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5 Steps for Managing Anxiety

Anxiety is on the rise but there are ways to limit its effects.

Key points

  • Generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety have been on the rise since the pandemic.
  • Anxiety may lead to avoidance behaviors, in which one limits their movements, interactions, and routines to avoid whatever makes them anxious.
  • The first step to treating anxiety is to acknowledge it and have self-compassion.

Anxiety is part of life. We are hard-wired to survive by reacting to perceived threats—real or imagined—as they arise and anticipating and safeguarding against potential negative outcomes. Perceived threats trigger our innate fight, flight, or freeze response. Most of us can readily identify situations and settings that make us anxious. Whether driving on high-speed, multi-lane highways, taking an exam, speaking in front of a group of people, or starting a new job, we are bound to experience anxiety as we move through the world.

Recognizing triggers and symptoms

When we are triggered by a real or perceived threat, or enter into a feared situation, we experience what’s referred to as a stress response, a range of physical symptoms, from muscle tension and aches to heart palpitations or headaches. We may also experience out-of-control feelings of worry, nervousness, or unease, imagine worst-case scenarios, or forecast impending doom. And we may feel a sudden urge to escape.

A certain amount of anxiety is normal and expected. But with persistent and pervasive worry, over time our anxieties may lead to avoidance behaviors, or "safety behaviors," in which we limit our movements, interactions, and routines to avoid exposing ourselves to whatever is making us anxious or fearful. Whatever the root cause of your anxiety or panic, and no matter how intense or prolonged its effect on your life, you can bring in strategies and take actions to help you begin to conquer those feared situations once and for all.

If you are struggling with anxiety, you are not alone. As the world re-emerges from the very real threat of COVID, according to the World Health Association, anxiety levels have soared. Going forward, recognizing the signs and symptoms of anxiety, understanding our sources and triggers, and bringing in strategies and supports to cope, will be critical as we adapt and return to more open and normal routines and interactions.

Anxiety on the rise

Two forms of anxiety on the rise since COVID are generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and social anxiety disorder (SAD). People suffering from GAD experience excessive worrying—in which thoughts become distorted and worries are blown out of proportion—which can expand into all areas of life for a prolonged period of time. GAD sufferers cannot stop themselves from constantly worrying and forecasting worst-case scenarios in even the most inconsequential and trivial areas of life.

People living with SAD may have an intense fear of social situations. They can struggle with irrational fears of being singled out, judged, ridiculed, ignored, or ostracized in social situations. Many settings or situations that would cause most people temporary, passing nervousness, like speaking up in group situations, saying something inappropriate in front of strangers, or being negatively judged by others for exhibiting nervousness or unease, cause people with social anxiety overwhelming and sometimes long-lasting distress.

5 steps to managing anxiety when it is happening

Whatever form of anxiety you may be struggling with, over time, it can severely limit your participation in and enjoyment of life. If you are living with anxiety, there are steps and strategies that can help you lower its levels when it shows up. And there are expert resources you can bring in to help you manage your symptoms and address your anxiety.

The first step to treatment often involves speaking to a clinical psychologist or therapist who can offer a range of techniques to help you acquire coping skills, understand triggers, and work through new ways to behave in stressful times. Others may benefit from working with a psychiatrist who may prescribe medications to alleviate intense, troubling symptoms.

In the moment, these 5 steps could help you manage bouts of anxiety:

  1. Acknowledge what’s happening. Have compassion for yourself and what you are going through.
  2. Focus on reducing your symptoms and reconnecting to yourself. Take action to reconnect with yourself. Take deep, calming breaths. Reconnect with yourself through your senses: Touch a surface. Notice its texture and temperature. Tune into a specific sound, or look closely at something in your field of vision. Bite into an apple. Take a sip of your favorite beverage.
  3. Examine the probable versus the possible. Challenge your negative thoughts. Assure yourself that this is a moment in time and this moment will pass.
  4. Reassure yourself. Remind yourself of your ability to handle whatever comes your way. Make your faith in yourself bigger than your fear.
  5. Seek help if you are unable to regain control of your thoughts and fears. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has proven to be an effective treatment.
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