Anxiety can strike in many forms — incessant worry, panic attacks, and fear of social situations, to name a few. And, it affects more people than you may realize. You may be wondering how to cope with anxiety.
Anxiety is actually part of our natural survival instinct. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, which makes us feel worked up and alerts us that we could be in danger or that something bad could happen. If we’re truly facing a threat, such as being in a fire, the adrenaline of the fight-or-flight response helps us escape. However, when the feared situation is nerve-racking but not truly life-threatening, such as an important meeting with a boss, the fight-or-flight system can be quite uncomfortable to experience.
Because we are wired to avoid things that scare us, our instinct is to try and stop the anxiety we may feel when faced with a perceived threat. However, avoidance of anxiety can actually worsen anxiety in the long run. By inadvertently teaching our brains that feeling anxious is bad, we can eventually become afraid of anxiety itself.
So, what to do when anxiety strikes instead? How can we cope with anxiety? A Mental Health specialist can teach you evidence-based strategies to help you cope with anxiety and to monitor your progress and treatment plan, including any combination of these five proven anxiety-busting methods. Below are 5 steps that will teach you how to cope with anxiety.
1 Observe and Describe the Anxiety
Learning how to cope with anxiety begins with how you perceive anxiety. Instead of treating your anxiety as a threat, treat your anxiety like a science experiment and observe everything about it. Mentally scan your body from head to toe. Ask yourself “Where in my body am I feeling the anxiety?” or “How anxious am I feeling right now, on a scale of 1-10?” This exercise helps you take a step back from being caught up in your emotional experience and instead activates your prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain used for reasoning and logic.
2 Accept the Anxiety
The second step in learning how to cope with anxiety is accepting anxiety. Rather than fighting the feeling, observe your anxiety and allow it to be there. You don’t have to like the anxiety but it helps to accept its presence. Anxiety tends to come in waves, and if you learn to ride with the wave, you also learn that eventually, the anxiety wave recedes.
3 Evaluate and Reframe Your Thoughts
The third step in learning how to cope with anxiety is reframing your thoughts. When we’re anxious, we tend to imagine worst-case scenarios. It can be helpful to evaluate how realistic those outcomes actually are. For example, if you are worried about receiving negative feedback during a meeting with your boss, you can ask yourself questions like “What evidence do I have that this will go poorly?” or “Will I remember this a month from now? A year from now?” These questions can help you formulate a more realistic, helpful mindset such as “This will likely turn out better than I expect and even if it doesn’t, I can cope with it.”
4 Be Mindful
The fourth step in learning how to cope with anxiety is to simply be mindful. Our minds wander A LOT! And they tend to wander toward worrying about multiple stressful or unresolved matters. When you’re feeling anxious, remind yourself to stay grounded in the present moment. You can do this in several ways – by noticing the sensations of your body, focusing on your breath and your body position, or by looking around you and naming some features of your environment.
5 Do the Opposite
The fifth and final step of learning how to cope with anxiety is to do the opposite of what your anxiety tells you to do. This is a way to be empowered – you get to do what you really want to do, rather than letting the anxiety dictate how you spend your time. So if your anxiety tells you to stay quiet during a meeting at work, do the opposite by sharing your opinion. If your anxiety tells you to stay home rather than go to a social event, do the opposite by going to the event. The more you choose to actively engage in important life activities in spite of feeling anxious, the weaker your anxiety becomes.
Anxiety is a part of life but struggling with anxiety doesn’t have to be. The strategies described above can help you learn how to cope with anxiety, and allow you take back control of your life in moments when you feel overwhelmed by anxiety. Working with a Mental Health therapist can help you apply a personalized strategy to your daily life.
This purpose of this blog is to educate the reader on health topics, specifically on how to cope with anxiety, and is not intended as medical advice or treatment. If you are struggling with anxiety, stress, depression or any mental health issues, please consult with a Mental Health specialist. Crossover Health members can conveniently schedule mental health appointments as part of their employee health care benefit.
About the Author
Azra Alic, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at Crossover Health. She obtained a Bachelors in Psychology from the University of Michigan and a Masters Degree in Social Work from the University of Michigan School of Social Work. Azra completed a two-year post-graduate fellowship at the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychiatry, where she obtained specialized training in the Anxiety Disorders Program and the Perinatal Team. She has provided clinical services in large health systems, in a community non-profit organization, and in private practice. She is rewarded by helping those who struggle with anxiety.
Azra was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and grew up there, in Germany, and in Michigan where she moved with her family at age 11. Since relocating to the Bay Area in 2016, she has enjoyed exploring the beautiful scenery, and searching for the area’s best Korean BBQ.