If you’re one of the 40 million Americans who battle anxiety, chances are that worry and restlessness are part of your everyday life. Racing thoughts, nervousness, shortness of breath, and insomnia are some of anxiety’s most crippling side effects. For people who are in the thick of it, coming out on the other side can sometimes feel impossible.
Psychologist Tamar Chansky, PhD says what it really boils down to is uncertainty about the future. “[Anxiety] is about catastrophizing about what the outcome of something will be, so it really takes us out of the moment of what’s actually going on.”
According to Chansky, who penned “Freeing Yourself from Anxiety,” the faster we’re able to shift our minds out of worried thinking and into more logical, present-centered thinking, the better. If this sounds easier said than done, rest easy: We’ve pinpointed three practical tips to help you keep your anxiety in check.
See anxiety for what it is
The first thing Chansky advises doing is understanding what anxiety actually is. “It’s a very natural reaction to uncertainty, ambiguity, change and risk,” she says. “It’s nothing personal. It’s more about the way human beings are built.”
What Chansky’s referring to is our natural fight-or-flight response. While useful in life-threatening emergencies, this same reaction can also be triggered by non-threatening events. A racing heart rate and excessive sweating, for example, are nothing but inconvenient and disruptive when you’re about to go into a big job interview. The tricky part is that the brain doesn’t always distinguish between a real emergency and an imagined one.
Instead of getting pulled into anxiety, Chansky suggests hovering above the situation and relabeling it as what it really is – a natural reaction that has no power over you.
“You’re really reporting on what’s happening,” says Chansky. “This is panic, and it’s harmless, temporary and will pass.”
Replace questions with statements
When you’re really in panic mode, you may feel overwhelmed with questions. (What’s happening? How do I make it stop? What’s wrong with me?) According to Chansky, racing thoughts and questions only invite more uncertainty and, in turn, more anxiety. To avoid pouring fuel on the fire, she recommends replacing questions with statements. For example, replace “What is this?” with “I know this is panic, and it can’t hurt me.”
“You’ll notice how it feels differently in the body when you’re doing that,” she says. “It’s not really unknown anymore.”
Another way to take yourself out of survival mode and into a calmer place is to be mindful of your breathing. Deep, regular breathing shows the body that we’re safe because we wouldn’t breathe calmly if it were a real emergency, says Chansky.
Adopt a healthy lifestyle
On the whole, you’ll be better prepared to deal with anxiety triggers if you’re already living a healthy lifestyle. This is a three-pronged approach that includes exercise, diet and meditation. According to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, regular physical activity has been linked to reduced anxiety and stress. Exercise is also thought to improve overall mood. Similarly, fast food diets have been associated with anxiety, depression, hyperactivity and more.
“Whether it’s the door closing on the subway before you get in, or your child throwing a tantrum because they don’t like their socks; If you’ve slept well and had something to eat, you’re more likely to respond more rationally,” says Chansky.
Adopting a regular meditation practice can also stave off bouts of anxiety, according to Harvard Medical School. Experts say that quieting the mind through mediation can help tame unproductive worries that trigger panic. This goes hand in hand with Chansky’s advice of being a watchful observer of your anxiety, as opposed to a reactive participant in it.
“What we all need to do is try and keep ourselves in that zone where we’re able to be good reporters about things rather than reacting,” she says.