Maybe you know the feeling: your heart starts to race, your mouth gets dry, it’s hard to breathe, hard to focus… it’s hard to do almost anything except think about your anxiety. These are just some of the tell-tale signs of an anxiety attack, and if you’ve had one, you know how overwhelming they can be.
Whether you suffer from expected, trigger-based anxiety attacks or more unexpected panic attacks, here are some tools that can help you make it to the other side. Think of these tools as your emergency toolkit—techniques you can use wherever you are to help you quell your anxiety and manage the attack.
1) Use the senses
When your senses are overwhelmed by anxiety, it’s logical that if you can get your senses to focus on something else, the anxiety will lose its grip. Commonly known as the 54321 Coping Technique or Grounding Mechanism, this tool can help pull you out of a spiral, and it’s quite simple. Start by listing to yourself or writing down five things you can see, then move on to four things you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and finally one you can taste. This technique helps stop the spiral of anxiety by focusing on your surroundings.
2) Progressive relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a proven technique for managing stress and anxiety. For this technique, it helps to be seated somewhere comfortable or lying down. Start by inhaling and, at the same time, contracting one muscle group, like your calves. Then, exhale and completely relax that muscle group. Rest for 10 to 20 seconds, and then repeat with a different muscle group. You’ll want to begin with the feet or legs, and move up the body, finishing the exercise at your face. Each time you exhale and relax a new muscle group, it’s helpful to imagine the tension melting. If visualizations aren’t your thing, just really focus on the feeling of muscles relaxing. Anxiety has a hard time manifesting when the body is fully relaxed.
3) Diaphragmatic breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, has been shown to reduce cortisol levels and improve attention. Many of us participate in “chest breathing” which usually means more shallow breaths, where belly breathing is typically a deep breath through the nose, filling the lungs, and seeing the belly rise or expand. To practice, try breathing in through the nose for a count of four, holding for a count of four, then exhaling for a count of four, and then repeating. Focusing on this deeper breathing can help us nip an attack in the bud.
4) Pick a distraction you can rely on
While distractions can sometimes feel like “avoiding the problem,” sometimes they can really help. In our Feeling Better Guided Journey, we call this “Face It or Replace It,” in which replacing it means finding that useful distraction. Distractions that work for anxiety are often very personal and can be anything from animal videos to puzzle games to watching corny films. Know what works for you and have a few downloaded so you can access your favorites with or without internet access.
5) Track and unpack
If you can catch an anxiety-inducing thought early enough, you have tools you can use to track it and then unpack it. For example, if you have the thought, “I always freak out when I fly,” and you feel that familiar flutter of anxiety, that’s a thought you can work with. In the Sanvello app, you can go to the Tools icon, click Thoughts, and then use the Reframe tool to deal with that thought. The app will walk you through if that particular thought counts as catastrophizing, overgeneralization, fortune telling, and other thinking traps. Once you can identify it, you can reframe it. And once you can reframe it, you can begin to manage it.
No matter what your strategy is for managing anxiety attacks, know you’re not alone. The World Health Organization estimates that 615 million adults suffer from depression and/or anxiety. Treatment is available, and the Sanvello app and community are there for you to help you get through.
Take a few of the tricks above plus other tried and true cognitive behavioral therapy techniques anywhere you go: Download our free pocket Guide to Feeling Better.
By Teressa Carter, MSW, LCSW
I have nearly a decade of experience in behavioral health as a licensed clinical social worker, specializing in mental/behavioral health counseling. My specialty is cognitive behavioral therapy, while utilizing the Strengths Perspective: calling upon our innate capacity of mindfulness and resiliency to navigate our paths with the stressors and challenges in our life. When I am not seeing clients, I enjoy karaoke and baking. I find socializing and expressing myself in creative ways helps to maintain a positive mood.