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How To Calm Your Anxiety

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13 min

How To Calm Your Anxiety

You feel your mind racing, and multiple scenarios of imminent disaster flood it and make it hard to think straight. Perhaps you become aware that you are breathing too shallowly, becoming lightheaded. Your muscles become tense. And this happens all too often.

The thought of these symptoms coming on may make you wary of triggers. You might try to avoid such situations.

If this sounds familiar, I’m sure you are tired of anxiety hijacking your life. Of trying to fit around a disorder that close to one in three people in the US will experience. That’s why we must put you back in the driver’s seat. I’m going to help you understand what anxiety is and what treating anxiety really means.

We will take it slow, answering one question at a time so you can find the information you’re looking for without getting overwhelmed. Are you ready? Let’s start with…

Understanding anxiety

If you are at this point, it’s understandable to want to get straight into methods to manage your anxiety. But before we get to that, I want you to accept anxiety and understand how it works, why it’s triggered, and that it’s not going to go away completely. 

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal, natural feeling we experience in stressful situations. It’s an emotion all animals feel, though this reaction can malfunction in humans.

It works in a similar way to fear, but fear is a reaction to an immediate threat and usually subsides quickly. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a reaction to uncertain threats and can last much longer.

What I want you to understand is that having anxiety once in a while does not mean you have an anxiety disorder.

What is an anxiety disorder?

Worry, tension, nervousness, and dread are described in every classical definition of anxiety. However, if you also experience social and physiological problems because these inner feelings are so strong or occur repeatedly, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder.

In other words, it’s perfectly normal if you’re anxious before starting a new job. If you continue to be anxious months later and this anxiety affects your life, work, and relationships, it is no longer normal. This is what’s classified as an anxiety disorder in psychology.

And FYI, anxiety is the most common mental disorder in the US, affecting nearly 30% of adults at some point in their lives. So maybe the thought that so many people experience it will somewhat take the edge off your anxiety. 

Why do we get anxiety?

The quick answer is that we were wired that way. Anxiety is part of our detection and protection system that helps us survive in the wild. 

You see, humans emerged around 300,000 years ago, and just like other animals, we needed some kind of automatic mechanism to kick in and save us from predators.

After all, early humans didn’t have weapons to kill a predator or a house to hide in. We had to run for our lives or grab the nearest rock and fight.

Around 8,000 years ago, this started to change as we formed safer environments and established civilizations. But despite our leaps forward in many areas, our modern brains still have that primal part—the amygdala—which is much less useful in the age of airplanes, computers, and mortgages.

The amygdala’s job is to alert other parts of your brain that you need to engage in fight or flight. And once the hypothalamus receives this message, it triggers a stress response in our body.

Luckily, we’ve developed the prefrontal cortex—a newer, more sophisticated part of our brain that can rationalize the amygdala’s panic. The hypothalamus also helps us by reminding us that we’ve been in a similar situation before, and it ended well. Everything is fine. You are safe. You can calm down.

But sometimes, this rational and reassuring mechanism malfunctions, and your threat detection system starts seeing life-threatening scenarios in everyday situations or thoughts and reacting to them as if we’re still living in the jungle. That’s when you get emotional anxiety.

What triggers anxiety?

According to Dr. Elizabeth McMahon, an expert in treating anxiety disorders, five things can cause your lifesaving protective reaction to go off when you don’t need it.


First, we can consider the genetics, temperament, and nervous system you were born with. If you suffer from anxiety, chances are you’re not the only one in your family. I know there are three of us in my family.

Chemical triggers

Did you know that you have a higher chance of having an anxiety attack 24-48 hours after you’ve been drinking alcohol? Yes, chemicals in your body can trigger anxious feelings when there’s no need for it and when it seems like they’re out of your system. Causes can be particular medications, coffee, or marijuana, so watch out and take notice if these make your anxiety worse.

External stress triggers

This is a no-brainer: if you’re more stressed, your anxiety is more likely to go off, even if you’re not in actual danger.

Self-talk or unrealistic self-demands

How you talk to yourself is also important, says Dr. McMahon. Do you tend to be negative, harsh, critical, or demanding? Do you strive for perfection above all else? This makes anxiety more likely.

Unhelpful lessons from past events

What has happened to you in the past can trigger a lot of emotions and anxiety. “So, if you were humiliated by a teacher in middle school, your brain may remember that and make you anxious,” says Dr. McMahon, “Even if you’re just going on a date, or you’re just going to present to your colleagues at work.”

Is anxiety a result of childhood trauma?

Some researchers believe that anxiety is a sign of the unmet need for security and attachment in childhood. Dr. Gabor Maté, a renowned Canadian physician, claims that psychological anxiety is a coping mechanism resulting from childhood trauma.

“The child’s greatest need is the connection to the parents,” says Dr. Maté. When the parents are not around, the child cries in fear and panic. And if the parents don’t tend to their child immediately, this anxiety becomes entrenched in the child. That’s why he recommends parents never ignore a crying child.

Is the modern world making people more anxious?

It’s hard to say, but the statistics aren’t very reassuring. In 2019, one in every eight people on the planet had a mental disorder, with anxiety and depression being the most prevalent, according to the WHO. But only one year later, the number of people with anxiety rose by 26 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Maté says the modern lifestyle increasingly isolates people and creates a greater threat. We live in a society where human social contact is often replaced by the cold and impersonal world of the internet and where young people have fewer opportunities for meaningful employment, belonging, and a sense of purpose. And this general threat breeds anxiety in people whose need for connection wasn’t met as a child.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

If you ask different people: “What does anxiety feel like?” people will describe some overlapping symptoms. They can have nervousness, trouble sleeping, tense muscles, and difficulty concentrating. 

You may feel like you’re going to choke or have shortness of breath during an anxiety attack. Also, your heart is racing, and you’re dizzy and lightheaded.

Suddenly, you must go to the bathroom because your digestive system is out of control. Or you might have nausea from anxiety. And often, these symptoms all hit at once.

Heck, these anxiety symptoms are so scary that the mere thought of them can trigger even more anxiety. Dr. McMahon says that when you see the danger that’s not there, you misinterpret things that are happening in your body as dangerous, and you start thinking you’re going to pass out, have a stroke, or have a heart attack. 

And because this reaction came out of nowhere, you may feel out of control or going crazy, that you’re not going to be able to function. But none of those are true,” says Dr. McMahon.

Although, if you think about why we were given this set of reactions, it sounds pretty impressive. Like a superpower, your body turns on when a threat is near.

So, let’s look at anxiety symptoms and see what they were intended for versus what they cause us to feel now.

Muscle tension

What it was intended for: Your body gets ready to run or fight by tensing the muscles. You clench your jaw and show your teeth, telling a predator that you’re also a threat.

What people may feel today: You’re trembling. You feel shaky, weak, and tense at the same time. This gives you headaches and muscle aches, especially in your neck and shoulders.You start grinding your teeth, and they hurt.

Increased heart rate

What it was intended for: Your heart pumps more blood to carry the much-needed oxygen since you’re about to fight or run.

What people may feel today: Your heart is pounding. You feel palpitations—something you don’t usually feel, and it’s scary. You may even think you’re having a heart attack.

Dilated pupils

What it was intended for: Your eyes widen your field of vision so that you can see the threat when it comes at you from any direction.

What people may feel today: With your pupils dilated, more light gets into your eyes, and things start looking too bright or blurry. You might see spots or get tunnel vision.

Digestive system

What it was intended for: Your digestive system shuts down because it wants all your energy to go into the fighting or running muscles. In this state, your body should not waste time drinking or digesting.

What people may feel today: With your digestive system on pause, you may feel nauseous or have butterflies in your stomach. Or you may lose the feeling of hunger for several days. 

Blood flow

What it was intended for: Since your body wants all the blood and oxygen in the main trunk muscles for fighting or running, it constricts vessels in your limbs, head, and skin.

What people may feel today: You feel cold, your hands and feet start tingling, and you experience numbness. The constricted blood flow can also make you dizzy or lightheaded. 


What it was intended for: When your brain sends your body the message of danger, you stop thinking about anything else and start looking for danger to find its source. 

What people may feel today: You have trouble focusing on what’s important, or, on the flip side, you focus too much on unimportant things.

And those are just the physical symptoms of anxiety. Emotionally, you can feel uneasy, worried, alert, panicky, and, bottom line, terrified.

Do I have anxiety or an anxiety disorder?

That’s a great question. The short answer is: if it affects your daily life and you start avoiding things and activities because they make you anxious, you have an anxiety disorder.

Here’s the longer version: worrying and being stressed is healthy and normal. It’s even useful because it teaches us to be resilient and solve problems. But here’s a simple anxiety disorder definition:

  • It’s disruptive (affects your work, school, and personal life)
  • It’s irrational (triggered by thoughts, small or non-existent things)
  • It’s chronic (occurs frequently, e.g., every time you go to a meeting or social event)
  • It’s paralyzing (makes you want to avoid triggers, thus limiting your opportunities and making you feel lonely and isolated)
  • It’s terrifying (you catastrophize and only think about the worst-case scenarios)
  • It’s holding you back from being happy (you always expect something bad to happen, even if you feel good for a moment)

If this overactivity of your stress response causes your emotions and anxiety to spiral out of control about small or non-existent triggers, that’s an anxiety disorder right there.

What is high-functioning anxiety?

Some people are nervous all. the. time. But they still get things done and work well in society. This is called high-functioning anxiety. Here are some of its common traits:

  • Constant worry and fear of failure make you an overachiever and perfectionist. Your high level of anxiety drives you forward.
  • The people around you don’t realize you experience perpetual anxiety because you’re still meeting all expectations.
  • You make impossible demands on yourself and feel under a lot of pressure to fulfill them.
  • On the outside, you seem calm, but on the inside, you are perpetually doubting yourself on the inside.
  • Thinking too much, overanalyzing, and trying to predict every possible outcome overwhelms you. Even simple tasks require immense amounts of mental energy.
  • You find relaxing hard, even when you have free time. It’s hard for you to slow down; some say you’re a workaholic.
How To Calm Your Anxiety Disorder and Regain Control of Your Life

What types of anxiety disorders are there?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, there are at least seven types of anxiety disorders:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Specific phobias
  • Agoraphobia
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Separation anxiety disorder
  • Selective mutism

Let’s look at the most common ones.

What is a generalized anxiety disorder?

A generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by anxiety that is excessive, persistent, and unreasonable. So it’s a constant worry that occurs when it shouldn’t (e.g., in everyday situations like studying, shopping, or working) and doesn’t go away (people with GAD don’t know how to stop it, calm themselves, and regain control).

A generalized anxiety disorder occurs in 3.1% of the US population. In lighter cases, GAD still allows people to function, but in severe cases, you won’t be able to perform any important daily activities, leaving you skipping school or missing deadlines at work. 

The symptoms of a generalized anxiety disorder usually include:

  • Nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Trembling and twitching
  • Tense muscles
  • Sweating and hot flashes
  • Being easily startled
  • Inability to relax
  • Headaches and abdominal pain without medical explanation

It’s important to note that to be diagnosed with GAD, you need to be experiencing these symptoms for more days than not over six months (that’s 90 or more days out of 180).

And you know what sucks? Women are affected by generalized anxiety disorder twice as often as men.

What is a panic disorder?

Most people will have a panic attack at some point in their life. It’s only when those panic attacks become recurrent in everyday situations (like swimming, going to a park, or riding an elevator) that a person has a panic disorder. This condition affects 2.7% of the US population.

The symptoms of a panic disorder are the same as in a panic attack:

  • Rapid thoughts, extreme worry, and a sense of terror
  • Disproportionate reaction to a stressor
  • Heart palpitations (racing heart) and chest pain
  • Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or like you’re going to faint
  • Tingling in the hands or fingers and numbness
  • Chills, sweating, or hot flashes
  • Shortness of breath or smothering sensations (like you’re being choked)
  • Trembling or shaking in the body
  • Nausea, abdominal pains, or needing to use the bathroom
  • Feeling detached, as if you’re losing control

To be diagnosed with a panic disorder, panic attacks have to be recurrent and unexpected. Speaking of unexpected, because people with a panic disorder can’t predict when these attacks will occur, this becomes another cause of anxiety in itself. 

And again, women are twice as likely to suffer from a panic disorder as men. What a shock (not!).

What is a social anxiety disorder?

Do you have an intense and persistent fear of being judged, criticized, or humiliated by other people? If you answered “yes,” the chances are that you have a social anxiety disorder. Well, you and 7.1% of people in the US.

Listen, most of us want to be liked by others, and it sure doesn’t feel nice when someone has a problem with you. But people with a social anxiety disorder feel immense worry that people think badly of them all the time, in all kinds of surroundings. And this feeling can be so intense that it brings about panic attacks in social situations.

The paradox is that people with social anxiety understand they have it, and they’re petrified that others can see it, too. They fear that people will start laughing or judging once others see their hands shaking, cheeks blushing, or hear their voices trembling. They may resort to alcohol and other substances to make social experiences more bearable.

It’s important to note, however, that social anxiety disorder is not agoraphobia. Social anxiety disorder is anxiety about being negatively scrutinized by people, while agoraphobia is a phobia of being trapped in public and crowded places.

What is a separation anxiety disorder?

Now, separation anxiety isn’t something adults get very often. It’s okay for children below three to get anxious when they’re not around their attachment figures. But if this anxiety continues past that time, it is characterized as a disorder.

Yes, the percentage of people with a separation anxiety disorder lowers with age: 4% in children, 1.6% in adolescents, and 0.9%-1.9% in adults. But it still occurs, and here’s what it looks like.

Adults with separation anxiety have an excessive fear of leaving their parents, partners, children, or people they are comfortable with. They get very anxious not only when leaving these people but also when they just think or dream about the scenario. 

This attachment must also be physical: they need to be close to this person all the time (day or night, at work, home, or social events) and get classic symptoms of an anxiety attack if they are separated, like headaches, stomachaches, or nausea.

When people with a separation anxiety disorder lose attachment with someone (even when they leave the room), they immediately feel something terrible is going to happen. They’re afraid the person will be lost, kidnapped, or killed or that this person will die and leave them all alone.

Often, the scenarios of the bad things that can happen are extremely unrealistic. But people who can’t tolerate separation contemplate them anyway.

As you can imagine, this pathological attachment affects work, relationships, and other areas of life for both people.

Yes, anxiety is a crippling feeling that feels terrible and poisons our body and mind. What can we do about it?

Coping with Anxiety

One of the saddest things is that although anxiety disorder therapies exist and are pretty effective, only one in four people (27.6%) get treated

The reasons vary, but the stigma around mental health problems is still a major one. Other times, it’s the cost of psychotherapy for anxiety that people can’t afford—not every insurance package covers mental health care.

Plus, not every facility has trained professionals who can help with anxiety counseling. And then some people don’t believe in therapy or don’t think anxiousness can be treated.

But regardless of all that, I want to give you more information about anxiety disorder treatments.

Is anxiety curable?

Yes. But you need to understand that anxiety disorder therapies help regulate your anxiety levels, meaning it stops being a disorder. It won’t go away completely because you’re human. And here’s why that’s a good thing.

Without the worry, we wouldn’t care about many things that matter. You wouldn’t care about making a good impression at a job interview or having savings in your bank account. You would also forget important things, like finishing that school project with your kid. And you wouldn’t care about the consequences of your clients not liking your products. 

All these situations may trigger a certain amount of anxiety and stress, but we can overcome this and even improve our overall mental health as a result.

What’s the treatment for anxiety?

Anxiety disorder treatment is primarily about changing brain patterns, and here are the top three ways to do that. 

Lifestyle changes

Let’s start with the things you can do without external help—lifestyle changes. You know the basics: eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep (I can’t stress enough how much healthy sleep influences our mental health).

If you can get into meditation — great. Mindfulness and breathing exercises, like the 333 rule, are proven to be an effective treatment for anxiety. They can relax your muscles, slow down your heart and racing thoughts, and bring you back to reality.


If you can’t handle anxiety on your own and can get professional help, do it. It’s a long journey (sometimes, you won’t see the first results until 10 weeks in). The gold standard of psychotherapy for anxiety disorders includes:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): a short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy that addresses and attempts to change thinking and behavior patterns.
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT): focuses on improving interpersonal relationships and treating interpersonal problems.
  • Psychodynamic therapy: examines unconscious processes and unresolved conflicts from the past to gain insight into present behavior.
  • Exposure therapy: systematic and controlled exposure to feared stimuli or situations to reduce anxiety and overcome certain fears or traumas.

These approaches are research-based and proven in practice, so you can choose the best option. However, you need to remember that while an anxiety therapist can take the edge off your disorder, you still have to do a lot of internal work yourself.


Medication calms down your amygdala’s overactive stress response, providing relief and support in the short and long term.

But it’s important to know that therapy tends to have a more enduring impact, and medications, while beneficial, may bring side effects like tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal. So please, listen to your healthcare provider and never resort to taking serious anxiety medication on your own.

Why is avoidance bad for treating anxiety?

You may have noticed that “avoiding triggers” is not on the list of anxiety treatment options. That’s because anxiety is not an allergy: you won’t get better if you limit your exposure to the trigger. In fact, avoidance will make anxiety worse. Here’s why.

When you avoid elevators, parties, public pools, gyms, and other triggers, you chip away from your full life bit by bit. It may feel good in the moment to avoid anxiety triggers, but it’s not good for you in the long run. Living inside a tiny comfort zone is very limiting. Don’t let anxiety make your decisions. 

Instead, think of a smaller, manageable thing you believe you can overcome and do it. Embrace the fear. I know it’s hard, so don’t do everything at once; you’ll get overwhelmed and drop the idea. Start small, and in time, you’ll make your decisions, not your anxiety.

What are some quick tips for getting over an anxiety episode?

Here are several quick remedies for anxiety relief (some of which are so discreet no one will notice you’re doing them):

  • Trace a finger around the fingers of your opposite hand while practicing slow breathing for several minutes.
  • When you feel anxious, tell yourself you’re excited about something, not in danger.
  • Move forward: go for a walk or a run if possible. This will involve your body and show your brain you’re physically safe.
  • Try a butterfly hug: cross your arms at the wrist with your palms flat, lay them on your neckline, and gently tap your body with alternate hands. You can also choose to perform the same action on your forearms, which is more discreet. This refocuses your brain on an activity it needs to concentrate on.
  • Try the 15-second breath: inhale for four seconds, hold it for a second and a half, exhale for eight seconds, and hold it for a second and a half. Repeat eight times (for two minutes).
  • Write down your emotions and ask yourself if your feelings are true. The best app for this is Breeze: mental health app.
  • Ask yourself, “What if it all works out?” and think about possible positive outcomes.
  • Contrastingly change your temperature — get a hot drink or go outside in the cold.
  • Congratulate yourself for having anxiety (like you’re acknowledging the useful reaction of your brain), but don’t give in to it.
  • Ask yourself what you feel with all your senses: what do you see/hear/feel/taste/smell?
  • Rub your face, palms, and hands gently.
  • Look at an object up close and then beyond it back and forth for several

Extra (Tik-Tok) tip

Many other anxiety treatment hacks exist, but I found my favorite on TikTok. There’s a theory that if you acknowledge your anxiety, your brain gets confirmation that the anxiety was necessary and keeps repeating it. So, some people try not to react to the nervousness their brain throws at them. Samantha Chung is one of them.

She shared a TikTok video, explaining that your anxiety thinks that it’s very important, so you need to humble it and almost make fun of it to shock your brain and make it think: “Oh, sorry, I didn’t know you don’t need anxiety right now.” So, when she feels anxiety kicking in, she throws her hands in the air and loudly tells the brain: “Nothing to see here!” 

And that works for her! Maybe it could also work for you?

Final thoughts

Anxiety isn’t an illness; it’s just an emotion and every emotion matters. Remember, you’re your own best friend and support system. Be kind to yourself because beating yourself up only leads to more struggle, while building yourself up fosters improvement. Don’t be afraid of anxiety symptoms; instead, focus on understanding and managing them with a friendly and supportive mindset.

Whether it’s therapy, humor, breathing, medication, rationalizing your thoughts, tapping your forearms, or combining them all, I believe you will find the anxiety treatment that works best for you.

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu, MD, also adds some valuable insights “Anxiety is a normal part of human emotion and does not always cause problems. A proper amount of anxiety and stress motivates people to better themselves at work and in daily life. However, too much anxiety that impairs daily functions and routines can be devastating. Having a mood log on paper or using an app like Breeze can help people be more mindful of their anxiety, its triggers, and other mood issues. If you find your anxiety is preventing you from being your best self, always seek help from a mental or healthcare professional. You can learn about anxiety and many healthy ways to deal with anxiety from a professional that you cannot do alone.”

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu, MD, MS photo

Reviewed by Dr. Po-Chang Hsu, MD, MS

Dr. Hsu holds a Master’s of Science degree from both Harvard University and Tufts University. He did research in MRI neuroimaging...