Anxiety episodes and disorders are serious, and often need to be treated as such by a doctor. It can take time and practice to nail down a treatment that works for you. However, in those perilous moments of anxiety, we just want a quick fix. Luckily, there are expert-backed tricks you can try to calm yourself down when your emotions bubble up and get the better of you.
Try a breathing technique.
Dr. Sherry Benton, Ph.D., ABPP, the founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect, says that to know how to combat anxiety when it strikes, you have to know what’s going on in your body. For one, she says there's heightened activity in the amygdala, which plays in a crucial role in processing our emotions and is located in our brain's limbic system. “Your breathing becomes more shallow and rapid,” she says. “Your heart starts beating faster, and this all feeds into changing your thinking to be more stressed and worried.”
Benton says the best way to interrupt this cycle is to change what the body is physically doing. Start with your breathing.
Stop and inhale for four counts, pause, and then breathe out for four counts. While you do this, you can try saying a mantra. Perhaps try thinking “I am” as you breath in, and “relaxed” as you breathe out, Benton suggests.
Reena B. Patel, an educational psychologist, parenting expert, and guidance counsellor, also recommends the breathing technique, but she says it can be best to start with a different pattern when you’re really worked up: Breathe in for two counts, hold it for four, and breathe out again for two. She says it can also be helpful to picture your breathe on a bell curve as you’re inhaling and exhaling.
“It’s the fastest easiest thing to do if you find yourself feeling really anxious,” Benton says.
Challenge your thinking.
Benton notes that it can be useful to make a habit of challenging yourself, especially if you're someone who tends to assume the worst will happen. She offers this example: A student got all As in high school, but gets a C on her first chemistry exam in college. “By the time she gets to her car after class, she’s convinced herself she’s going to be a complete failure in life, be homeless, and die under a bridge somewhere,” Benton says. “Your head goes to muck. You have thought after thought that feeds your anxiety.”
She says to stop yourself from doing this, you should challenge your thinking. Ask yourself: How realistic is this? Think about what you would tell a friend in the same situation.
Write it down.
Benton also says that when you’re spiralling into anxious thoughts, it can help to stop, write down everything you’re worried about, and then consider what you wrote: Is it realistic, or is it an exaggeration?
It can be helpful to call a loved one or do an activity that takes some focus, like a Sudoku puzzle, to distract your mind from its unpleasant thoughts that are magnifying your worries.
Try mindfulness meditation.
There are all kinds of meditation apps you can try that are made to calm you down during the day, while helping you focus on the present moment. “Rather than thinking all of those thousand other things, it gives the brain a break,” Benton says. “It’s turning off the constant conversation in your head so you can be in this moment.”