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Anxiety

7 Ways to Work Through Anxiety and Hypervigilance

Tips for taking back control when anxious thoughts take over.

Key points

  • During moments of anxiety, the brain is on constant alert, ready for any threat, even if it seems illogical.
  • Often, feelings we might dismiss as normal, like impatience or irritability, might be anxiety symptoms.
  • Some simple grounding techniques can help decrease the hypervigilance that takes over in moments of extreme anxiety.

During moments of anxiety, the brain is on constant alert in any environment. Even places you frequent, such as jobs, grocery stores, and your own neighborhood, can feel overly stimulating. In some cases, this anxiety can create a sense of hypervigilance, where your brain is looking for new or perceived dangers, even if they logically know they are safe.

Many of my clients who become hypervigilant develop recurring panic attacks during everyday activities, such as driving to work, getting gas, or being in crowded areas. While feeling vulnerable and distracted, these loud noises and bright lights can feel overwhelming.

 1388843/pixabay
some simple grounding techniques can help during moments of anxiety or hypervigilance.
Source: 1388843/pixabay

Here are some ways of navigating hypervigilance and anxiety to decrease its ability to take over:

1. Increasing insight: First, develop an understanding of what anxiety feels like within you so you can learn to better recognize it the moment you experience it. Some people notice they feel more easily irritable, sweat, or cannot focus. Some notice that they have increased heart rate and pulse. Some people notice physical sensations such as the inability to swallow food, shake hands, or inability to sit still.

2. Note where you feel these sensations in your body: Do you feel a pit in your stomach? Do you feel restless or feel the urge to flee the situation? Often, feelings we might dismiss as normal, like impatience or irritability, might be symptoms of anxiety, yet we dismiss or normalize them. One client of mine reports that she feels "claustrophobic like the room is closing in," and this is usually her first clue that her anxiety is increasing. Another client always feels like his chest is tight or that he is experiencing a medical emergency.

Many of the symptoms of anxiety are similar to symptoms experienced in some medical emergencies. It is very common for people experiencing anxiety or a panic attack to feel like they are having a heart attack, stroke, or another medical emergency. However, until you rule out medical concerns, never dismiss physical symptoms as anxiety until you are more familiar with how these symptoms manifest in your body.

3. Calling your anxiety out: Once you notice the signs and symptoms of your anxiety, call them out in your mind. “My heart is beating fast. I’m anxious right now,” or, “I think I’m feeling anxious because my stomach feels tight.” Calling out the feeling has a similar effect to grounding–it brings you to the present and calls you into focus. Sometimes, calling anxiety out by its symptoms can be enough to keep your anxiety in check, if not maybe even reduce it.

4. Slowing down: We can sometimes feel as though we have to be “bigger” than our anxiety like we have to “push through it.” But with constant anxiety, this mindset can become exhausting, difficult to maintain, and can make the feelings worse. We can attempt to distract ourselves from our anxieties, which might work now and then, but it is like putting a band-aid on a wound that is not healing. Instead, give yourself permission to slow things down for a moment.

If you are in a grocery store, step into a quiet aisle and spend time looking at the different types of peanut butter. If you are in a restaurant, take a quiet moment in the bathroom. Instead of powering through or distraction, slowing down and allowing the feeling to run its course will result in greater healing.

5. Take a breath (or a few): When we are anxious, we tend to have more shallow breaths or even hold our breath. Instead, focus on taking a few deep breaths to help regulate the body and work on grounding yourself.

6. Do some brief Grounding: Grounding is a practice of self-soothing by orienting ourselves to the present moment. Here are some grounding techniques that I often share with my clients:

*What day is it?" Ask yourself what day it is, including month and year, as well as the day of the week. For example, “Today is Wednesday, October 19th, 2022.” Even though saying it only takes about five seconds, for those five seconds, you were focusing only on the present moment: Your brain was in the here and now.

*What does the chair you are sitting in feel like?" Think about the table or chair under you and describe the feeling it has against your body. Is it hard? Cold? Soft? Are you uncomfortable? Sometimes changing our posture, uncrossing our legs, and arranging ourselves to be more comfortable can help decrease anxiety. Greater awareness about our body positioning will have the additional effect of grounding us to the here and now.

7. Ultimately, pay attention to what works, and do what works best for you: Coping with anxiety and hypervigilance is a lot of trial and error. Some of the techniques above might work well some days, and other days they might feel impossible. Try different things that work for you, such as changing the positioning of how and where you are sitting, switching to decaf or half-caffeine coffee, decreasing the number of activities you agree to, and whatever else brings you ease.

If you find that you are unable to decrease the anxiety, or feel that it is becoming unmanageable, reach out to a therapist for mental health support.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately.

For help 24/7, dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Lebow, H. (2021). What Is Hypervigilance a Symptom of? https://psychcentral.com/health/hypervigilance. Accessed 10/18/2022.

Chevalier, G. (2015). The Effect of Grounding the Human Body on Mood. Psychological Reports, 116(2), 534–542. https://doi.org/10.2466/06.PR0.116k21w5

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