• Ivy L. James

15 Ways to Handle Anxiety

Updated: Jan 29

We live in a scary time. Natural disasters, a disaster of an American president, riots, a literal pandemic... Anxiety disorders were painful enough already. Thanks, universe.


As a refresher, symptoms of anxiety disorders include the following:

  • irrational fears

  • excessive fears

  • difficulty managing life

  • avoiding the thing that makes you anxious

  • coping mechanisms/safety behaviors (healthy or not)

  • predictions

  • physiological responses (heart racing, shaking, lightheadedness, trouble concentrating, etc.)

These symptoms are intense enough to interfere with life for six months or longer.


When you're in the middle of an anxiety episode (or worse, an anxiety attack or panic attack), the fear can feel overwhelming. But you're not alone, and there are things you can do to help steady yourself.


Tactics to handle your anxiety:

  1. Acknowledge the presence of anxiety

  2. HALT

  3. Identify the source of the anxiety

  4. Timed breathing exercises

  5. Grounding exercises

  6. Manipulate the voice of the anxiety

  7. The 5-finger trick

  8. Think of the best possible, worst possible, and likely middle outcomes

  9. Progressive muscle relaxation

  10. Say counterbalancing positive thoughts out loud

  11. Make an anxiety "emergency kit"

  12. Exercise

  13. Make a plan of action

  14. Take your (prescribed!) meds

  15. Talk to a therapist

I have a generalized anxiety disorder myself, and these are all tricks that I use personally. Tried and true.


1. Acknowledge the presence of anxiety

Just saying "Hello, anxiety" helps take some of the ominousness out of the experience.

Acknowledge that it's there, and then you can do something about it.


2. HALT

What does this stand for? Thanks for asking.

Hungry

Angry

Lonely

Tired


These four states can mirror or trigger feelings of anxiety, but you can resolve them pretty easily. Have a snack, take a timeout, call a friend, or take a nap.


3. Identify the source of the anxiety

If you went through HALT and you're still anxious, it's time to figure out what you're anxious about.


Maybe you already know! If so, move on to #4. But sometimes the anxiety is so "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA" everywhere that it's hard to nail down what started it.


What are you REALLY anxious about? Think backwards, step by step, until you can point to what exactly started it all.


4. Timed breathing exercises

Hyperventilation is, surprise, bad for you and bad for your anxiety.


There are two types of timed breathing I've used: 4/4/4/4 and 4/7/8.


4/4/4/4 breathing:

  1. Breathe in for the count of 4

  2. Hold the breath for the count of 4

  3. Breathe out for the count of 4

  4. Wait for the count of 4

  5. Repeat


4/7/8 breathing:

  1. Inhale for the count of 4

  2. Hold the breath for the count of 7

  3. Exhale for the count of 8

  4. Repeat


Whichever version you use, timed breathing is surprisingly effective for calming me from an anxiety attack down to regular anxiety.


5. Grounding exercises

Grounding or anchoring is a way to remind yourself where you are (i.e., not floating around in an abyss of anxiety and terror).


Plant your feet flat on the ground, and imagine roots growing out from the soles deep into the earth.


Take inventory of all the things touching you. Where do your sleeves end? If you're sitting, what parts of your body connect with the seat? Where do different parts of your body touch each other?


6. Manipulate the voice of the anxiety

My therapist in Virginia taught me this one. You know that voice in your head that tells you everything is terrible, you're never going to be good enough, etc.? You can manipulate the sound of it.


Pitch the sound up until it sounds like someone sucking helium. "Throw" the voice and listen to it fly farther and farther away, then crawl it back up. Pour water onto the voice and listen to it garble. The possibilities are endless.


For me, this tactic helps remind me that the negative voice isn't real. If I can control how it sounds, maybe it doesn't hold that much power.


7. The 5-finger trick

My current therapist recommended this tactic recently, and it works wonders for me. What's extra handy is that it's pretty subtle, so you can do it whenever.


Each finger is one sense, and you go through each finger and summon up your favorite thing for each sense.


For example, say I'm anxious during a group Zoom call. I glance down at my hand and go:

  • Thumb: Sight. What's one of my favorite things to see? I might imagine the sight of a garden strung with white fairy lights in the evening.

  • Index finger: Smell. What's one of my fave things to smell? I might imagine smelling brownies baking in the oven.

  • Middle finger: Touch. What's one of my fave things to touch? I might imagine feeling a fuzzy blanket.

  • Ring finger: Sound. What's one of my fave things to hear? I might imagine hearing someone playing a harp.

  • Pinkie finger: Taste. What's one of my fave things to taste? I might imagine tasting dark chocolate.

These things are in themselves calming because I like them, and going through and imagining them individually puts me in the mindset of experiencing them. Instant calm.


8. Think of the best possible, worst possible, and likely middle outcomes

This tactic helps me come out of my extremist mindset during an anxiety episode, because it lets me indulge that extremist mindset to the point that I can acknowledge that it's not realistic.


When I say "best possible" and "worst possible," I mean it. Go all out.


For example, say I'm anxious about an impending group social event. I talk myself through it like this:

  1. "What's the best possible outcome of this event? Everyone loves me. I'm the life of the party, and at the end people throw roses at my feet and beg me not to go."

  2. "What's the worst possible outcome? People boo my arrival. I accidentally offend every single person in conversation. At the end they drive me out with torches and pitchforks, and I'm banned from ever attending another event."

  3. "What's a more likely middle outcome? I show up and some people say hi. I contribute to some conversations but not others. At the end some people say 'thanks for coming,' and I leave."

This mental walk-through gives me a more grounded perspective on whatever's causing my anxiety.


9. Progressive muscle relaxation

I never realize how tense I am. Progressive muscle relaxation helps relieve that tension.

  1. Breathe in, and tense the first muscle group. I usually start with my face.

  2. Consider how the muscles feel when tense, and hold for 4 to 10 seconds.

  3. Breathe out, and all at once, completely relax the muscle group.

  4. Consider how the muscles feel when relaxed, and stay relaxed for 10 to 20 seconds.

  5. Move on to the next muscle group. I usually do my shoulders next, and move progressively (ayyy) down the body.


10. Say counterbalancing positive thoughts out loud

Whatever your negative anxiety voice is telling you? Tell it the opposite, out loud. Use facts.


Examples:

  • Anxiety voice: "No one likes you." Me, out loud: "I can think of ten people off the top of my head who like me."

  • Anxiety voice: "You're terrible at your job." Me, out loud: "I received positive comments at my last employee review and was recommended for helping another team."

  • Anxiety voice: "The entire world is full of terrible things and nothing good at all." Me, out loud: "There are a lot of terrible things, but here are some good things, even if they're small."

You don't have to believe them. Just saying them out loud helps put them in your head.


11. Make an anxiety "emergency kit"

Before an anxiety episode/attack starts, collect a bunch of things that calm you. That way they're ready and available when you need them.


Calming things in my own emergency kit:

  • Smell-good candles

  • Smell-good lotion

  • Fuzzy blanket

  • Weighted blanket

  • Calming music

  • Heartwarming movies (George of the Jungle, The Other Woman, etc.)

  • Emergency contacts -- people I can call or text anytime for support

  • Dark chocolate

  • My "Book of Light," which is filled with compliments I've received, positive newspaper articles, funny Vine transcriptions, and other nice things


12. Exercise

Endorphins are your friend.


Even if this is just a stroll around the block, any exercise helps get your brain out of its destructive spiral.


13. Make a plan of action

This can be a theoretical, joking plan a la the best/worst/middle section, or it can be a realistic plan. Either way, you're thinking through what YOU can do or what your support system can do to help you.

In the past, when I got anxious about losing my job, I "planned" with a friend to run away and join a Renaissance Faire or start a feminist commune together. We would go in-depth on who we would invite, what we would do there, etc. It was fun to think about and helped take my mind off the anxiety trigger.


When my partner gets anxious about having an allergic reaction to food, she reminds me where her Epipens are and confirms that I will call 911 and stab her in the thigh with an Epipen if her throat closes. We've never had to do that, but walking through the plan helps calm her.


14. Take your (prescribed!) meds

If you've got anxiety meds prescribed to you... take them. It doesn't make you weak.


The stigma around medication is ridiculous. If you can't make or regulate your own brain chemicals, store-bought is fine.


This does not apply to taking someone else's meds or self-medicating with alcohol or illicit drugs. Bad idea.


15. Talk to a therapist

I'm a huge proponent of therapy for EVERYONE, not just neurodivergent people, but it's extra important for us.


A good therapist can help you deal with the real source of the anxiety, talk you through coping mechanisms, and provide stability and support.

I met my current therapist on LiveHealth Online, which uses video calls. I've also seen in-person therapists before. Whatever works best for you.


TL;DR

If your anxiety overwhelms you, you now have tactics to help balance yourself:

  1. Acknowledge the presence of anxiety

  2. HALT (are you hungry, angry, lonely, or tired?)

  3. Identify the source of the anxiety

  4. Timed breathing exercises

  5. Grounding exercises

  6. Manipulate the voice of the anxiety

  7. The 5-finger trick

  8. Think of the best possible, worst possible, and likely middle outcomes

  9. Progressive muscle relaxation

  10. Say counterbalancing positive thoughts out loud

  11. Make an anxiety "emergency kit"

  12. Exercise

  13. Make a plan of action

  14. Take your (prescribed) meds

  15. Talk to a therapist

Now go forth and help yourself with your anxiety.


I believe in you!

"Make the Yuletide Gay" is now out in the world! Add it to your TBR list on Goodreads. Read Chapter One for free: Chapter 1: “Good Sir, That's a Lotta Snow”!


You can buy "Make the Yuletide Gay" from NineStar Press or from your preferred digital store!


If it makes you happy, you can follow me on Facebook ("Author Ivy L. James"), Instagram (@authorivyljames), and YouTube ("Author Ivy L. James")! I post about writing and adulthood, and other stuff for funsies.

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