While it’s normal to get nervous about an important event or life change, about 40 million Americans live with an anxiety disorder, which is more than the occasional worry or fear. Anxiety disorders can range from a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which is intense worrying that you can’t control, to panic disorder — sudden episodes of fear, along with heart palpitations, trembling, shaking, or sweating.
Everyone experiences anxiety, which psychologists say is just our own perception of worry and stress. No matter what the anxiety stems from or how it manifests, anxious feelings tend to snowball. So it’s always helpful to have a few tricks up your sleeve to get yourself out of panic mode before it gets too intense. With this in mind, we asked psychologists to give us their best advice on how to gain control of the runaway anxiety train fast.
1. Stay in your time zone
Anxiety is a future-oriented state of mind. So instead of worrying about what’s going to happen, “reel yourself back to the present,” says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety. Ask yourself: What’s happening right now? Am I safe? Is there something I need to do right now? If not, make an “appointment” to check in with yourself later in the day to revisit your worries so those distant scenarios don’t throw you off track, she says.
2. Ride it like a wave
Imagine your anxiety is a wave in the ocean. “You don’t just stand tall and fight the wave,” says Clark. “You dive into it so it doesn’t knock you over.” In other words, instead of resisting your anxious feelings, remind yourself that they won’t harm you. Tell yourself you can handle it, she says, then let the wave wash over you. Stressing over your stress can make your anxious feelings even worse, and they’ll last longer, she adds.
3. Fact-check your thoughts
People with anxiety often fixate on worst-case scenarios, Chansky says. To combat these worries, think about how realistic they are. Say you’re nervous about a big presentation at work. Rather than think, “I’m going to bomb,” for example, say, “I’m nervous, but I’m prepared. Some things will go well, and some may not,” she suggests. Getting into a pattern of rethinking your fears helps train your brain to come up with a rational way to deal with your anxious thoughts.
4. Use your senses to center yourself
People tend to worry about things that haven’t happened yet, like when you’re prepping to speak at a work conference yet the actual event doesn’t start for another hour. Focusing too much on future events can work you into an unnecessary panic.
Instead of allowing your mind to race to the future, try focusing on what’s happening right now, DeLoveh suggests. Do this by training your brain to focus on your five senses. Ask yourself, what do you hear in the room, what do see in front of you? You’re not standing before the microphone; you’re just working on your PowerPoint slides. That five-senses exercise can thrust you back into the moment and “bring that physical piece down a notch,” she says.
5. Follow the 3-3-3 rule
Look around you and name three things you see. Then, name three sounds you hear. Finally, move three parts of your body — your ankle, fingers, or arm. Whenever you feel your brain going 100 miles per hour, this mental trick can help center your mind, bringing you back to the present moment, Chansky says.
6. Stay away from sugar
It may be tempting to reach for something sweet when you’re stressed, but that chocolate bar can do more harm than good, as research shows that eating too much sugar can worsen anxious feelings. Instead of reaching into the candy bowl, drink a glass of water or eat protein, Chansky says, which will provide a slow energy your body can use to recover.
7. Ask for a second opinion
Call or text a friend or family member and run through your worries with them, Chansky says. “Saying them aloud to someone else can help you see them clearly for what they are.” It can also help to write your fears on paper.
8. Exercise it out of your system
Exercise can be a great way to burn off stress that leads to anxious feelings. Working out boosts levels of endorphins and other mood-boosting brain chemicals, and it helps with sleep. Aerobic exercise also stimulates production of a protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor).
BDNF is “like a brain fertilizer that bathes our neurons and makes our connections better and faster,” Clark explains. And that’s important, she adds, because a well-functioning brain is better equipped to understand, manage, and moderate emotions.
9. Limit your alcohol intake
We’re not saying you should skip happy hour; plenty of people drink alcohol to unwind and relax at the end of the day. But do so in moderation. “If you’re going to drink, less is more because too much of it can really give you an anxiety rebound,” says Clark. Plus, an evening of imbibing can mess with your sleep, and quality sleep on the regular helps keep anxiety in check.
10. Skip your afternoon Starbucks run
You crave that morning latte, we get it. But going back for another or multiple refills at your office coffee machine isn’t a great idea for managing anxiety. “If you’re anxious, caffeine can be a real anxiety accelerant,” Clark explains. Why’s that? Caffeine has a dose-dependent affect on mood. A little can perk you up—and too much can leave you anxious and irritable. Plus, some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others. Stick to one cup a day, maybe two, and watch how it affects you.
11. Watch a funny video
This final tactic may be the easiest one yet: Cue up clips of your favorite comedian or funny TV show. Laughing is a good prescription for an anxious mind, Chansky says. Research shows that laughter has lots of benefits for our mental health and well-being; one study found that humor could help lower anxiety as much as (or even more than) exercise can.