That feeling when you can’t take your mind off something: Your heart races, your hands sweat, your face reddens, and you’re sure that thing will crush you. That’s anxiety, and at one time or another everyone gets an unpleasant dose of it. Anxiety can produce irrational thoughts, which can fuel irrational—or at least unproductive—behavior. These kinds of feelings surge in periods of stress and uncertainty. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when we couldn’t count on the very things that keep life humming along, nearly half of Americans surveyed reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, according to the National Institutes of Health. Fortunately, there are several tools available to any adolescent, teen or adult when anxiety takes hold. Many are easy to use and don’t require formal therapy. Here are six things people can do to alleviate symptoms of anxiety.
Anxiety is emotional energy generated by erroneous triggers rooted in the brain, explains Dr. Corrine McIntosh Sako, president of the Sacramento Valley Psychological Association and a Sacramento psychologist and marriage and family therapist. She likens the experience of anxiety to a car’s temperature gauge spiking into the red zone, signaling an imminent breakdown.
“Our ability to rationally think through the situation and problem solve gets muted,” she says. The brain’s fear center takes over, and stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline course through our body. “Some of us become very irritable. Some become avoidant and terrified, and some just shut down.”
If you’re having these symptoms, she says, acknowledge that you’re experiencing anxiety. “Take a deep breath, breathe through your nose, making sure the air fills your tummy like a balloon, then slowly blow out through your mouth. It will ground you in the present moment, get you out of your head and into your body and promote a sense of calm.”
McIntosh Sako advises people to sit with the knowledge that they are experiencing anxiety and ask themselves, “What am I anxious about, and how can I move forward, even with anxiety?” This process, she says, helps the part of the brain responsible for rational thought to come back online.
Margo Villaseñor, a licensed clinical social worker based in Manteca, conducts psycho-education classes through the Health Education department at Kaiser Permanente in the Central Valley. She says anxiety brings us discomfort, but when we begin to understand it, we can normalize the experience.
“Know how your body responds to it so you can be in touch with it,” she says. “If your energy ramps up and your hands get sweaty, that’s your tip to go, ‘OK, let me do an internal check-in. How am I feeling in this moment?’”
2. Get grounded.
When stress hormones are flooding the brain and disrupting your ability to think and manage your emotions, filling your lungs and brain with oxygen helps you calm down, says Kathryn Buchan, a school counselor in the Roseville City School District. She recommends deep-breathing exercises.
“My favorite is the 4-7-8: Breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for seven and slowly let your breath out for eight,” she says. “It can be done in any setting. You can do it in the classroom and, for the most part, you can do it without being noticed.”
Sunny Jarvis was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, one of several types of anxiety, which for them can bring crippling fear, headaches and other physical ailments. Their experience with anxiety hampered their relationships, education and career before therapy and coping strategies put them on a healthier path.
Now a peer mentor for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Sacramento, Jarvis still struggles occasionally with anxiety, especially in social situations, but they always find a way to get grounded.
“My favorite is to look at my feet,” they say. “I am where my feet are. I am not in the future worried about what could happen or the past being triggered.”
If possible, they do their grounding exercise barefoot in a garden, where they can feel the earth beneath their feet.
When thinking feels nightmarish, McIntosh Sako suggests another strategy to shift away from thoughts. Called 5-4-3-2-1 grounding, it allows you to focus only on information taken in through your senses. Begin by thinking of five things you can see around you in this moment: a plant, a box of tissues, a lamp, a magazine and the robin perched on the electric wires outside your window, for example. Think about four things you can touch: clothing, an upholstered chair, the wood of a desk, some paper. Next, think about three things you can hear: the swaying tree branch against your roof, the low hum of a fan and the tick-tock of the old clock in your living room. Then, think of two things you can smell now or that you remember smelling: freshly brewed coffee or your baby’s skin, for example. Finally, think of something you can taste, like the lingering sweetness of a slice of banana bread.
“This exercise engages you in the moment and helps you be present so you can get that temperature gauge back in the blue,” she says.
3. Give yourself a break.
To be human means you will experience suffering from time to time. Acknowledging that suffering is natural can help alleviate anxiety.
“People experiencing anxiety think there is something wrong with them,” says McIntosh Sako. “Humans all through the world feel this way at times. Society has taught us that it’s not OK to experience distress. We are wired to interpret it as danger.”
As uncomfortable as it is, however, accepting it is an important step toward alleviating the feeling.
“We don’t have to like how it feels in order to accept what is happening,” she says. “Once we identify it, we can experience the feeling and begin to move on.”
Villaseñor suggests self-compassion. “Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can with the resources you have,” she says. “Say to yourself, ‘This is a moment of pain. Life is hard right now.’”
Buchan sees plenty of students who, when feeling anxious, withdraw, tell their parents they want to stay home from school and then get stuck in a cycle of negative thoughts. It’s common behavior for kids who, for example, face giving a class presentation. She suggests students “talk to their worry. Challenge those automatic negative thoughts. Are they rational? Are they helping me right now?”
Kimi Yang knows when she’s at risk of feeling overwhelmed with anxiety. The 17-year-old Sacramento high school senior goes through it frequently. Simply walking down the school hallways, sitting in class, ordering takeout, even attending family gatherings can be unnerving.
“There are times when I fidget and I’m not able to calm down. My body even shakes a little bit. My hands get sweaty,” she says. “When I have to talk to people sometimes, I forget what I want to say or I mix up the vowels in my words.”
But Yang reminds herself that everyone has anxiety sometimes. She has learned to shift her thinking in those moments. “I think, ‘You will be fine. Nothing is going to happen.’ I go with the flow.”
When faced with a class presentation, for example, Yang now slows her speech, trains her eyes above other students’ heads and calmly delivers her talk.
4. Get moving.
Physical exercise can help you channel your ramped-up energy and serve as a psychological immune booster of sorts. Exercise releases endorphins, the so-called feel-good chemicals in the brain. A healthy dose of endorphins can bring that internal temperature gauge back into the cool zone, says McIntosh Sako.
Jarvis, the peer mentor, enjoys gardening and riding their recumbent bicycle. The exercise, even when done for short periods, can lessen anxiety and generate more energy to do the activity even longer, Jarvis says.
Social connections also help alleviate anxiety. “Make sure you go to your book club meetings, go to your church services, talk to your neighbor, visit your neighbor—anything that helps you feel connected to your community,” they say.
When social situations cause Jarvis anxiety, exposure to those situations in safe, manageable doses can be therapeutic because it can help overcome distress.
“If I’m not wanting to go out and be around my friends, I would challenge myself to do it anyway, knowing that I wouldn’t have to stay for the whole event,” they say. “Maybe once I’ve been there for 10 minutes, I may be having such a good time that I forget what I was feeling.”
5. Don’t go there.
It may seem counterintuitive in a culture in which alcohol consumption and recreational marijuana use are often synonymous with relaxation. But when you’re experiencing episodes of anxiety, reaching for a cocktail, a joint or other drugs won’t help in the long run.
“It’s really hard,” says Mc-Intosh Sako. “Folks who are really anxious and don’t know how to manage it will want to use self-medication by drinking excessively or engaging in substance use that can turn into abuse.”
Pushing the anxiety down can, in fact, amplify it, she says. “It makes things worse, and now you have a new problem on top of your anxiety disorder. Instead of experiencing anxiety, your life becomes built around avoiding it.”
Villaseñor adds that anxiety also can lead to overeating and working excessively.
“There are so many things that people do to numb out, to not get to those emotions,” she says. “These become behavior patterns.”
Neglecting to engage in healthy strategies to deal with anxiety can lead to behaviors that create chronic mental and physical health problems like addiction, high blood pressure and diabetes, says Villaseñor.
When you have thoughts of inadequacy, she adds, flip the script: “Say, ‘I am capable and able.’ You are changing your language and recruiting emotions that support you. Your behavior will be more reflective of that.”
6. Seek support.
“If your tools aren’t working, it doesn’t mean they’re bad,” says Villaseñor. “Seek more support.”
Classes like those offered through Kaiser can be a lifeline, as can individual counseling.
“Each person is unique,” she says. “Seek out available resources. If you don’t get what you’re looking for, be persistent and have some self-compassion. It takes time and practice.