How To Calm Your Anxiety And Identify Its Causes

The symptoms of anxiety can be frustrating and hard to pin down. One of the pitfalls of the disorder can even be convincing yourself that you don't "have anxiety." However,  generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) affects nearly 7 million adults in the United States--over 3% of the population. It's worth taking a few minutes to determine if your “typical worrying” might be GAD.

The textbook GAD diagnosis is when someone spends more days worrying than not worrying (and this goes on for half a year or more).

Even if it doesn't happen that often, everyone experiences some level of anxiety at times. Anxiety can be miserable to experience and affects people mentally, emotionally, and physically. Even a minor anxiety attack can be enough to ruin the rest of the day.

Learning how to calm an anxiety attack can come in handy when anxiety strikes, and it's not difficult to learn how to control it. The coping methods and treatments may have been developed specifically for GAD but can be adopted on some level by almost everyone.

What are the symptoms of an anxiety disorder?

Symptoms of an anxiety disorder can be physical, mental, or emotional. As the body panics and dives into a fight-or-flight response, it can react in the following ways:

Rapid heart rate

This can be a much faster pulse rate than usual, even if you're not participating in any strenuous physical activity. Your body may "speed up," causing sweating or shaking along with an irregular heartbeat.

Rapid breathing

As the body supplies blood through your arteries more quickly, your breathing speeds up to take in more oxygen.

Feelings of weakness

Even when you're not actively experiencing an anxiety attack, the constant toll it takes on the body can leave you feeling weak and tired.

Insomnia

Your body may be physically tired but unable to fall asleep as anxiety makes it difficult to “turn off” your brain.

On the mental side, an anxiety disorder can cause your brain to feel like it's misfiring:

Difficulty focusing

Anxiety can affect concentration, forcing your brain to work overtime thinking about things other than what you should be concentrating on.

Feelings of danger

Even if everything is going well, anxiety can force you to think about what impending danger might be just around the corner. The feeling isn't always logical and may have you vaguely concerned despite no specific reason to worry.

Loss of control

Along with worrying about the future, you may feel like you're unable to exert any control over the present. Loss of control and helplessness are chronic symptoms of anxiety disorders.

Anxiety can manifest itself emotionally in a variety of ways:

Nervousness

The feeling of “being on edge” can be a direct result of anxiety. Insecurity and uncertainty can lead to emotional swings and an unbalanced mood throughout the day.

Fatigue

Poor quality sleep and other anxiety symptoms can lead to fatigue and emotional strain.

What are the signs of an anxiety attack?

While it can seem obvious what an anxiety attack entails, the signs can be difficult to identify while symptoms occur.

Here is a list of some of the common signs of an anxiety attack that can help you figure out when one is happening. You will then be able to practice some symptom management techniques:

Quickening heartbeat

An increased heart rate is most pronounced during an anxiety attack. It can make it difficult to concentrate and focus. If no physical activity occurs, a fast heart rate can often be a symptom of an ongoing (or imminent) attack.

Nausea

Although many things can cause it, nausea (or general queasiness) is strongly correlated with an ongoing anxiety attack.

Shortness of breath

Hyperventilating can occur during anxiety attacks as the body struggles to replenish oxygen.

Tingling in extremities

As blood flow is impacted, tingling in the fingers, toes, or lips can be a sign that your body is experiencing an anxiety attack.

How can you help manage these symptoms?

Anxiety attacks can last for a couple of minutes to a full half an hour, though most of the time they will peak and begin to fade before ten minutes have passed.

Although it might be impossible to get rid of anxiety completely, it's worth learning to manage the symptoms.

Managing symptoms is most important during the attacks themselves, but a little work once symptoms have subsided can help lessen the intensity of future attacks.

Each person may have a different strategy regarding how to calm anxiety, but here are a few popular ones:

Worry time

Worrying is simply part of human nature. A common misconception is that worrying is a waste of time or will make future attacks worse. However, setting aside some time for a "worry period" can stop anxiety from building up.

A small amount of time (20-30 minutes) every day spent reviewing what you're worried about can help put your worries into perspective and keep them from snowballing.

Identify triggers

Similarly, keeping a list of potential triggers can increase familiarity with them. When you're more aware of what might lead to an attack, you can prevent these triggers from surprising you.

Medication

Medication (especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs) can help reduce the frequency and intensity of attacks. Although medication can go a long way toward making life with anxiety easier, it's just one piece of the anxiety puzzle.

While the day-to-day treatment of anxiety can be complex and important, it may be much more pressing to learn how to deal with the active symptoms of an attack while it's ongoing.

See a complete guide to treating anxiety here.

How can you calm down if you experience an anxiety attack?

What can help anxiety? It may seem obvious, but "calming down" can be tricky. Simply focusing on "trying to be less anxious" can backfire and lead to a more intense attack. Here are some specific methods of calming the mind:

Focus on your breathing

Though it may seem silly, simply focusing on breathing can go a long way. Force yourself to take long, deep breaths. Making sure you breathe slowly and deliberately can help reduce your heart rate and bring it back to normal.

The 5-4-3-2-1 Method

The University of Rochester Medical Center published a guide to the '5-4-3-2-1 Method', which focuses on remaining mindful and grounding yourself in your environment.

While you’re focusing on taking long, calm breaths, identify the following: five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

This can seem straightforward and simplistic, but taking the time to go through the motions can go a long way toward tapering down an anxiety attack.

Accept that nothing is perfect

Anxiety attacks can differ for everyone, and each person handles them in their own way. If you put a little bit of work into techniques when the attack occurs, it will almost certainly be much better than if you had tried nothing at all.

Do your best

Additionally, it's important to simply do your best. Any amount of attention you turn toward relaxing and letting the attack pass will pay off. Afterward, you can examine what happened and handle it even better next time.

Get support

This doesn't necessarily have to be professional consultation. Friends and family are likely there for you and happy to listen and support you. However, it may also help to contact a professional. Either way, reaching out and sharing the sudden, immense burden you might be feeling is a good way to lighten it.

What are the treatment options available to people with anxiety disorders?

Anxiety treatments can cover everything from medication to lifestyle changes, both during the attacks and at other times. Here are a few ways to lessen the impact of anxiety attacks in your daily life:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT helps to address the thought patterns that trigger anxiety attacks. Additionally, CBT can go a long way toward fighting the feeling of being overwhelmed and helps you think in a more healthy way about anxiety.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

While CBT helps you be aware of what might trigger attacks and how to lessen the blow, ACT can help you accept that things aren't perfect. Every day can feel like a struggle, but ACT can help you accept the obstacles life throws your way without letting them overwhelm you.

Investigating other complications

Anxiety attacks don't happen in a vacuum. If you're struggling with depression or a great deal of stress in your daily life, anxiety attacks can be triggered regardless of how well you're feeling on any given day.

It's worth spending some time speaking with a professional about other factors that may be contributing to your anxiety attacks.

Medication

A daily medication routine that includes SSRIs can help your overall mood and prevent anxiety attacks altogether. Consultation with a medical professional is necessary before SSRIs are prescribed, and if you're willing to work through CBT and ACT, medication may be unnecessary. However, SSRIs are extremely helpful for some anxiety sufferers, and they're certainly worth asking about.

Relaxation

Focusing on relaxation (via breathing, exercise, or mindfulness) can provide daily relief and potentially prevent or lessen anxiety attacks.

What are the natural remedies and coping mechanisms that can help with anxiety?

Relaxing can go a long way toward coping with anxiety, but it's worth breaking down the potential sources of a relaxed mind:

Exercise

Working out physically (even just going on a walk) can trigger mental clarity in a way that a sedentary lifestyle doesn't. Getting some fresh air and getting the blood pumping (in a healthy way) can help ground you and prevent a future attack from seeming so overwhelming.

Setting up a regular exercise routine, even if it's just fifteen minutes a few days a week, can give you a reassuring feeling of routine.

Nature

Along the same lines, getting out into the natural world and experiencing a change of scenery can help your mental stability. If you live in the city, seek out parks and botanical gardens in your area.

Positive attitude and humor

Anxiety is tough! But it's something you can learn to live with, and it's certainly not the end of the world. Keeping a positive attitude and laughing when you can go a long way toward staying in control.

Sleep

Study after study has shown that not getting enough sleep can affect your health in a variety of ways, but its effect on anxiety is one of the worst. When you don't feel rested and healthy, anxiety attacks can be more frequent and more intense. Sleeping more is one of the easiest ways to cope with anxiety.

Are there ways to prevent anxiety symptoms and anxiety attacks?

Nothing can guarantee that you won't experience symptoms or attacks. Establishing habits that keep your stress level low and give you the tools to deal with attacks is the best way to "prevent" the worst of them. Exercise, get enough sleep, and do your best to keep a positive mindset.

If you critically examine your attacks and what might have led to them, you may be able to avoid future attacks by avoiding these triggers. Often, the best prevention is simply learning to live with anxiety and doing what you can to manage it.

The appropriate therapy and medication can be very effective, but learning how to stop anxiety is a lifelong challenge.

The lowdown

The secret to avoiding anxiety is to keep realistic expectations of what you can achieve. Medication and therapy are common tools in the fight against anxiety, but more natural remedies like exercise and getting enough sleep are just as important.

Anxiety attacks can seem to come out of nowhere, but with enough time and work, you can identify potential triggers and lessen their impact.

The first step to dealing with anxiety is to admit that it's a problem - there's no way to get rid of anxiety permanently. Even if you're handling everything else in life with no problem, anxiety can strike out of nowhere. 

However, you can learn how to deal with anxiety if you dedicate time and effort to practicing strategies that help. Anxiety doesn't have to rule your life - you can cope with it and achieve happiness and less stress in your life.

  1. Treatment | Anxiety & Depression Association of America

  2. Tips to Manage Anxiety and Stress | Anxiety & Depression Association of America

  3. 5-4-3-2-1 Coping Technique for Anxiety | University of Rochester Medical Center

  4. How To Calm Anxiety & Feel Better Fast | Calm Clinic

  5. 5 ways to stop an anxiety spiral | Mayo Clinic

  6. How to reduce anxiety | Headspace



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