woman holding her head
Anxiety Disorders

How to Calm Anxiety: 7 Tips From an Anxiety Warrior

It’s difficult to calm down during an anxiety episode, right?

Your thoughts are causing a tornado inside your mind and your breathing is shallow, making you to gasp for air. The physical symptoms like sweat or stomach pain or dizziness only make the anxiety worse, reinforcing the idea that something terrible is happening and you can’t stop it.

But there is a way out.

Calm yourself during an anxiety attack with these tips. Some of them can be practiced right away, and they are not dependent on your environment. For example, you can turn off your social media now, no matter where you are. But you can’t take a bath at 2 pm when you are at work in the office.

1. Turn off social media for 60 minutes (put a timer if necessary)

‘One more scroll’, you are saying to yourself while struggling to run away from negative thoughts and feelings. You try to forget why you feel anxious, but the more you scroll, the worse it becomes.

Social media is not a cure nor a temporary fix for an anxiety episode. Social media fuels your anxiety.

Scroll and see a picture with the baby bump of your friend and think ‘Look at her how fulfilled she must be while I am scrolling here on the couch like a useless human being ’. And scroll more to forget about this. Then you see a cute cat, a funny meme, an interesting video, then boom: you see something else that triggers you to compare yourself and feel less, to feel inferior and a failure. The more you scroll, the harder is to stop doing it. It is such a subtle addiction.

Then thoughts spiral again out of control and you have these horrible pictures of yourself in the future: sick, old, alone and full of resentment and regrets.

Then you realize you scrolled for 40 minutes while you were supposed to do something else. Guilt bursts inside and feel so lazy and unproductive. Everything is a mess and you cannot focus. Your heart beats faster and faster. You want to scream and cover your ears so you can’t hear the thoughts anymore.

How being on social media wastes your time

When you know you are anxious and catch yourself scrolling mindlessly and playing the comparing game in your mind, STOP. 

Turn off your social media notifications and set up an alarm for one hour so you know you will touch your phone or computer an hour later. You could activate greyscale on your phone for the rest of the day, so you will be less inclined to open it after an hour.

You could try a digital detox, but one hour will do the trick when your anxiety is over the roof and you want to calm down. To reduce anxiety, you need to acknowledge you are feeling anxious instead of running away from the unpleasant feeling by getting hooked on the scroll.

2. Journaling

Benefits of journaling

  • Promotes self-awareness
  • Helps you express yourself, especially when you feel misunderstood and alone. Anxiety is difficult to put into words and even more difficult when you try to explain to someone who doesn’t live with an anxiety disorder. Journaling offers you enough mental space to gather your thoughts and put into words what you cannot do verbally.
  • Produces emotional catharsis. You release all those thoughts that overwhelm you and feel liberated, less heavy.
  • Process your emotions better. When you repress your emotions, they don’t just disappear, but you store them in your unconscious mind. You use defense mechanisms to run away from painful feelings. But it leaves you anxious and depressed. Journaling will help you face and process these emotions in a gentler way.

Journaling will not take away your anxiety and thoughts magically. It helps you take a step back and detach from the thoughts that were hunting you.

In 2018, a study on nursing students at the efficiency of reflective journaling for anxiety. Participants said that writing reflective journals helped them calm their anxiety (Goodman, 2018).

Benefits of journaling over anxiety

Journaling, a powerful tool during an anxiety episode

When the thoughts are too many and too chaotic and scary, take your journal or notepad and put them down. Strip them of their power by writing them. If you can, say them out loud. It will have a tremendous impact. 

When you hear those words, instead of having them just in your head, you notice that your body reacts violently. Say it out loud: ‘I am inferior and dumb. I will never amount to anything in life.’

It hurts when you say these words. They are heavy and cold and painful.

Write your thoughts and then think if it was your best friend or your siblings, would you tell them these words? What things would you say instead? 

How journaling helps you get out of your thinking loop.

When you write, it takes a few seconds to inscribe those words on the paper. These seconds are crucial. Usually the thoughts go faster through our mind from thought to thought. But when you write the first thought you stay with that thought until you write it so you can remember it. And only then you can follow the next thought. It slows the loop down, and it gives you the opportunity to gain a bit of control.

Use journaling as a ‘first aid’ tool to reduce the magnitude and speed of the spiraling thoughts. It will give you the chance to remember other ways to calm your anxiety: meditation, grounding techniques or breathing exercises.

When in the midst of a panic attack you can grab the journal and start writing down everything that is going on in your head.

3. Control what you can and accept what you can’t

After journaling and getting your thoughts out there on the page, this little exercise will give you a bit of clarity.

I call my anxiety a yarn, a tangled ball of threads that makes me confused and overwhelmed. Overthinking does not let you change your perspective and see things from a rational angle. Now that you wrote your thoughts, do this exercise to declutter your mind.

  1. Ask yourself how likely is for the things on your mind to happen. For example, I have this thought ‘I will never amount to anything. I am a failure while everyone else succeeds’.

Then I ask myself, how likely is it to happen?

1. HIGHLY UNLIKELY

2. POSSIBLE BUT NOT LIKELY

3. LIKELY

4. HIGHLY LIKELY

5. INEVITABLE

This exercise will help you come back to the reality of your situation instead of obsessing over catastrophized what-ifs. Most of the thoughts and what-ifs during an anxiety episode belong to the first two categories. Still, if you place one of your fears to the rest of the categories, schedule an hour later during the day or on a different day when you will be calmer in order to tackle the situation.

  1. Can I control it?

Anxiety makes you want to have complete control over everything. The more ‘control’ you have, the less anxious, right?

Degrees of control:

  • Out of your hands: the weather, other peoples’ reactions / opinions 
  • You can do something about it. For example, when it’s raining outside, you can’t stop the rain, but you can take your umbrella. Also, you can’t stop the time from passing, but you can do the most out of it by planning what to do.
  • You have much more control. These are the things that are under your influence. For example, you control how much work you put into your project. You may not know if your book, your podcast or your blog will have success. But you can influence the time you dedicate to learn new skills, to get better every day.
  • Complete control. This is liberating and scary in the same time. It’s nice to know that you have control over something, but in the same time it means you bear responsibility for your choices, attitudes and reactions. For example, you have control over the words you speak, the habits you have, the people you choose to have around, etc.

Being anxious about things you CAN’T CONTROL is the biggest waste of time and energy.

My anxiety is mainly my fear of others’ opinions about me, but I can’t control what they decide to think about me. I may try to please everyone so they like me, but in the end it is their decision if they like me or not.

Another source of anxiety is the constant comparison with others and their successes. But I can’t control how accomplished or not are those people. I can only control my decisions in the present, my habits, the thoughts I choose to believe as true and my intentions.

4. Cry to calm anxiety

Anxiety can overwhelm you, and emotions follow suit. If you need to cry, then cry. Let it out. Holding back your emotions leads to more anxiety. Think about your emotions like a set of tools that your mind and body make use of to keep you safe and connected to the world. Emotions are data. Ignore them and you lose important information about yourself and your needs.

Crying as therapy for anxiety

If you are in a social setting (you may be at work, home with family or out with friends) and you don’t want to embarrass yourself, go somewhere where you can cry without being seen. It is important to feel safe when you cry. If you want to be alone, then be alone. But also you may need the soothing presence of a friend or family.

During the first months at my job, I used to go at the bathroom and cry and leave the anxiety and stress out of my body. I was so anxious I could not cope. So I would go at the bathroom, cry as silently as I could, and then resume my work. It didn’t take away my anxiety instantly, but it helped me ease the anxiety.

Cry as much as you need to without shame. Release the heaviness of anxiety through crying. People on average report experiencing mood improvement after crying (Bylsma et al., 2011).

5. Go for a walk, stay outside, take fresh air

When anxiety hits, it is important to go outside and take fresh air.

If you don’t have time to go for a walk, then spend five minutes in the garden, on the balcony, or at least open the windows to get fresh air in.

It looks like walking augments the efficiency of other therapies like CBT (Merom, Dafna, et al. 2008).

mental health benefits of walking

If you can, go in the park or connect with nature. Studies show that nature can help you improve your mood, release the stress and calm down (Song, Chorong, et al. 2018). Also, a large sample study in Japan confirms that walking for 15 minutes in the forest decreases negative feelings and anxiety (Song, Chorong et al. 2018).

Breathe deeply, pay attention to everything that’s going on around you with all your senses. Notice what you see with your eyes, notice the sounds you hear going on around you, notice the feeling of the Earth beneath your feet, the air against your skin, and how you feel emotionally.

6. Take a bath / shower

I remember seeing Mel Robbins on a video where she was explaining why she was taking a bath at 2.30 pm. The reason? To lower her stress level.

Stress is not actually the same with an anxiety episode, but taking a bath or a shower CAN calm your anxiety. A study in Japan compared the effects of bathing and showering. During two weeks, the participants were told to take a shower (one group or take a bath (the second group). The study results suggest that both bathing and showering improve physical and mental condition. 

It is not just about a feeling of refreshment. Scores showed lower levels of tension and anxiety after a bath.

Bathing as therapy for anxiety

7. Mindfulness exercises

If taking a bath in the middle of the day it is too inconvenient, or if the closest park is too far away from where you live so you can take a walk, then mindfulness meditation is a handy tool to calm your anxiety.

Mindfulness is the art of paying attention (on purpose) to the present moment. There is no judgement, only observation. 

As you bear the pain of anxiety, you learn to be compassionate with yourself. Instead of recoiling from the fear and pain, mindfulness meditation teaches you to remain in the present moment and face your emotions with an open heart. Once you face your anxiety, you understand the experience of anxiety in your body and mind. The more you come to understand your anxiety, the less confused and distressed you will be. 

Studies suggest that daily practice of mindfulness meditation can help you manage fear, anxiety and panic.

How? By rewiring your mind and body fear response. The fight-or-flight strategy of your body is your natural ally against external threat. But when your fear response is activated too often, then your mind stocks the information of fear and activates the same fear response to your body whenever it is aroused. 

What meditation does is to familiarize your mind and body with a relaxation response. Your heart rate slows. Your breathing slows. Every muscle in your body softens and relaxes.

what to do if you are anxious during meditation

The ability to calm and relax is such a tremendous help. And the more you practice mindfulness meditation, the more you reverse the hyperarousal effects of stress and anxiety. You learn how to respond to instead of reacting to fear.

Here you have a full list of different mindfulness exercises based on meditation.

Conclusion

There is no single formula to calm your anxiety. You may find that journaling helps you to leave a space between you and your thoughts, but meditation is too difficult. For some people crying comes easily while others calm their anxiety much easier with forest bathing.

Find what works for you and use it in those moments when anxiety and stress hit you hard.

Hi! I'm Maria and I am a mental health advocate! I am determined to learn as much as I can about mental and emotional wellbeing.

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