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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Anxiety is a whole-body experience that touches on elements of mood, emotion, thinking, feeling, and behavior. It is closely linked with emotions like worry and fear. Mental-health textbooks often emphasize that anxiety is “future-oriented,” meaning it’s wrapped up with something that may or may not happen. In some ways, anxiety is like a fire. If you don’t control negative thoughts, they can build up and spread. If you’re wondering how to calm anxiety before it spreads—or rages out of control—research shows you have options.
Maybe you’re trying to control a sudden swell of fear or worry. Or maybe you’re looking for longer-term strategies to manage anxiety. In either case, there is a range of helpful techniques and treatments at your disposal.
Here’s how to deal with anxiety, from medications and therapy to relaxation techniques.
Psychotherapy for anxiety
Psychotherapy is sometimes called “talk therapy” because it involves talking with a psychologist or another mental health professional. The goal is to help you better understand and manage unhelpful thoughts or emotions, including those that cause you anxiety (NIMH, 2016).
There are a lot of different psychotherapy treatment options. You may meet one-on-one with a therapist. Or you may meet with support groups who are also trying to deal with anxiety (Barkowski, 2020).
Even if you don’t meet the formal criteria for an anxiety disorder, psychotherapy can help you figure out how to control your anxiety before it gets worse.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety
CBT is a specific type of psychotherapy. Many experts now consider it the “gold standard” because of all the research backing its benefits (David, 2018).
While CBT can overlap with other forms of psychotherapy, it focuses on identifying the thoughts that give rise to anxiety and then figuring out strategies to help control that anxious reaction (Carpenter, 2019).
Importantly, CBT is not about stopping or blocking anxious thoughts. Rather, it’s about changing how you react to those thoughts so that they don’t lead to big swells of fear, worry, and the physical symptoms accompanying anxiety (Chand-a, 2021).
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): what is it and what does it work for?
Medications for anxiety
There are many prescription drugs for people with anxiety. They come with side effects, but they often work well. These include (Chand-b, 2021):
- Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- Antipsychotics, which help regulate the brain’s neurotransmitters
- Benzodiazepines (i.e. clonazepam), which are often used when an immediate relief is needed
- Buspirone (see Important Safety Information), which is a mild tranquilizer
- Beta blockers, which control the physical symptoms of anxiety such as rapid heart rate and shaking hands
Most therapists recommend that people who take drugs for anxiety undergo some form of psychotherapy, especially for chronic anxiety. The combination of these two remedies is often more effective than drugs alone (Munir, 2021).
5 proven relaxation techniques for dealing with anxiety
Therapy and medication are the mainstays of treatment for anxiety, but there are many relaxation techniques you can use as well. Here are five popular options supported by science.
1. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) therapy
Just as anxious thoughts and feelings can make you feel wound up and tense, letting go of that physical tension seems to calm anxious thoughts and feelings. And that’s the goal of relaxation therapy (Kim, 2017).
There are several types of relaxation therapy. One of the most popular is called progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR. PMR involves clenching and then relaxing the muscles of your body in a slow, systematic way. You can do this on your own or with the help of some kind of guide—whether it’s a YouTube video, an app, or an in-person session with a therapist (Norelli, 2020).
Here’s what PMR is like: Starting with your toes, clench them gently for a few seconds and then allow them to relax fully and deeply. Work your way up your legs and through the muscles of the rest of your body. (Norelli, 2020).
5 best breathing exercises for anxiety and stress
2. Deep breathing exercises
Breathing exercises are another type of relaxation technique. And like PMR, there’s evidence that taking slow, deep breaths can help relieve anxiety (Norelli, 2020).
There are many different breathing techniques to choose from. One simple, effective technique is called box breathing. It involves four steps (Norelli, 2020):
- Step one: Breathe in through your nose for four seconds
- Step two: Hold that breath in for four seconds
- Step three: Breathe out for four seconds
- Step four: Pause for four seconds before starting over
Doing this for just a few minutes can quickly reduce your anxiety (Norelli, 2020).
3. Guided imagery
Guided imagery is another evidence-backed relaxation exercise. It involves imagining a place that makes you feel tranquil and at ease—such as your favorite walking trail or a sunny park. By focusing on images of that peaceful setting, your brain can untangle itself from thoughts that fuel your anxiety (Norelli, 2020).
At least at the start, this therapy requires some kind of guide—whether that’s an online video, an app, or a therapist. Sit or lie down in a comfortable place, and try to take slow and calm breaths. Now imagine that tranquil place and all of its sights, sounds, smells, and other sensory details. That’s what guided imagery is all about (Norelli, 2020).
4. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)
This technique uses mindfulness training to help you spot the thoughts that give rise to your anxious feelings. By identifying those thoughts, you can take steps to anchor your mind in the present moment rather than worrying about what’s to come (Vøllestad, 2011).
In the beginning, you’ll need a guided mindfulness app, a therapist, or some other resource to help you through the basics. Once you’re acquainted with mindfulness, MBSR can also involve breathing techniques, muscle relaxation, and other calming practices (Vøllestad, 2011).
How to tell if shortness of breath is from anxiety
There’s evidence that regular exercise can help treat or prevent feelings of anxiety.
Experts aren’t yet sure how physical activity does this. But one theory is that it helps regulate the body’s fight-or-flight systems, which fire up during periods of anxiety. Research has also found that exercise helps support healthy hormone and chemical levels in the brain (Mayo Clinic, 2017).
People with anxiety disorders who engage in high-level physical activity also seem to be better protected against developing anxiety symptoms than those who do low physical activity (Schuch, 2019).
How much exercise you need depends on your age and fitness level. But experts say that just 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (for example, walking fast) most days of the week could reduce anxiety symptoms (Carek, 2011).
More tips for dealing with anxiety
Anxiety is something that tends to build up and grow worse as time passes. And so, it’s often helpful to address anxiety early on before it can reach a point that it’s interfering with your life (Hofmann, 2018).
Meanwhile, avoiding the source of your anxiety—whether it’s a situation, a setting, a thing, or something else—is not a great way to manage your worry. In fact, avoidance can make your anxiety worse (Hofmann, 2018).
It’s often best to start with non-drug remedies for anxiety. Apart from the options above, anything that’s good for your overall mental health—for example, getting enough sleep at night—can help with anxiety. If those don’t work, or if your anxiety seems to keep coming back again and again, it may be time to talk with a therapist or other healthcare pro (Chand-b, 2021).
Can anxiety cause high blood pressure?
How can I tell if I’m anxious?
Anxiety comes in many forms. It can stem from a specific fear or worry—such as a phobia of spiders. Social anxiety involves worry about being around other people. Anxiety can also be “generalized,” meaning its focus varies widely, often changing hour-to-hour and day-to-day.
The symptoms of each of these forms of anxiety are slightly different. But, broadly speaking, anxiety can involve (NIMH-b, 2018):
- Worry or fear
- Feeling wound-up or on edge
- Problems concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Problems sleeping
- A racing heart or heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Feelings of desolation or dread
A core feature of most anxiety disorders is that they become so severe that they interfere with your life or lead you to change your behavior in unhelpful ways. Anxiety disorders are one of the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions (Chand-b, 2021).
Whether or not you have an anxiety disorder, many of the techniques listed above can help you nip your anxiety in the bud.
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Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.