First of all, you need to know that anxiety is entirely normal. Everyone feels anxious when they are in a stressful situation where they feel vulnerable, so being anxious does not mean that you are "weak" or "abnormal". In fact, a certain level of stress can be very helpful--it can motivate us, be exciting or invigorating, and enable us to reach higher goals and meet new challenges. After all, if we never tackled things that we found challenging, we would stop learning or moving on in life.
However, it is also the case that too much stress can seriously interfere with living a normal life. Nonetheless, acute anxiety states are time-limited and will start to fade away in a relatively short period of time. Even when the anxiety is intense, you can still probably function better than you expect, and other people are often unaware of how you are feeling.
Here are some strategies you can try for yourself:
- Count to ten before responding or reacting
- Take some deep breaths
- Go for a walk
- Do a quick meditation
- Sleep on it
- Turn on Relaxing music
- Eat to calm down
- Drink alcohol
- Under or over sleep
More strategies include:
1. Review the stressful circumstances in your life
Think about all the things that are going on in your life which might be causing you stress. When possible, try to find practical solutions to reduce these sources of stress. This might include:
- saying "no" to things you do not want to do
- giving up unnecessary, time-consuming activities and responsibilities
- confronting work problems by talking to your tutor, director of studies or supervisor/manager
- using an organized and realistic plan of action to tackle projects
- asking for information or feedback if helpful
- discussing a relationship problem
2. A rational approach to challenging negative thoughts
When people are very anxious, they tend to exaggerate how threatening a situation is, and to underplay how effectively they can cope with that situation. Our thoughts are distorted by our emotional state, and it can help to "stand back" and evaluate the situation more realistically when you feel calm. Below is a rational approach to put the fears into perspective, to challenge their validity, or to find an alternative view of your situation. Ask yourself questions such as these:
- Are you judging yourself harshly?
- Are you "catastrophizing"?
- Are you worrying about the future?
- Are you comparing yourself to others?
3. Distract yourself
Some people find it more effective to distract themselves from their frightening thoughts, perhaps by repeating a calming phrase to themselves such as "Stay calm and relaxed. I will feel better soon", or by doing mental arithmetic or saying the alphabet backwards. You can also try to distract yourself by focusing your attention on some external stimulus such as listening to a conversation, watching television, or becoming aware of what is going on around you. If you can stop attending to frightening thoughts, the thoughts will no longer be able to fuel your anxiety. You can also listen to relaxation tapes, exercise, or do yoga.
This is not the same as avoidance! It aims to help you stay in the stressful situation, not to opt out of it.
4. Face the situation
Confronting, rather than avoiding, anxiety-provoking situations also helps. When anxiety occurs in certain situations, it has become a learned response to those situations and it is a question of learning a new (relaxed) response. If you make yourself stay in the feared situation for long enough, the anxiety will reduce over time until it is completely extinguished. You could draw up a hierarchy of your feared situations, confronting the least threatening situation first and experience the diminution of your anxiety in that situation before progressing to a slightly more threatening situation in your hierarchy.
5. Learn to relax
The physical symptoms of anxiety occur because adrenaline is released by the nervous system into the blood stream and affects organs such as the heart, stomach and muscles. Relaxation and breathing exercises can help you to control these symptoms. You can learn how your body feels when it is relaxed if you tense different parts of your body (e.g. arms, hands, legs, neck, shoulders, forehead) for a few seconds, and then allow them to relax. Try to keep your breathing slow and regular so that you do not hyperventilate, making the physical symptoms worse.
It may help you to join a relaxation class. Relaxation exercises need to be practiced initially when calm. You will become better able to relax in stressful situations with increasing practice.