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How to calm anxiety (when you're freaking out)

how to calm anxiety is practiced by a smiling woman with curly hair

Anxiety is a common struggle for many people. The good news is that mental health is finally becoming part of the broader well-being conversation among medical professionals and the public–which helps eliminate the stigma of mental health struggles and allows us to find ways to treat it and cope with it. 

If you struggle with anxiety, know that you are not alone. In fact, let’s take a look at some statistics that demonstrate how prevalent anxiety is in our world:

Table of contents
Surprising statistics about anxiety 
How do you define anxiety?
But first–what’s the difference between anxiety and regular stress?
What triggers anxiety?
Why is my anxiety so bad?
What is crippling anxiety?
What does debilitating anxiety look like?
How can I calm anxiety fast?
How to treat and reduce ongoing anxiety 
How do you deal with uncontrollable anxiety?
How you can help someone with anxiety 
You never know what someone is going through

Surprising statistics about anxiety 

  • Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. and affect 40 million adults in the U.S., or 18.% of the population, every year. [1]
  • Only 36.9% of those suffering from anxiety disorders receive treatment. [1]
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder affects 6.8 million adults in the United States, and women are twice as likely to be affected as men. [2]
  • Nearly 50% of Americans diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. [2]
  • Approximately 8% of children and teenagers experience an anxiety disorder, with many symptoms developing before age 21. [2]
  • Anxiety disorders can be caused by a number of factors, including trauma, stress buildup or stress due to an illness, withdrawal from drugs or alcohol, or family history of mental health issues. [2]
  • Research has shown that many anxiety disorders are all linked to specific genes. [3]
  • Nearly 31% of adults will have an anxiety disorder within their lifetime. [4]
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects 7.7 million adults with women more likely to be affected than men. [4]
  • Panic disorder affects 6 million adults with women twice as likely to be affected than men. [4]

How do you define anxiety?

Before you can understand how to calm your mind from anxiety, you first need a solid grasp on what anxiety is. 

Anxiety is the mind and body’s response to something that worries or unsettles you, causing an overall feeling of tension and worry. It’s a common emotion, and many people experience anxiety during particularly stressful moments in life, such as helping a loved one with a serious illness. These stressful moments are called “triggers” and are what prompts an anxious response. 

However, anxiety can intensify and become a constant part of someone’s mind in all that they do, making it difficult to go about their daily activities. Typically when anxiety reaches this point, a person has developed an anxiety disorder. 

Let’s talk about some of the common triggers, symptoms, disorders, and questions to help you figure out how to manage anxiety. 

But first–what’s the difference between anxiety and regular stress?

From a big presentation at work to a mounting pile of laundry at home, everybody experiences stress to some degree. So, what makes stress different from anxiety

Stress is a response to something uncomfortable, such as a busy schedule or upcoming deadline. It is usually short-lived and goes away after the trigger has passed. 

Anxiety is a response to stress and is more persistent and ongoing. The cause of anxiety is also a bit more difficult to pinpoint. While you might feel stress about your busy week ahead, anxiety could show up as an intense fear of attending a work meeting or cause you to feel nauseous while you’re in meetings for weeks. An anxious reaction is a bit more severe and long-term than stress. 

What triggers anxiety?

So many things can trigger an anxious response and it largely depends on each individual. Some common triggers include: 

  • A significant life change, such as a move or a new job
  • Medications
  • Drugs or alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Perceived pressure, such a high-stake job interview
  • Financial struggles
  • Negative thoughts
  • Trauma

Why is my anxiety so bad?

If you’re dealing with anxiety (particularly a severe form that hinders your daily life), it’s natural to wonder why things that seem so easy to other people are so difficult for you. 

The truth is that some people are more prone to anxious thoughts than others. Both genetics and life experiences can affect anxiety. Additionally, there may be current factors in your life (like some of the triggers above) that are contributing to building up your anxiety. 

What is crippling anxiety?

Crippling anxiety is when potentially high-functioning anxiety and its symptoms heighten. Someone with crippling anxiety will have anxiety present most of the time and experience symptoms so strong that they may be unable to do day-to-day tasks. As Talkspace shares, there are several common symptoms of crippling anxiety:

  • Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
  • Trouble breathing
  • Tightness in chest
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Excessive sweating
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Racing thoughts
  • Feeling panicked or afraid
  • Feeling irritable or angry

As Talkspace continues, if someone experiences crippling anxiety, it’s possible that they have an anxiety disorder. That could include one of the following:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): Someone who has GAD may experience constant worry or tension, even if there isn’t anything obviously wrong. People with GAD are anxious about a variety of things and may have difficulty sleeping or concentrating.
  • Panic disorder: Someone with a panic disorder experiences sudden and intense panic attacks. A panic attack is when someone experiences an overwhelming feeling of terror or dread. Many confuse panic attacks for heart attacks due to the intense physical symptoms of chest pain, sweating, and a rapid heart beat.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Someone with PTSD has usually experienced a traumatic event, such as a death of a loved one or accident. People with this disorder often will experience flashbacks of their trauma and react with a fight or flight response.
  • Phobias: Someone who has a phobia has an irrational fear of a specific situation or object. Popular phobias include a fear of flying, small spaces, blood, snakes, or a number of other things.
  • Social anxiety disorder: Someone who has social anxiety disorder will become anxious around people or social situations. People with this disorder worry others are judging them and will often avoid large groups.  

What does debilitating anxiety look like?

Debilitating anxiety is one step past crippling anxiety. While your crippling anxiety might be constant and overwhelming, you still may be able to do some of your day-to-day tasks. 

Once your anxiety reaches a point where you start to break down and are unable to think of anything else, you have reached the point of debilitating anxiety. For example, a panic attack is when anxiety becomes debilitating.

How can I calm anxiety fast?

If you’re feeling a panic attack coming on or are experiencing any of the symptoms of crippling anxiety listed above, there are a few techniques that will help you figure out how to reduce anxiety and quickly calm yourself in the moment. 

  • Accept the emotion: As you begin to feel anxious, recognize and name that feeling. As psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Sigel explains, naming an emotion out loud can actually diffuse it’s power—something he coined “name it to tame it.” Then, remind yourself that anxiety is an emotional reaction. Avoid any judgment or shame in recognizing your anxiety and allow yourself some compassion.
  • Take deep breaths: Deep breathing can help slow your racing heart rate and thoughts. Inhale deeply through the nose and exhale through the mouth. Repeat as much as you need. 
  • Be present in the moment: Anxiety is often asking the question, “what if?” and catastrophizing the possibilities. Take time to practice mindfulness and focus on the now, whether that be concentrating on your breathing, counting your fingers, or concentrating on the different sensations of the warm mug of coffee in your hands.
  • Think of something calming: If your anxiety is becoming overwhelming, center your mind on something that normally relaxes you, such as picturing the ocean or reflecting on a happy memory. 
  • Question your fears: Many times, anxiety prompts irrational fears and leads to someone imagining the worst-case scenario. If you become overwhelmed with perceived catastrophes, challenge yourself on those fears. Is this fear realistic? What is the worst that could happen? How could you handle that situation?
  • Talk positively to yourself: If you’re feeling especially anxious, you might tell yourself negative things like, “I can’t handle this,” or “I’m a mess.” These negative thoughts only pile onto your existing anxiety. Try to tell yourself positive, encouraging statements, such as, “I can do this.” 

How to treat and reduce ongoing anxiety 

If you feel you may have an anxiety disorder or that your anxiety is uncontrollable, consider taking steps to figure out how to deal with anxiety and improve your mental health in the long-term. Below are some steps you can take to start treating your anxiety: 

  • Talk to a mental health professional: Whether it be a counselor or a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist, there are professionals available to help you work through your mental health struggles. While discussing your anxiety with a stranger may sound scary, many have found therapy helpful for learning how to stop anxiety and even how to calm an anxiety attack based on their therapist’s recommendations. Professionals are equipped with strategies, exercises, and tactics that you can’t find elsewhere.
  • Consider medication: Of course, medication should only be prescribed by a healthcare professional and it’s imperative that you seek a doctor’s opinion before trying any new medications or treatments. However, it may be worth asking your therapist or doctor about potential prescriptions that could help you manage your anxiety, particularly as you figure out how to deal with crippling anxiety or debilitating anxiety (if that’s what you’re dealing with). 
  • Cut out unnecessary stress: While you shouldn’t avoid all things that give you anxiety, there are elements in your life you can eliminate that can help you cut through the white noise that’s adding to your anxiety. For example, if you’re overwhelmed by raising a family, working, and managing other outside commitments, see if you can step down from the extracurricular activities that aren’t a priority. That way, you can focus on what is important and create some time for rest to reset your mind.
  • Exercise: Moving your body has been found to help manage stress and produces endorphins in the body which can help improve overall mental health. Even something as simple as a 30-minute walk will get your blood pumping and overall reduce your anxiety.

How do you deal with uncontrollable anxiety?

Any of the above steps should help you understand how to calm down anxiety. However, everyone may have different techniques and practices that better reduce or stop anxiety. The first step to take with uncontrollable anxiety is to seek professional help. A counselor or doctor can recommend the best strategies to help you regain control of your anxiety and find a way to manage it in your life. 

The good news is anxiety is very treatable if you seek help, and many people notice an improvement in their anxiety after a few sessions with a trained professional. 

How you can help someone with anxiety 

Regardless of whether you experience anxiety yourself, it’s probable that you know someone else who struggles with it. If you notice a friend, family member, or coworker showing any of the symptoms listed above, consider these strategies to support them:

  • Listen: If someone you know has anxiety, it can be helpful just to sit and listen to what is on their mind. This can provide comfort in knowing that they have a support system and that they don’t have to face this alone.
  • Help them find resources: The best way to support someone with anxiety is to help them find ways to address their anxiety through the resources available. Whether it be finding a recommended therapist or access to mental health resources at your workplace, finding what’s available is a great step in the right direction. 
  • Set boundaries: Ultimately, it’s best to leave advice to mental health professionals. You can listen and suggest common resources that may help someone deal with anxiety, but avoid suggesting specific medications or techniques to manage anxiety. Plus, it’s important for your own mental health to set boundaries with loved ones so they don’t become too dependent on you. 

If you or someone you know is considering suicide or having suicidal thoughts, consult this list of international suicide hotlines. You can speak to someone immediately and receive the help you need. 

You never know what someone is going through

Anxiety is a common emotion and many people struggle with an anxiety disorder that can negatively affect daily life. 

There are techniques you can implement to calm your anxiety, but seeking help from a professional is the most effective and beneficial way to treat and manage ongoing anxiety. 

If you know someone who is struggling with mental health, you can help by listening, sharing mental health resources, and encouraging your loved one to consult a professional for any advice. 

Because, while stress and even anxiety can be somewhat normal parts of our daily lives, they shouldn’t be persistent emotions that hold you back from being your happiest and healthiest self. 

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