How to Manage Anxious Feelings

Whether it’s a big project at work or family coming to town for a visit, life is full of little events that wreak major havoc on our nerves. Excessive worry actually depresses your immune system and makes it harder for your body to fight off diseases or battle them once you do get sick.

Chronic stress impairs the formation of new fast-growing cells, like bone and hair. It also reduces your ability to form some new memories and recall others, literally dumbing you down. Worrying changes your blood chemistry, and if persistent, those changes raise your risk of diabetes and clinical depression.

Tips that can help manage anxiety

So, when anxiety strikes and you can’t immediately jump on a plane for a Caribbean island or have a drink or three, how can you relax fast?

Don’t fight the feeling

Some of us have a difficult time admitting when we struggle emotionally. But if you want to reduce your anxiety, you have to accept that the feeling exists. Feelings of anxiety are less than ideal, but they are not intolerable. Accepting anxiety doesn’t mean liking it or resigning yourself to a miserable existence. It means you accept reality as it is in that moment, and reality includes anxiety.

Just breathe

It’s something we do all the time and therefore take it for granted. Breathing is an incredibly powerful tool we all have to reduce anxious feelings. Deep diaphragmatic breathing activates the body’s relaxation response. It helps the body go from the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system to the relaxed response of the parasympathetic nervous system.

Try slowly inhaling to a count of four, filling your belly first and then your chest, gently holding your breath to a count of 4, and slowly exhaling to a count of four and repeat several times.

Eliminate or reduce caffeine, sugar and processed foods

Caffeine jacks up your central nervous system, and when you are stressed out, the last thing you need is more nervous activity. It also can cause heart palpitations if you ingest too much. Caffeine can trigger panic or anxiety attacks, especially if you have an anxiety disorder.

At the same time, sugar acts as an adrenal stimulant that can contribute to anxiety or even panic attacks. Foods that contain refined flour products and wheat can exacerbate these effects, since they cause inflammation.

Early to bed, early to rise

Sleep deprivation is a huge anxiety culprit. Inadequate shuteye can amplify the brain’s anticipatory reactions, upping overall anxiety levels, according to research. Don’t burn the midnight oil in hopes of catching up on the weekends. Unused sleep minutes don’t roll over.

Rushing around in the morning sets a negative tone for your day. Instead, set your alarm for 15 minutes earlier than usual and go through your morning routine slowly. You’ll set yourself up for a relaxed day ahead. If you start to worry about the to-do list, take a deep breath and remember there is enough time.

Question your thinking

Anxiety is often like a hurricane. The longer it travels before hitting land, the more destructive power it harnesses. When we worry about something small, it is so easy for that worry to grow beyond what is rational. For example, if you have to give a presentation to a client, you may start worrying about speaking in front of a group, but when unchecked, that worry can grown into a full-blown fear that wearing the wrong shoes to the meeting will get you fired.

When you feel like your worry may be spinning out of control, ask yourself:

  •      Is this worry realistic?
  •      Is this really likely to happen?
  •      If the worst possible outcome happens, what would be so bad about that?
  •      Could I handle that? What might I do?

Get more lavender in your life

Lavender oil is a natural remedy to reduce anxiety and other nervous conditions. Try putting a few drops on your pillow at night or applying the oil to a cotton ball or your fingertips and massage it into your temples. Bonus: You can also inhale lavender oil to help with pain management, especially after a workout or a physical therapy session.

Focus on the present

When you are anxious, it often means you are obsessing about something that might occur in the future. Instead, pause, breathe and pay attention to what’s happening right now. Take in what is happening outside your window. Notice the weather or the taste of a cup of tea. Use your senses to observe your immediate surroundings.

Get moving

The worst thing you can do when feeling anxious is to sit around obsessing about how you feel. Exercise is nature’s anti-anxiety remedy. Besides clearing your mind, getting your endorphins flowing and helping you sleep soundly at night, working out could help with your stress levels. Researchers have found that individuals who exercise vigorously and regularly are 25 percent less likely to develop an anxiety disorder within five years.

Declutter your space

Messy spaces create feelings of anxiety, making it impossible to calm down. Clutter causes your senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important, and makes it difficult to physically and mentally relax. It signals to your brain that your work is never done. Working or living in a messy space can inhibit creativity and productivity.

Remember, feelings are not facts

Anxiety is often the result of feeling that you are not good enough, not ready enough or not deserving of whatever is causing you to worry. This activity may be the most difficult on the list to stop because negative thoughts are automatic and often rooted in our unconscious. However, it can be the most impactful. It is critical to stop yourself and remember that feelings are oftentimes not accurate.

Identify the source

There are often many different causes for anxiety, so it’s important to determine the root cause so you know how to contend with it, according to Brandon M. Smith, The Workplace Therapist and founder and principal of The Worksmiths LLC. Some anxiety could be situational—for example, before a presentation or a big meeting with a client at work—while others could be related to an environment, workspace or an individual. Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can create a plan of attack.

Distance yourself

If something is related to an environment or person—some people or places just give off “funky vibes,” Smith says—then you may just want to take a step back. “If it’s a person or culture [that is causing anxiety], then the strategy is to distance yourself,” he says. “Anxiety is a form of emotional energy, and if it’s rubbing off on you, give yourself a little more distance.” If an unpredictable boss is the issue, limit your interactions to the phone or email. If it’s a bustling or extremely loud work space that makes your work day more stressful, then suggest to your boss that you’re more productive working from home. The key is to come up with a solution before raising a problem with your superiors, Smith says.

Prepare in advance

Unknown variables can also cause anxiety in social situations as well. You may feel it if you’re headed to a social gathering where you’re unsure of who you will meet and if you’ve never been to the venue before. Daniel Sokal, a New York-based, licensed clinical social worker, says that can be “related to the discomfort of the unknown.” In those situations, perhaps it’s advisable to invite a friend who makes you feel comfortable with you, or do a test drive to the new venue so you know exactly where you’re going the day of the event, he suggests.

Learn how to explain it to others

One thing that is difficult to face when it comes to anxiety is explaining it to others who haven’t dealt with it. How do you go about doing it? The easiest go-to word for coworkers or those that aren’t in tune with anxiety, is “stress,” according to Smith, since everyone has felt stressed at one time or another. If you’re asking for a change in your schedule in environment with someone you have to interact with often, like a job, make sure to come with a solution in hand before addressing the situation.

When anxiety is serious

Obviously, there is anxiety that is tied to a person or situation–and then there are circumstances that are more severe. If anxiety is “newer, not in the same brevity or heft” as before, Sokal says, it may be time to seek professional help. Additionally, if anxiety is impeding on relationships or your life, then it may be part of a larger problem and time to seek professional help.

Editor’s note: The information in this article should only be used as a guideline. If you are thinking about hurting yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Daria Meoli is a writer living in New Jersey. She loves running, spinning and yoga, but her favorite workout is chasing her kids.