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 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's 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. Need a little help getting motivated? Try these 15 tips.
3. Take a deep breath. Breathing may be something you take for granted, but concentrating on it and taking it slow can help bring your body back into balance and calm you down. “When your body is anxious, the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide is off,” says Smith. He suggests breathing in through your nose for four counts, then out through your mouth for six. “That balances the gaps in your bloodstream to help you relax.” For other anxiety breathing exercises, visit calmclinic.com.
4. Try some mind control. It may sound new-agey, but to break out of a debilitating, mind-churning cycle, “You need a new discipline for your thoughts,” says Smith. “For me, it’s mindfulness meditation or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is tailor-made for anxiety.” A review of CBT studies from Boston University found the severity of anxiety symptoms lessened for people who tried over placebo, and the effect was most dramatic for those with obsessive-compulsive disorder and acute stress disorder. To sign up for CBT webinars, visit the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists.
5. Have a sense of humor. Smith’s book—while tackling a serious subject—is lighthearted at its core. You could employ some of the same strategies with your own anxiety issues. “Anxiety needs to be treated with some humor,” he says. “Humor helps to declaw the experience and reveal the disorder’s pettiness and arbitrary nature. There is no question that anxiety can be a painful, pernicious force. It can destroy relationships; it has destroyed some of mine. But it can do so only when the sufferer treats it with blind seriousness.” So the next time someone calls you on it when your wheels are spinning, laugh it off rather than acting defensive. You’ll ease anxiety and are more likely to help defuse the situation in the long run.