A few months ago, I underwent a test for a medical condition that could have potentially shortened my life and also made it very painful.
When I got a phone notification from the diagnostic lab that my test results were available for viewing, my heart was pounding, my breath was uneven, and I barely felt in control. (Thankfully, the test results were normal)
This feeling of terror I experienced is what we call anxiety.
You also would have experienced anxiety in different situations. When anxiety strikes us, we feel totally helpless. In this article, we will get to the root of the matter and learn some ways to quickly calm anxiety.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is the dread and unease we feel when anticipating something terrible. It is the brain’s usual way of reacting to a perceived threat.
Anxiety might trigger our body’s stress response, making us sweat, feel tense and restless, and increase our heartbeat rate.
Under certain circumstances, a little stress may actually be beneficial. When faced with a deadline, a healthy level of stress may give us a surge of energy to focus on the task and help us cope with the stressful situation. However, chronic anxiety negatively affects physical and mental well-being and interferes with living a normal life.
Hence we all need to learn how to calm anxiety when it arises.
How does anxiety affect the body?
The root of anxiety lies with the amygdala, an important part of the brain in complex vertebrates, including humans. Amygdala regulates emotions, especially fear and aggression. It also assigns emotional meaning to our memories. Let me explain with a hypothetical example.
Let us say, your boss (or someone in your company) always criticizes you, finds faults, and puts you down. Interacting with such a person will make you very anxious. After a few such experiences, your brain forms a memory associating that person with a bad experience.
Once this memory is formed, the next time your boss (or that person) walks into your room, automatically, the memory is activated automatically. Since the amygdala anticipates a danger, it triggers your stress response to prepare the body for ‘fight or flight’ – you start breathing hard, your heart rate goes up, etc. And all this may happen even when your boss may have said or done nothing at all this time.
This response from the amygdala can protect us from physical danger by helping us react quickly. For example, if while crossing the road, you hear a car honking, you immediately jump and run, even before you had a chance to think about the threat – this response is triggered by the amygdala without any conscious initiative from our side.
However, the amygdala can also lead to needless anxiety in our day-to-day lives. Today, we are more likely to experience fight-or-flight responses triggered by emotions such as fear, anger, and stress rather than genuine physical threats to our lives.
Amygdala-induced anxiety can lead to the following symptoms:
- Restlessness and irritability
- Feeling tense and nervous
- Sleep problems
- Rapid heartbeat
- Fast breathing or hyperventilation
- Digestive issues
- Chest pain
- Feeling too cold or too hot
Why is it so hard to control anxiety?
As anyone who has experienced anxiety knows, it is tough to control it even when you know it is unnecessary. This is because the amygdala needs no conscious initiative from us to activate the fight-or-flight response. And once activated, it is hard to control our emotions and calm our anxiety.
And once we get deeply pulled into stressful thoughts and fears, our prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that promotes mindfulness and emotional reappraisal—becomes inactive. Hence, even when we know that there is no reason to be anxious, it may not help.
Tips to control anxiety
Do you ever ask yourself, “how can I calm my anxiety?” Here is a curated list of tried-and-tested tips to control anxiety.
While some of these may give you instant relief, you may need to practice the others consistently to experience long-term results:
1. Use your body to calm your mind
The Triune Brain model, formulated by neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean in the 1960s, organizes the development of the brain into a hierarchy:
- The neocortex (especially, the prefrontal cortex): Controls thoughts
- The limbic system: Controls emotions
- The basal ganglia and brain stem: Controls the body (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure, sweating)
Normally, our thoughts (originating in the neocortex) change our emotions (controlled by the limbic system), which in turn affect the basal ganglia and brain stem, which controls our body. That is how an anxiety-inducing email or message sets our heart racing.
This mechanism where thoughts control emotions, and emotions, in turn, control the body, is called the top-down mechanism. Normally, by changing our thoughts, which the prefrontal cortex controls, we can calm ourselves down and soothe our anxiety.
But when we are highly anxious, our neocortex goes offline and we can’t think clearly. Hence we can’t control our emotions and body.
Fortunately, this communication also works the other way around – our body can change our emotions, which can change our thoughts. This is called the ‘bottom-up mechanism.”
E.g., if our body is physically relaxed, it sends a signal to the brain that ‘everything is ok.’’ That soothes our emotions and the amygdala calms down. Soon our catastrophic thoughts subside and our anxiety tamps down. This is the mechanism we recommend when you face extreme anxiety.
Here are a few exercises to use your body to calm your mind:
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Breathing exercises:
- Box breathing
- Belly breathing
- Five-finger breathing, etc.
2. Get some physical exercise
Engaging in physical exercises can help release serotonin and endorphins, which in turn calm you down and make you feel better:
- Go for a brisk walk/long run if you are feeling stressed out and anxious. I personally find that 45-60 min of cardio or gym totally calms me down.
- Hit the gym for a quick workout.
- Indulge in a session of swimming, tennis, or your favorite sport before you call it a day.
3. Distract yourself
Take a break from whatever you are doing and distract yourself for a while. A few enjoyable distractions:
- Play a game for five minutes.
- Solve a word or a number puzzle.
- Listen to music or watch a nice video. You could listen to nature sounds (e.g., forest, waves crashing on a beach)
- Take a quick coffee break if you are at work.
Note: This may not be as effective as, say running, but it will give you a quick respite.
4. Practice more mindfulness
Become more mindful of your triggers so that you respond instead of reacting. Practice being aware and present in the moment.
- Consciously bring your awareness to the present moment. Vipassana would be the most effective exercise for this.
- Take mindful deep breaths for a few minutes.
- Name five things you can see and five sounds you can hear at this moment.
5. Develop a meditation habit
Start meditating and make it a daily habit. Meditation helps keep you calm and focused. It also promotes mindfulness and inner healing.
- Set aside 15-20 minutes every morning to meditate. We also have a meditation video on HabitStrong’s YouTube channel.
- Apart from mindfulness of breath, loving-kindness meditation is an excellent antidote to anxiety.
6. Spend time with loved ones
Put your phones away, and spend no-distraction time with your family, friends, and animal companions. It is one of the best things you can do for your emotional well-being.
7. Soothe yourself with music
Music has intense healing powers! Here is how you can soothe yourself with the power of music.
- Listen to calming, soulful music whenever you are stressed.
- Make a playlist of your favorite music tracks to play when you are anxious.
- Listen to hymns or spiritual music if you are a religious/spiritual individual.
8. Consider therapy
While mild to moderate anxiety can be controlled by self-regulating and practicing mindfulness, you might need professional help if your anxiety is severe.
Talk to a therapist to learn more about managing your condition.
9. Practice good sleep hygiene
Getting good quality, uninterrupted sleep for at least 7-8 hours each night has a massive positive impact on your emotional well-being.
Do you sleep enough? If not, build a bedtime routine to regulate your sleep timings to get adequate rest.
- Fix your bedtime.
- Put away your electronic gadgets at least an hour before your bedtime.
- Do the ‘three blessings’ exercise just before going to sleep.
- Think of three good things that happened to you that day, and why they happened.
- Take a moment to express your gratitude and thankfulness.
- Listen to soothing music/sounds to help you drift to sleep.
10. Journal it out
Writing down your feelings is highly therapeutic. If you are feeling anxious, simply grab a journal and write down your feelings.
Developing a daily journaling habit can help you get more clarity about stressful situations and give them closure.
Anxiety can be debilitating but you are not helpless. Try out the above tips, start practicing, see what works best for you, and make that into your default plan. When anxiety strikes, just activate your action plan.
My favorite anxiety-reducing actions are – progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, running, and journaling.
And needless to say, if you suffer from severe anxiety, do seek professional help.
Hope this helps. Look forward to your feedback.