Everyone gets keyed up from time to time. It’s completely normal to stress out before a new client meeting or fret over how you’ll finish in your next 10K. But for more than 40 million Americans, chronic anxiety—like obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and social phobias—is the harsh, crippling reality of day-to-day life. So how can you beat back the demons and learn to chill out? Follow this hard-won advice from Daniel Smith, author of the new memoir A Monkey Mind, whose own anxiety battles sent him to the men’s room every 30 minutes to staunch his sweat at his job as a fact-checker at The Atlantic, and came to an ugly head with his struggle to win back the love of his life after a panicked act of self-sabotage. Coming from a guy who has experienced the suffocating feeling of anxiety firsthand, his five real-world tricks will help you feel more calm.
1. Identify your hang-up. “When you’re feeling anxious, that emotion is proceeded by some thought that triggered it,” says Smith. “So ask yourself, before I got anxious, what went through my head? Is it, ‘I’m a failure?’ ‘My girlfriend doesn’t love me anymore?’” Get to the root of what’s driving you to distraction, and question the probability of it. “Let’s say you go on vacation, and you’re afraid you’ll lose your job. Let yourself imagine that you do. Is your life over from there? No, you’ll still be alive and get over it.” The more often you can identify your trigger and learn to put it in perspective, the better you’ll get at it—and the less anxious you’ll feel over time, he says.
2. Move your body. There’s not much that ails you that exercise won’t help fix, and anxiety is no exception. “You can break the pattern of circular thoughts by exercising regularly to remove yourself from that place of worry and release endorphins,” says Smith. “It doesn’t work for everybody, but for many people just going for a hard run will help you feel really different.” Scientists say physical activity may improve mental health by helping the brain cope better with stress. It also has a preventative effect: People who get regular vigorous exercise are 25 percent less likely to develop an anxiety disorder over the next five years, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. If you need new incentive to get out and move, visit meetup.com to find a group of likeminded runners, cyclists, or other sports enthusiasts to go play with.