INTRODUCTIONFeeling anxious or worried? You’re not alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the U.S., affecting over 40 million adults each year. While occasional anxiety is a normal part of life, excessive worrying that interferes with daily activities may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. The good news is that anxiety is highly treatable with self-care strategies, therapy and medication. This comprehensive guide provides proven techniques to help you manage anxiety, stop worrying and regain control of your life.
Anxiety is a normal emotion that everyone experiences at times. It can be triggered by stressful events or uncertainty about the future. Anxiety serves an important purpose – it prepares the body to respond to perceived threats.
But for some people, anxiety becomes excessive, persistent and debilitating. This is when anxiety disorders may be diagnosed. The most common types include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder: Excessive worrying about everyday issues that is difficult to control.
- Social anxiety disorder: Intense fear of social situations due to concern over embarrassment or judgment.
- Panic disorder: Recurring panic attacks that strike unexpectedly.
- Phobias: Irrational fear of specific objects or situations.
- OCD: Obsessions or compulsions that cause significant distress.
While each disorder has unique symptoms, they share underlying characteristics like irrational fears, avoidance behaviors and intense nervousness or panic (1).
Both anxiety and worrying serve the same purpose – to anticipate potential threats. But excessive worrying leads to unfounded “what if” thoughts that fuel anxiety. Learning to identify and manage worried thinking is key to controlling anxiety.
Signs You May Have an Anxiety Disorder
Occasional anxiety is normal, but you may have an anxiety disorder if anxiety:
- Feels overwhelming or uncontrollable
- Persists for more than 6 months
- Interferes with work, school or relationships
- Causes physical symptoms like insomnia, fatigue or stomachaches
- Leads you to avoid certain situations or activities
- Is accompanied by depressed mood, irritability or restlessness
- Is triggered by harmless situations or for no clear reason
If you regularly experience distressing anxiety or worrying, consult a mental health professional. They can assess if your symptoms meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder and recommend appropriate treatment.
Negative Effects of Chronic Anxiety and Worry
Letting anxiety or worry persist can impact your mental health, physical health, relationships and quality of life. Potential effects include (2):
- Fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, stomach issues and other stress-related physical symptoms
- Difficulty concentrating, memory problems and impaired work/school performance
- Disconnection from friends and family due to avoidance behaviors
- Feelings of sadness, irritability, anger or hopelessness
- Sleep disturbances like insomnia or restless sleep
- Panic attacks, which are episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms
- Substance abuse or dependence as an unhealthy coping mechanism
- Development of other mental health disorders like depression
The good news is that reducing anxiety and worry can reverse these effects and improve your overall wellbeing.
When to Seek Professional Help for Anxiety
Mild to moderate anxiety may be managed with self-care. But if your anxiety is severe, persists despite your best efforts or disrupts your daily functioning, it’s time to seek professional help.
Signs it may be time to see a doctor or mental health provider include:
- Debilitating panic attacks
- Inability to leave home or do necessary activities
- Severe physical symptoms like chest pain or nausea
- Missing work/school or declining performance
- Avoiding social activities and isolating yourself
- Turning to drugs, alcohol or other risky behaviors to cope
- Feeling depressed, hopeless or having thoughts of suicide
- Anxiety that persists for over 6 months
Your family doctor is a good starting place to discuss your symptoms. They can check for underlying physical conditions and refer you to a psychiatrist or therapist for further evaluation and treatment.
With professional guidance, you can learn to bring anxiety and worry back to manageable levels.
Effective Treatments for Anxiety Disorders
Treatment for anxiety usually involves psychotherapy, medication or both. A combination approach is often most beneficial. Treatment options include:
Also called talk therapy or counseling, psychotherapy helps you identify and change negative thought patterns while developing healthy coping strategies. Common methods include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Focuses on replacing worrying thoughts with more realistic perspectives.
- Exposure therapy: Gradually exposes you to feared situations in a controlled way to decrease anxiety.
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): Teaches distress tolerance and emotional regulation skills.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): Helps accept uncertainty and commit to value-based actions.
Psychotherapy provides long-lasting anxiety relief by targeting the root causes. It also avoids the side effects of medication.
Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications may be prescribed for moderate to severe anxiety. Types include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like sertraline or escitalopram
- Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) like venlafaxine or duloxetine
- Benzodiazepines like alprazolam or clonazepam
Medications can provide rapid short-term relief while you work on long-term CBT skills. But they have risks like dependency and withdrawal symptoms.
Mindfulness practices like meditation, yoga and breathwork help calm the body and mind. Research shows mindfulness effectively reduces anxiety (3). It’s often incorporated into CBT and other therapies. Apps like Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer provide guided mindfulness sessions.
Lifestyle Changes and Self-Care Strategies
Making positive lifestyle changes and using self-care strategies can help prevent or manage mild to moderate anxiety. Important habits include:
Caffeine triggers the “fight or flight” stress response. Limit coffee, tea, soda and energy drinks – excess caffeine can worsen anxiety (4).
Focus on Sleep
Being well-rested helps maintain emotional balance. Avoid screens before bed, keep a consistent sleep schedule and create a restful sleep environment.
Cardio and strength training boosts feel-good endorphins and neurotransmitters in the brain while releasing tension from the body. Aim for 30-60 minutes per day (5).
Eat a Healthy Diet
Limit sugar and processed foods which can destabilize blood sugar levels. Emphasize mood-boosting foods high in Omega-3s, magnesium, vitamin B, iron and antioxidants. Stay hydrated.
Reduce Alcohol Intake
Alcohol seems to calm anxiety temporarily but causes rebound anxiety as it leaves your system. Moderation is key.
Relax and De-Stress
Make time for relaxing activities like reading, nature walks, gardening, gentle yoga or listening to music. Learning relaxation techniques like deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation can also help calm your nervous system.
Connect with Loved Ones
Loneliness exacerbates anxiety. Make regular social connections by calling friends or planning video chats. Joining a support group provides community with others also managing anxiety.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques to Stop Worrying
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is the gold standard treatment for anxiety and worry. Unlike medications which only provide temporary relief, CBT equips you with skills to manage anxiety long-term by changing patterns of anxious thinking and behavior.
CBT is based on the principle that thoughts, feelings and behaviors interact and feed off each other. Learning to reshape your thoughts changes your emotions and reactions (6).
Here are some of the most effective CBT techniques to stop excessive worrying:
Identify Automatic Thoughts
The first step is noticing your anxious “auto-pilot” thoughts. Common worried thoughts include:
- “What if something bad happens?”
- “I can’t handle this”
- “This is too much stress”
- “I’m going to mess up”
Write down your automatic thoughts during anxious moments. Just noticing them begins to take away their power.
Challenge Thought Distortions
Ask yourself if your anxious thoughts are unrealistic or irrational using these questions:
- What evidence supports/disproves this thought?
- What’s the probability this negative outcome will actually happen?
- Is there an alternative, more realistic perspective?
- How will this matter in a week, month or year from now?
This builds more balanced thinking patterns to counteract distorted thoughts that fuel anxiety.
Replace “What If” Thoughts
“What if…” thoughts set off unhealthy worry cycles. Defuse them by replacing what ifs with coping statements:
Instead of “What if I fail the test?” try “I studied hard and will do my best. If I don’t pass, I can take it again.”
Instead of “What if no one talks to me at the party?” try “If someone doesn’t talk to me, it’s no big deal. I can still enjoy myself.”
Limit Worry Periods
It’s impossible to banish worry completely. Set aside 15-30 minutes per day for “worry time” to focus your anxious thoughts productively. Jot down concerns and potential solutions. When worry thoughts creep up at other times, save them for your next worry period.
Mindfulness meditation helps calm anxious thoughts by redirecting your focus to the present moment rather than rehashing the past or obsessing about the future. Apps like Calm provide excellent guided mindfulness exercises.
Increase Tolerance of Uncertainty
A core driver of anxiety is intolerance of uncertainty. Learning to accept that life contains uncertainty and you can cope with unplanned events reduces anxious worrying.
Develop Coping Statements
Coping statements are positive phrases you can repeat to yourself to stay grounded when anxiety strikes. Examples include:
- This too shall pass.
- I can handle this.
- Stay in the present.
- This feeling won’t last forever.
Keep a list of your coping statements readily available, like on your phone, to access when needed.
Along with identifying and reframing worried thoughts, CBT also uses exposure techniques to gradually reduce anxiety through real-life practice. Your therapist will customize a CBT treatment plan to target your specific worries.
When to Seek Emergency Treatment for Anxiety
Most of the time, anxiety won’t lead to dangerous health complications. However, in very rare cases, anxiety can cause life-threatening symptoms that require emergency care, including:
Occasionally anxiety can create chest tightness and shortness of breath. Seek immediate medical care if you experience respiratory distress.
Heart attack symptoms
Anxiety can mimic heart attack signs like chest pain. Call emergency services if you have sudden crushing chest pain, especially if accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating and faintness.
Risk of harm to yourself or others
Get emergency assistance if anxiety reaches a point where you fear you may harm yourself or others. Call emergency services, drive yourself to the nearest ER, or ask a trusted friend or family member for help.
While extremely uncommon, anxiety disorders left untreated in rare cases can reach a breaking point necessitating crisis care. So don’t ignore severe anxiety – get professional help to regain stability.
When to See a Doctor for Anxiety vs a Therapist
Determining if your anxiety requires a doctor visit, therapist appointment or both can be confusing. Here’s help deciding where to seek care:
See a medical doctor if you have:
- Physical symptoms like chest pain, nausea or fatigue
- Questions about medications
- Concerns about alcohol/substance abuse
- Thoughts of self-harm
See a therapist or counselor for:
- Excessive worry or rumination
- Difficulty managing anxiety day-to-day
- Avoidance of situations/activities
- Panic attacks
- Feelings of depression or isolation
See both a doctor and therapist if:
- You experience physical and emotional anxiety symptoms
- You tried therapy but still struggle with anxiety
- Medications alone aren’t fully resolving anxiety
A combination approach with coordinated care between your doctor and therapist can maximize relief from anxiety.
Finding an Anxiety Therapist: What to Look For
The right therapist makes all the difference in managing anxiety effectively. Here’s how to find one that’s a good fit for you:
Search Online Directories
Directories like PsychologyToday.com let you filter by location, specialty, accepted insurance and client preferences.
Look for a licensed mental health professional like a psychologist (PhD or PsyD), psychiatrist (MD), licensed counselor or social worker.
Select Someone Experienced in Anxiety Disorders
Ask about their background helping clients with anxiety. CBT training is a plus.
Consider Logistical Factors
Choose someone relatively close to you that offers appointments at convenient times. Virtual sessions make location less important.
Gauge Your Comfort Level
Make sure you feel at ease and can openly share anxieties with your chosen therapist. Trust is vital.
Don’t get discouraged if it takes meeting a few providers before finding the right fit. The investment is well worth it.
Preventing Anxiety from Returning after Treatment
After addressing anxiety through self-care, therapy and medication, you’ll want to maintain progress long-term. Tips to prevent anxiety returning include:
- Continue using your CBT and mindfulness techniques
- Make time for relaxing activities daily
- Exercise regularly to manage stress
- Maintain a strong support system
- Pay attention to your thinking and behavior patterns
- Reach out for help sooner when you notice anxiety worsening
- Come back for CBT tune-ups or “booster sessions” as needed
- Have medications adjusted if anxiety symptoms begin to spike
- Limit alcohol, caffeine and recreational drugs
- Consider workplace changes if your job is highly stressful
With maintenance strategies, you can enjoy dramatically reduced anxiety and a calmer, more fulfilling life over the long haul.
Frequently Asked Questions About Controlling Anxiety
How do you calm anxiety fast?
To quickly calm anxiety in the moment, try deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, distraction activities or reassurance from a support person. Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms like drugs, alcohol or lashing out at loved ones, which will prolong anxiety.
Can anxiety go away on its own?
If symptoms are mild, practicing self-care and allowing time to adjust to stressful events may subside anxiety. But anxiety disorders usually persist without treatment. Don’t wait and hope anxiety goes away – seeking professional care is critical.
What happens if you leave anxiety untreated?
Untreated anxiety tends to worsen over time and lead to physical effects like sleep problems and increased risk for illness and disease. Anxiety also damages relationships, work/school performance and quality of life. Getting appropriate treatment prevents anxiety spiraling out of control.
Can anxiety kill you?
Experiencing anxiety feels awful but is not directly life-threatening for most people. Very rarely, anxiety may create changes in heart rhythms or breathing that could be dangerous. Seek emergency care if you have respiratory distress or possible heart attack symptoms along with intense anxiety.
How long does it take to overcome anxiety?
It depends on the severity of your symptoms and type of treatment. Consistently applying anxiety management skills through CBT and practicing self-care usually leads to noticeable improvement within a few months. But anxiety is treatable no matter how long you’ve had symptoms.
Conclusion: Take Control of Your Anxiety
Anxiety and worry are part of life. But living with uncontrolled anxiety can be debilitating. Whether you have occasional anxious feelings or suffer from a full-blown anxiety disorder, this guide outlined proven strategies to help master your worries, feel calmer and live better. The most important steps are seeking any needed professional help, making lifestyle changes to reduce stress, and applying new thought patterns through CBT techniques. With these tools, you can manage anxiety successfully, gain confidence and prevent symptoms from controlling your life.