15 MIN READ

Dealing With Anxiety

Understanding and Managing Anxious Thoughts


It's normal to be anxious from time to time. Whether it's something tangible such as waiting to go into a job interview, or an undefined fear about something unknown coming around the corner, anxious thoughts and feelings are a predictable and appropriate response.

But what if your anxiety becomes relentless or overwhelming, or doesn't seem to have a cause? In cases like these, when anxiety no longer seems like a reasonable response, and your well-being is at risk, you need to take action.

In this article, we explore the different forms that anxiety can take, and how to combat them. We also look at how to stay on top of everyday anxieties, and how to cope during times when everyone feels more anxious than usual.

Click here to view a transcript of this video.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a mixture of uneasy feelings, including nervousness, worry and fear, about yourself or others.

It can be caused by specific situations as they unfold, such as sending your child to school for the first time or realizing that you're lost in an unfamiliar city.

It can also be a response to your thoughts about things that have already happened, or that are on the horizon. That's why you might find yourself worrying whether you upset someone days ago or are feeling anxious about giving a big presentation at work that's still weeks away.

Physical symptoms of anxiety include sweating, shaking, feeling sick, and being unable to sleep. The mental effects are also wide-ranging, from clouded thinking and difficulty concentrating at one extreme, to over-active imagination and hyper-alertness at the other. For some people, anxiety is also accompanied by misplaced feelings of embarrassment or shame.

Like other similar conditions, anxiety can range in intensity, from a mild sense of uneasiness, to severe, even paralyzing distress. And it can also vary in duration, from momentary to prolonged – and, in some extreme cases, constant.

Anxiety is a very common problem. A 2017 American Psychiatric Association poll found that nearly two thirds of respondents were "extremely or somewhat anxious about health and safety for themselves and their families." And the World Health Organization put the number of people suffering from problematic anxiety worldwide in 2017 at more than 300 million.

Why Are We So Anxious?

There are many reasons why anxiety is on the rise. Although many of the physical threats our ancestors faced have been reduced or ruled out, more abstract threats have replaced them. These include worries about the economy or environment, and anxieties about our appearance, social standing and professional success.

Many aspects of modern life could also be to blame. Research in the journal "Computers in Human Behavior" highlighted the damaging impact of social media use on anxiety, for example. And a study in the British Medical Journal drew a link between increased air pollution and raised anxiety.

What Are the Signs of Anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural reaction to stress or threat. In fact, it's likely a hard-wired safety response – part of the "fight or flight" instinct. When we or someone we care about is at risk, our brain prioritizes the danger and focuses its energy on beating it.

Complex thinking processes are shut down to allow us to concentrate on the danger at hand. Meanwhile, signals go out to our body to prepare for action. Our breathing quickens, our heart starts pumping faster, sending more blood to our muscles as we prepare to fight or flee. Both the mind and body adapt in order to give us the best chance of surviving until the danger passes.

However, the same responses can be triggered when there is no immediate physical danger. Just thinking about a threat, past or future, can be enough to activate intense anxiety. And this can mean that there's also no clear end point to the threat, so all these anxious feelings can persist. In these circumstances, anxiety can evolve into something that’s problematic.

Feeling a little anxious before a big exam, for example, might focus your mind and energize you to give your best performance on the day. But if it becomes too much, it could make you feel sick, prevent you from sleeping properly, and leave you with a shaky hand and a wandering mind when the exam begins.

Later in this article we'll explore ways to manage anxious situations like this.

In more extreme cases, however, anxiety can become a recognized disorder. It's important to understand what these are, so that you can seek the right advice and support.

Warning:

Anxiety disorders can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. If anxiety impacts any aspect of your well-being, seek professional help.

While the advice in this article may be useful for managing anxiety, you should consult your doctor before making any major changes to your diet, medication, or exercise regimen.

What Are the Six Types of Anxiety Disorders?

Here are the six most common types of anxiety disorders:

  1. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): OCD causes people to have obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. They feel anxious until they've responded in a particular way, and often need to carry out complex physical or mental routines to do so. Family history, personality traits, and differences in the brain, are all believed to be causes of OCD. In some cases, it can be triggered by a particularly stressful life event.
  2. Panic Disorder: you might have a panic disorder if you experience panic attacks (also called anxiety attacks). These can seem to come from nowhere, and can last for several minutes. Classic symptoms of a panic attack include a sense of doom, sweating, dizziness, chest pain, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath.
  3. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): this is a serious condition that commonly occurs when you've witnessed or experienced a disaster or traumatic event, or you've been in a situation where your life or health was threatened. People with PTSD often experience flashbacks and can also have trouble sleeping. They may find it hard to concentrate, or feel constantly alert and on edge.
  4. Social Anxiety Disorder: this is not just extreme shyness, but a deep fear or concern of being judged by others, of performing, or of embarrassing yourself.
  5. Specific Phobias: suffering from a phobia is also a form of anxiety disorder. You have a phobia when you're excessively frightened or anxious about a specific object, place or situation, and you go out of your way to avoid it.
  6. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): if you've experienced anxiety regularly for six months or more, you may have GAD. People with this condition consistently expect the worst to happen, even when there's little or no reason to be concerned. They’re particularly susceptible to common worries such as those about family, work and money. Even when something is resolved, a new worry can quickly fill its place. People with GAD often struggle to recall the last time they didn't feel anxious.

What Is the Best Way to Deal With Anxiety?

Each of the anxiety disorders above has its own range of therapies and coping strategies. Many forms of anxiety can be successfully treated with psychological therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), cognitive restructuring or with medication.

There are also various techniques for managing some of the common symptoms of anxiety. These can be helpful when you're going through worrying times, at home or work, or facing particular challenges that make you anxious. Here are six strategies that you can try:

1. Identify Sources of Stress

Stress, particularly long-term stress, is strongly linked to anxiety. To tackle it, a good place to start is the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. This tool allows you to analyze the sources of stress in your life.

Another approach is to start keeping a stress diary. Every day, write down the stresses that you experience, and record any anxious thoughts that you have. After a few days, read your diary and explore possible causes and triggers.

Once you've identified specific sources of stress and anxiety, you can take steps to avoid them – or at least to manage your feelings toward them. Knowing the triggers should also help you to discuss them with others and seek support when required.

2. Exercise More

Studies show that regular exercise can help to reduce anxiety and build your tolerance for stress. Look for opportunities to fit exercise into your day in many ways, as even small amounts of exercise can have a positive effect on anxious thoughts and feelings.

Yoga can be especially useful for managing anxiety, since it helps to slow and focus your breathing, and can give you more control over your body and mind.

3. Watch What You Eat

You can often lessen your anxiety by reducing or avoiding certain foods and drinks. For example, consider limiting your intake of caffeine, alcohol, soda, energy drinks, and chocolate.

Watching what you eat also means eating a healthy, balanced diet, not skipping meals, and staying hydrated throughout the day.

4. Use Relaxation Techniques

You can use deep breathing exercises to control your stress and anxiety. Deep breathing is especially effective for managing short-term anxiety. If you begin to feel anxious, try taking 10 or 20 slow, deep breaths to calm down. Breathe in as deeply as you can, hold the air in your lungs for several seconds, and let each breath out slowly.

Other effective relaxation techniques include centering, meditation and mindfulness.

5. Think Positively

Often, anxious episodes are preceded by self-sabotaging thoughts or behaviors. Before leading a meeting, for example, you might start imagining it getting out of control, and worry that you're going to look bad in front of your team.

To help with this, write down any negative thoughts as soon as they arise. Then, note down the exact opposites of those thoughts. For example, before your meeting, you could write, "I'm a confident and organized leader, and the people I work with respect me."

As you write out these positive affirmations, start to visualize successful outcomes – both what you hope to happen, and how you want to feel. Mentally rehearsing your meeting like this should relax your mind and body, and help to keep your anxiety under control.

6. Get More Organized

Poor organization can be a serious source of stress and anxiety. If this is the case with you, you'll likely benefit from learning good time-management skills.

Make sure that you manage your daily tasks and responsibilities effectively. Consider using a simple time-management technique, such as a To-Do List, or explore more in-depth tools, such as Action Programs.

A calm and organized working environment should also help you to feel more in control.

Finding This Article Useful?

You can learn another 76 stress management skills, like this, by joining the Mind Tools Club.

Join the Mind Tools Club Today!

Anxiety During Lockdown – and Other Triggering Times

During a time of crisis, such as the coronavirus pandemic, it's particularly important to manage your anxiety. While it's reasonable to be more concerned than usual about safety, you also need to ensure that your anxious thoughts don't themselves becoming damaging.

The term "coronanxiety" has been coined for this particular situation, where anxiety has become more widespread, but anxious feelings can also extend beyond the dangers at hand.

In addition to all the techniques mentioned above, here are three more worth trying during difficult times:

  • Limit your exposure to information. It's important to stay informed, but do you need a constant flow of information? Giving yourself some news-free periods can curb the urge to panic, and help you to keep things in perspective.
  • Focus on the things you can control. Anxiety may get out of hand when you can't let go of issues that are simply too big or complex for you to solve. Instead, try to focus on the things that you can influence. Stick to routines and maintain your regular support network as much as possible. And aim to do things that make a positive impact – but that also have an end point. For example, rather than worrying constantly about a neighbor, check in on them, do something practical to help, and then draw a line under that particular worry for a while.
  • Prioritize your well-being. During times like this, it's more important than ever to eat well, take appropriate exercise, get good sleep, and find time to relax. Try to do more of the things that make you feel calm and in control.

Tip:

For more on managing anxiety, visit The Anxiety and Depression Association of America and the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Key Points

Anxiety is a mixture of uneasiness, nervousness, worry and fear, about yourself or the people you care about. It has both physical and mental symptoms, including sweating, shaking, heart palpitations, racing thoughts, and difficulty concentrating.

It's normal to feel anxious at times, and many anxieties are specific, low-level, and short-lived. However, some can develop into anxiety disorders, and these can be extremely damaging to people’s personal and professional lives.

The six main types of anxiety disorder are:

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Specific Phobias
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder

They all have particular treatments, and it's important to seek help as soon as possible.

There are also techniques for coping with the anxieties we all feel from time to time. Start by identifying the main sources of stress, so that you can minimize them. Then work on looking after your physical health, using relaxation techniques, and reframing negative thoughts.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

Show Ratings Hide Ratings

Ratings

Rate this resource

Comments (3)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi charlieswift,

    Thank you so much for this Liz. Anxiety can be debilitating, and is often not understood by people observing those suffering from anxiety. Hopefully this article and the accompanying video will help to generate knowledge and understanding.
  • Over a month ago charlieswift wrote
    Feeling worried is not a sign of weakness but it can wear you down and affect your performance, so be sure to avoid simply ignoring or hiding it. Take a look at our new video, at the top of this article, for seven ways to help manage your anxiety - Charlie Swift and the Mind Tools editorial team.
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Whether you or any of your colleagues are experiencing some type of stress, the suggestions in this article are great. We all experience stress in our lives to varying degrees and how we cope is unique to us.

    For me, the best suggestion is doing some sort of exercise. Simply moving the physical body like a walk around the block at lunch time, can shift the feelings in the emotional body!

    What strategies do you use to help relieve some of that stress and anxiety?

    Midgie