Strategies to manage anxiety in the short term
Why do we experience anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural reaction to a perceived threat. A bit of anxiety and stress can be useful - they can prepare us for action and help us perform better. However, when anxiety levels exceed a certain threshold, it can be very distressing and prevent us from engaging with a situation in an optimal way.
Some people might inherit a genetic tendency to be more anxious than others. Adverse childhood experiences, such as trauma, abuse, or neglect, have also been strongly linked to anxiety.
Techniques for managing anxiety
We can experience anxiety cognitively (e.g. racing thoughts), physiologically (e.g. shortness of breath) or behaviorally (e.g. escaping from the perceived threat). Thus, it follows that in order to tackle anxiety, we can address our thoughts, physiology, or behaviour.
Some of the following techniques can help address the immediate physiological distress of anxiety. If practiced regularly, they weaken the anxiety pathways of our brain and body so that we respond to perceived threats in more adaptive ways.
Grounding is the first tool which can help 'in the moment' as we are experiencing anxiety. Grounding is about finding safety and connection in the present moment. Essentially, grounding is about connecting to the body. For instance, if you are experiencing anxiety at work in an office, feel your feet under the desk. See if you can connect to the sensations of your feet making contact with the floor, or the feeling of your skin against your shoes. Alternatively, try to make your out-breath long, slow and gentle. Slow down your breathing with special attention to the out-breath. Another grounding technique is to slowly turn your head to take in the space around you - notice things you can focus your eyes on in the immediate vicinity. Try again, more slowly. Doing this reduces the body’s anxiety response.
'HALT' is an acronym for hungry/angry/lonely/tired. Regardless of the complex forces acting within us, we have to satisfy our fundamental human needs. When feeling anxious, check whether you may be hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. See if you can satisfy the simple needs for food, connection, or rest. The connection or rest you may need to quell your anxiety does not have to be long drawn out or extensive. We can fulfil our immediate need for connection with something as simple as a casual chat with a sympathetic co-worker or friend about our weekend. A short walk (ideally in or around nature) can be deeply restorative and can slow our nervous system down.
3. Mindfulness of the body
This is a tried and tested technique for lessening anxiety, used by psychotherapists and mindfulness practitioners. When you feel anxious, note the nuances and details of the sensations inside you. Try asking yourself 'where do I feel that in my body right now?' and not 'why do I feel anxious?'. Keep noticing the most pressing physical feelings in the body, without getting caught up in thoughts about those sensations. If your mind races off, very gently bring your attention back to the physical sensations. The physical sensations may shift and change as you notice them; keep your attention on the pure sensations for a few minutes until you feel better.
4. Mindfulness of thoughts
Notice the thoughts that you are experiencing while feeling anxious. Note them down, either using pen and paper or an app. The thoughts in question are the rapid, spontaneous thoughts that you may not be aware of until you consciously try to identify them. Remember that thoughts are merely thoughts, not reality. If you are full of catastrophic thoughts, explore them but do not trust them. Know that your primitive brain is mistakenly predicting life or death type worst-case scenarios. Anxiety is an over-protective feeling. Have compassion towards the cautious, fearful parts of you, but do not feed the flames. Become aware of your inner critic without necessarily believing it.
In addition, we could choose to explore the underlying issues that may be causing our anxiety, through psychotherapy or otherwise. But in the meantime, these techniques can form a toolkit of immediate responses to alleviate our distress and bring our anxiety down to manageable levels.
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