Why am I anxious?
Anxiety can arise for all sorts of reasons. You may feel restless and have a hard time sleeping the night before an important test, an early flight, or a job interview, for example. Or you may feel nauseous when you think about going to a party and interacting with strangers, or physically tense when comparing your bank balance to the bills that keep mounting up.
Sometimes it can seem that you feel nervous, panicky, and on-edge for no reason at all. However, there’s usually a trigger to feelings of anxiety and panic, even if it’s not immediately obvious.
Anxiety often starts with uncertainty. When your brain feels like it doesn’t have enough information to make a prediction, it starts making up stories—usually unpleasant ones:
- “Will my partner get back safe? They might be in a car accident.”
- “Am I prepared for this speech? My mind might go blank.”
- “Will the people at this party like me? Maybe I’ll say something stupid, or they’ll all be rude to me.”
Biologically, when you experience anxiety, your body’s stress response is activated, releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. While this stress response can play an important role keeping you safe in times of real danger, it doesn’t do a good job of adjusting to the situation at hand. So, you feel stressed and anxious whether you’re having a first date or facing a threat to your life.
Anxiety can come with all sorts of health consequences, ranging from headaches and insomnia to nausea and difficulty concentrating. Frequent feelings of anxiety can also impact your life in more subtle ways. You may avoid certain places rather than step foot inside a cramped elevator, for example. Or you may drive a longer route to avoid merging on a busy highway.
While anxiety affects everyone at some point, many of us feel frustrated at just how often it shows up in our lives. Fears about not being able to control its sudden onset—such as during a panic attack—can make you even more anxious. But, even when these feelings seem intrusive and uncontrollable, it’s important to remember that there are many effective strategies you can use to calm your nerves, accept uncertainty, and relieve anxiety.
Coping with anxiety tip 1: Identify your triggers to predict anxiety
Although anxiety is very common, the types of situations that can kickstart your worries can vary wildly from person to person. By taking a moment to identify your own triggers, you can better predict when anxiety is likely to strike—and prepare for how you deal with it when it does.
Some common anxiety triggers include:
- Meeting new people and initiating conversation.
- Performing well at school or work.
- Being alone.
- Managing your finances.
- Thinking about illnesses or accidents.
- Confronting other people, including friends and family members.
- Trying new things and making mistakes.
For some people, specific settings, such as being in crowded rooms, small spaces, or high places, can trigger anxiety.
Know your physical signs of anxiety
In addition to your triggers, consider how anxiety and stress show up in your body. Knowing your physical symptoms can help you notice and deal with anxiety, even when your typical triggers are absent and you seemingly feel anxious for no apparent reason.
- Check in with your gut. Anxiety can often show up as nausea or a cramped feeling in your stomach. Or you may completely lose your appetite.
- Look for muscle tension in different parts of your body. Anxiety can often manifest in the form of a clenched jaw, stiff shoulders, or an aching neck.
- Pay attention to your breathing. You may notice your breathing becomes shallow when anxiety builds. Or you may hold your breath as you become tense.
Once you’ve identified your triggers and physical signs, go a step further and consider whether you rely on any unhealthy coping mechanisms—often as an automatic default. For example, in social situations, your muscles might tense, and you start to binge drink to relax and ease anxiety.
As an exercise, write down your:
- Anxiety triggers. When and where you tend to feel anxious.
- Physical symptoms. How anxiety feels in your body.
- Unhealthy coping mechanisms. Any unhealthy or unhelpful ways you try to deal with anxiety.
The better you understand when and how anxiety strikes, the easier it is to take steps to deal with its impact.
Tip 2: Get active to burn off tension
Physical activity is a great way to burn off tension as it releases brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. These chemicals can quickly boost your mood, energize you, and relieve anxiety.
Short bursts of exercise can help ease tension in the moment; it’s something you can do right now to feel less anxious. Do whatever is convenient and fun for you, such as:
- Go for a quick walk or run.
- Do a few jumping jacks.
- Try out some yoga poses.
- Dance with your child.
- Play with a pet.
Regular physical activity also works in the long run, too. Research shows that regular exercise, regardless of intensity, can help manage stress and lower your risk of developing an anxiety disorder. It can also help to boost your self-esteem, and interrupt those daily worries that tend to cycle through your head.
Throughout the week, try to get in at least 75 minutes of vigorously intense exercise or 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise.
Tip 3: Use your senses to stay present in the moment
When dealing with anxiety, it can feel impossible to get out of your own head. Your thoughts are spinning and looping as you obsess over the future or dwell on mistakes from the past. Rather than focus on the uncertainty of days ahead or things that you can’t control, try to ground yourself in the certainty of the present moment. This can interrupt your anxious thoughts and help you refocus on what’s in front of you.
Use your senses to latch onto the present, and ease stress and anxiety:
Take a look around. What do you see? Consider nearby sources of light and the shadows being cast. Maybe you notice two people sitting together on a bench. Try to read their body language.
Use your ears. What do you hear? Maybe a song is being played on the radio. Try to identify the instruments. Enjoy humming or singing along with the music.
Smell something. Burn a candle or smell nearby flowers.
Taste food or drink. Enjoy sips of hot tea or chew a piece of gum. What’s the flavor?
Use your sense of touch. Pet your cat. Self-massage your neck or hands. Explore the texture of your clothing.
You may find that different sensory experiences work better than others. Experiment a little to see what helps best to bring your focus back to the present and ease your anxiety.
Grounding while exercising
Grounding or mindfulness techniques can be combined with physical exercise. Whatever form of exercise you decide on, try to focus on the sensory experience:
- Pay attention to the sound of the music as you dance, or the warmth of the sun on your skin as you walk outside.
- Feel the rise and fall of your chest as you run, or the rhythm of your legs as you cycle.
Tapping into your senses can pull you away from your racing thoughts and lower your anxiety levels.
Tip 4: Take a mindful approach to anxiety
When you feel anxiety rising, your immediate reaction may be to try to fight against or suppress your feelings. You might even decide that it’s best to simply avoid your triggers, whether they include heights, social gatherings, or giving speeches.
However, mindfulness can provide a different path forward. A mindful approach involves adjusting your relationship with your thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Instead of fighting against your anxiety or running from it, aim to develop a non-judgmental awareness of it. Then, you can begin to replace anxiety with a much more rewarding state of mind—curiosity.
In his book, Unwinding Anxiety, Dr. Judson Brewer suggests that you think of curiosity as a superpower. Unlike anxiety, curiosity allows you to feel open and present. It can help you ride out waves of anxiety and escape cycles of worrying.
The next time you feel anxious, try Brewer’s RAIN method for mindfulness:
Recognize the onset of your anxiety. Again, it helps to have some familiarity with your personal signs of anxiety, how it feels in your body.
Allow the feeling to come over you. Take a moment to pause and accept the experience of anxiety rather than try to escape it.
Investigate the building wave of anxiety. Curiosity is key here. Get curious about the anxiety symptoms you’re most aware of. Feel the tension in your jaw? Which side of your face is it on? Are your thoughts racing? What are you thinking about?
Note the sensations. Don’t try to figure out your anxiety, make a judgement, or solve it. Instead, simply put a name to what you’re feeling. This can help you to stay present. Eventually, you’ll find that by experiencing your anxiety in this way, the wave should subside.
Research shows that “affect labeling,” the practice of putting your emotional experience into words, may help you regulate your emotions in times of stress.
Tip 5: Make time for meditation
Although they sometimes go together, mindfulness and meditation aren’t exactly the same. Mindfulness is about being aware of and accepting the present. It’s a mindset you can carry with you anywhere. You can be mindful without meditating.
Meditation is a specific practice that you set aside time for in your day. You might begin a meditation session by finding a quiet spot to sit or lie down comfortably. Your goal during meditation is to concentrate on something, such as a thought, object, or bodily sensation. In doing so, meditation increases your ability to center yourself in the present—to be mindful.
Try our Coping with Uncertainty Meditation. This nine-minute audio session will help you become more aware of tension throughout your body. You’ll also practice letting go of the many “what ifs” in life by visualizing uncertainties as drifting clouds, and letting them pass away.
Or try other free HelpGuide guided meditations, such as:
- Inner Strength Meditation, which helps you build resilience.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation Meditation, a 15-minute practice to relieve tension and deal with anxiety.
- Gratitude in Difficult Times, which focuses on using gratefulness to counter negativity.
Tip 6: Control your breathing to ease tension
Many different types of breathing exercises can be useful for taming anxiety. Breath control can stimulate a biological response. When your exhales are longer than your inhales, your heart rate slows and your nervous system is engaged, triggering your “rest and digest” response, as opposed to the “fight or flight” response.
One example of a quick and easy breathing exercise is to simply inhale as you count to four. Then, exhale as you count to eight. Repeat this pattern for a few minutes. You should notice your mind grow calmer and your physical tension ease.
A similar breathing exercise, called 4-4-8 breathing, involves the following steps:
- Breathe in as you count to four, drawing the breath into your abdomen.
- Hold your breath and count to four.
- Now, release as you count to eight.
- Repeat the steps several times.
A 2023 study found that cyclic sighing can be especially helpful in reducing anxiety and improving mood. To perform a cyclic sigh:
- Inhale through your nose, almost filling your lungs.
- Next, make a shorter, deep inhale, fully expanding your lungs.
- Now, exhale slowly through your mouth.
- Repeat several times for about five minutes.
Tip 7: Challenge and reframe negative thoughts
Sometimes, taking the time to challenge anxious thoughts can help you gain perspective on a situation, reducing your worries and fears.
Reframing negative thoughts can involve several steps:
Notice when a negative thought or unhelpful thought crosses your mind. Perhaps you’re thinking, “If I don’t get this project done by tonight, my boss will fire me.”
Look for evidence that supports your thought. Ask yourself, “Is this a certainty?” Consider whether there is any evidence to support your fears. Has your boss threatened to fire you in the past for similar issues? Have any of your coworkers been fired for similar things?
Look for evidence that your fears are misplaced. Perhaps your boss has recently complimented your work ethic or emphasized that the project can be delayed.
Replace that negative thought with a more positive or neutral one. For example, “My boss won’t fire me for a missed deadline. She will understand the reason for the delay and values me as an employee.”
Take a proactive approach. If you believe your fears are backed by evidence (for example, your boss has warned you that this deadline is important), look for a proactive solution. For example, you could have a conversation with your boss about extending the deadline or getting some extra support from coworkers. This is more productive than simply obsessing over the issue on your own.
For each negative or anxious thought you experience, make notes on paper or on your phone to help you work through the reframing process.
Tip 8: Reach out to others for anxiety relief
When you feel anxiety building, it’s tempting to withdraw from others and explore all the terrible possibilities in your own head. However, isolating yourself can actually make your anxiety worse.
Reaching out to someone you love or trust can calm your nerves. A good listener will give you space to verbalize your fears without judging you. They may also be able to offer feedback that gives you a more realistic perspective on a situation, or help you brainstorm solutions.
Build a reliable support system. From romantic partners to friends and family members, know who you can turn to when you’re dealing with anxiety. If your current social support is lacking, you can always forge new connections.
Limit your interactions with people who add to your anxiety. Even loved ones with good intentions can contribute to your anxiety. You may have a pessimistic friend who rarely looks on the bright side, for example, or an argumentative coworker who feeds rather than eases your anxiety. Spend less time with these types of people, especially when you’re already feeling overwhelmed. Practice setting boundaries if necessary.
Tip 9: Adopt habits that relieve stress and anxiety
Certain choices you make in your daily life can contribute to your stress levels and make it harder to regulate your emotions. The following tips may not serve as in-the-moment solutions to anxiety, but in the long run they can make it easier to keep a clear head and cope with anxious feelings:
Improve how well you sleep. Not getting enough quality sleep at night can add to your anxiety during the day. Prioritize a good night’s rest by keeping a consistent sleep schedule, and ensuring your bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool.
Avoid substances that increase anxiety. Perhaps you rely on plenty of caffeine to stay energized throughout the day. Or maybe you turn to nicotine or alcohol to ease your nerves. Although they may seem helpful in the moment, these substances can disrupt your sleep and increase stress and anxiety in the long run.
Practice relaxation techniques. Experiment with different relaxation techniques, such as yoga, tai chi, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization exercises. Once you find a technique that works for you, add it to your daily routine to manage your stress and anxiety levels.
Tip 10: Know when to seek professional help
The self-help coping strategies detailed above can be beneficial for most people. However, if you still find yourself struggling with intense anxiety that interferes with your work, relationships, and overall well-being, it may be time to seek professional help.
Your primary care physician can help determine if your anxiety symptoms are linked to factors such as an underlying medical condition, prescription drugs, or over-the-counter medications. A mental health professional, such as a therapist or psychiatrist, can diagnose an anxiety disorder and recommend a treatment plan.
A treatment plan could include medication, therapy, or a combination of both.
Medications. Drugs such as benzodiazepines and SSRI antidepressants can help with anxiety. However, anxiety medications aren’t a cure for anxiety and can also come with side effects.
Therapy. In-person or online therapy sessions may involve cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety, exposure therapy, or another therapeutic approach.
Remember: You are not your anxiety. Through a combination of self-help practices and professional intervention, you can learn to ease anxiety and escape your fears and worries.
Last updated or reviewed on August 16, 2023