You know the feeling. You’re doing fine, when all of a sudden your car dies, your daughter tells you she’s dropping out of college, and you find out you need a new roof. Suddenly, you feel like you can’t breathe. Your chest hurts, and you’re convinced you’re having a heart attack.
More likely, you’re having an anxiety attack—an acute reaction to intense stress. Even if you don’t wind up with the full-blown attack, anxiety can leave you feeling apprehensive, uncertain and fearful, paralyzing you into inaction or withdrawal.
An anxiety disorder isn’t just a case of “nerves.” According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, an estimated 19 million Americans ages 18-54 (more than 13 percent of the population) experience debilitating bouts of anxiety. It is the most common psychiatric condition in the United States. Primary symptoms include a rise in blood pressure, a fast heart rate, rapid breathing, an increase in muscle tension and a decrease in intestinal blood flow, potentially resulting in nausea or diarrhea.
Sometimes your anxiety disorder will be serious enough to require medication and therapy. But quite often, learning to better manage stress can make a big difference. We’ve also come up with 17 tips to help you cope when anxiety hits so it doesn’t overwhelm you.
1. Get out your bike, pull on your walking shoes, or grab your gym bag. There’s no better therapy for the “I can’t breathe” feeling of an anxiety attack than to quickly escape the situation and get your blood moving and endorphins pumping through exercise.
2. Cut out all caffeinated drinks, foods, and medications. The caffeine only adds to that tense, jittery, anxious feeling, says Daphne Stevens, Ph.D., a clinical social worker and author of Watercolor Bedroom: Creating a Soulful Midlife. Sources of caffeine include chocolate, beverages like coffee, tea, soda, and some prescription and over-the-counter medications, like Excedrin.
3. Avoid conversations likely to increase your anxiety when you’re tired, overwhelmed, or stressed. For instance, tell your kids that you’re simply not available for problem solving after 8 p.m. Try to protect a “trouble free” time, especially before bed, when you don’t address difficulties but focus instead on pure relaxation.
4. Buy a white-noise machine and use it when you go to sleep. The soothing sound will help you fall and stay asleep. A good night’s sleep is critical when you’re stressed, since sleep deprivation fuels anxiety even as anxiety leads to sleep deprivation.
5. Choose one thing that is making you anxious. Now sit down and write out all the fears you have about that one thing. If it’s money, write down what would happen if you lose your job, if you can’t pay your bills. What is the absolute worst thing that could happen? Now look at each item and mark it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being highly unlikely it would ever happen, 10 being likely that it would happen. You’ll be surprised at how few items rank above a 5. This understanding should help reduce your anxiety. If something does rank higher than 5, you may want to develop a contingency plan for it. Nothing works better to calm anxiety than turning from pure worry to an action plan.
Next: Learn how to relax, detach, and focus to deal with anxiety