ground yourself in how you feel in the present. To do this:
- Focus on your surroundings. What colors do you see? What shapes? Is it hot or cold? Is the wind blowing on your face? How do your toes feel in your shoes? Your fingers against the hard keyboard? Stating the answers to each of these and similar questions either out loud or in your mind.
- Next, progress to how your body feels. Is your chest tight? Are your hands clammy? Is your breathing rapid? Is your hand clasped? Does your head hurt? Is your mouth parched? Focus and describe to yourself each of these things.
- The final step is to then work on relieving the physical feelings that are out of sync with being calm. If your chest is tight, breathe slowly to loosen it. If your hands are clenched in a fist, open them up and shake them out. Or if your mouth is parched, drink some water.
Focusing on your surroundings draws attention to tangible things instead of the wild imagination of worry. Channeling that into deliberate steps to relax your body will help you calm down and get rid of feelings of anxiety.
11. Talk it Out
This step can be done either by yourself through journaling or with a trusted family member, therapist, or friend. Sometimes we just need to talk things out to realize where we’re at. And often, an alternative perspective can offer fresh solutions and encouragement to what otherwise feels like a hopeless situation.
Scheduling talk-it-out sessions around stressful events in your life can be a good way to handle anxiety before it takes over your life and buries you in feelings of hopelessness.
12. Consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
This term is thrown around a lot when discussing non-medicinal treatments for anxiety. That’s because this type of therapy has proven to be very successful in the long-term.
Wait, what is CBT?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is talk-based therapy that helps patients come to their own conclusions about what’s making them anxious and how to cope with it. It also involves a lot of the techniques mentioned above, including breathing, challenging thoughts, and labeling worry. Combined together with a guided mentor, CBT helps patients master their own emotions.
“[Cognitive Behavioral Therapy] assumes that most people can become conscious of their own thoughts and behaviors and then make positive changes to them.”NIJ Journal No. 265, April 2010, p. 22
“Can I do CBT on my Own?”
Yes and no. Again, many of the basic techniques in CBT have been mentioned in the steps above, and those can definitely be done on your own.
The difference between doing those steps by yourself and participating in CBT with a therapist is that a trained professional is there to walk you through the landmines of memories. Past experiences make up who you are, your strengths and weaknesses, and may be holding you back, though you can’t see it.
“A person’s thoughts are often the result of experience, and behavior is often influenced and prompted by these thoughts. In addition, thoughts may sometimes become distorted and fail to reflect reality accurately.”NIJ Journal No. 265, April 2010, p. 22
So if you’re having trouble challenging negative thoughts or finding their source, therapist-guided CBT could be a better choice than struggling on your own. If you’re worried about cost or your anxiety is making it hard for you to leave the house, there are several online CBT courses that could be a good place to start.
Just don’t shy away from a therapist because you’re worried about judgment. Therapists are there to help you be the best you can be and are trained to take care of you. Let them!
Be Patient With Yourself!
This may be the most important step of all. With all the worry and anxiety you’re feeling, stressing that you’re not improving fast enough will not help. Let it go. Breathe. And realize that the process of unburdening yourself takes time.
Yes, letting go of control can be hard! But it’s doable. By you. You can do it. Today.
When is it Time to Call the Anxiety Doc?
Sometimes, despite our very best efforts, a doctor or psychiatrist’s help is required to get better. And that’s okay. Really, it is. A good 18.1% of people in America have some sort of anxiety disorder. And over 30% of those have already sought medical help to get back on their feet until they can manage stress on their own.
So, how do you know if you should get professional help for your anxiety?
- When anxiety is impacting your daily life. If worry is keeping you from going out, engaging with family and friends, or making you miss work, it’s time to see the doctor.
- You have no motivation. If nothing brings you joy anymore, a doctor’s visit can help you get back on your feet so you enjoy living again.
- You are having harmful thoughts. Please, please, please, seek help if you’re experiencing dark and harmful thoughts. You are worth fighting for.
- Self-care is having no effect.
- “Often, by the time people come into therapy, they’ve tried to fix the problem themselves, but the tools they have at their disposal, tools that may have helped in the past, are no longer effective. That’s when another set of eyes and ears can help you find new answers to old problems.” Besty Hallerman LCSW
- You have little to no support group. If you are alone on the journey of crushing guilt and anxiety and have no one to talk to or help you through it, contact a doctor or psychologist/psychiatrist. They can be a great support for you and be the lifeline you need to pull you out of the depths and back to the land of the happily living.
Types of Anxiety Medications and What They Do.
When making the decision to go on medication to treat anxiety, there can be a lot to research. Below is a simple list of common anxiety medications pulled from the National Institute of Mental Health, their side-effects, and what types of anxiety they normally treat. This list is not exhaustive but can be a good place to start.
Also, keep in mind that according to research by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, all the medications listed below have been shown to work equally well, depending on the person. So if one medication doesn’t work for you, don’t be afraid to try another.
Benzodiazepines are most commonly used to treat GAD and the short-term symptoms of anxiety, like sweaty palms and pits and your heart feeling like it will burst out of your chest. Lorazepam is a medicine in the Benzodiazepine class and is especially good at treating these short-term symptoms. This makes it good for people with phobias who know they’ll be near a trigger and can be used on a treat-as-you-go basis. Other Benzodiazepines include Clonazepam and Alprazolam.
Benzodiazepines are normally only prescribed for a short period of time, as their potency can decrease as your body adjusts. They also run the risk of addiction, so use with caution.
The most common side effects of Benzodizapines are drowsiness and dizziness but can also include headaches, blurry vision, nightmares and nausea. More serious side effects include depression, reduced sex-drive and trouble thinking.
If you experience any of the following, contact your doctor immediately: swelling, hives, severe depression or thoughts of suicide, jaundice (yellowing of eyes or skin), trouble breathing, or seizures.
Unlike Benzodiazepines, Buspirone cannot be used on an as-needed basis. It takes time to build up in your system (usually 2 weeks) and is more commonly used to treat chronic, ongoing anxiety. In this way, it is more like the many antidepression medications used to treat anxiety.
Side effects of Buspirone include dizziness, lightheadedness, nervousness or excitedness, insomnia, and headaches.
SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors)
Less addictive than their other antidepressant brothers, SSRI’s like Fluoxetine, Citalopram, Setraline, Paroxetine, Escitalopram are not as addictive and carry fewer side-effects. They work by allowing excess serotonin to remain in the brain instead of being reabsorbed. This allows for more serotonin, a chemical that helps regulate emotions in the brain, to be more readily available during times of stress.
Despite the good, as with all medication, there are some side effects to SSRI’s. These include sexual problems, sleepiness, weight gain and nausea.
Contact your doctor if your anxiety worsens, you have suicidal thoughts, or insomnia and agitation are making it hard to function in your daily life.
Remember: It’s Not Your Fault
Your mind is powerful and so are you. Just because you tend to worry doesn’t mean you are broken or unwhole or faulty. It just means that you care. A LOT. And that you want to protect yourself and those you love.
And sometimes it’s because your genetics and biology have left you with a hyper-active survival drive that comes out as crippling anxiety.
Be patient with yourself. Love yourself. And try to tell those around you how much you appreciate and need their support while you work on managing your anxiety.
Because you’re worth it.
So start today by practicing your breathing and identifying your triggers. Then you can take the steps you need to get rid of the excess worry and anxiety in your life and be happy. Free. Able to enjoy time with family and friends and to be more successful at work.
And please, let me know about your journey in the comments or through our contact us page so I can cheer you on!