Coping With Anxiety In The Moment

Long term the way to deal with anxiety is to do things like change your attitude toward it, face your fears, resolve any underlying baggage, and make lifestyle changes to improve your overall mood. Though even if you're working toward all that, being nervous still feels awful in the moment. It's good to have a toolbox of techniques to reduce it.

This article will list a bunch of ways to lower anxiety when it pops up. However, it's important to use them from the right perspective. Overall you want to try to see anxiety as unpleasant, but not the end of the world. You know it won't kill you if appears, but if you have a way to turn down its volume then why not use it? You can accidentally give your anxiety more power if you see it as a terrible, dangerous, intolerable state you'd do anything to avoid. Using coping techniques from that mindset can reinforce a sense that your nerves are a monster you have to fight and suppress at all costs.

Different techniques work better for some people than others. Experiment and find which ones are best for you. Sometimes you'll be able to halt your anxiety entirely. On other days you can only turn the intensity down, which is still better than nothing.

If you start to feel anxious, just ride the symptoms out

There are a few broad viewpoints on handing anxiety when you feel it coming on. One approach is to try to actively reduce it. I'll cover that below. Another perspective says that trying to combat anxiety just makes it worse. A common analogy is that it's like a big wave that approaches you as you're out in the ocean away from shore. If you just stay calm and tread water the wave will pass under you. If you struggle and try to swim away from it you'll stay with it all the way, until it slams into land.

If you accept, tolerate, and leave them alone your anxious symptoms often dissipate after fifteen minutes or less. Some of the points in the article I already mentioned on changing your overall attitude toward your anxiety go with this approach.

It also helps to "stay" or "be" with your anxiety and observe its effects on you in a detached way. "Oh, there goes my heart beat", "Oh, I have to go to the bathroom", "My thoughts are racing." Doing this is also facing a fear. When people struggle with anxiety they get a "fear of fear", and this is sitting with it and learning you can handle it, rather than fleeing from it and strengthening your belief that it's genuinely harmful.

The above ideas are rooted in practices like Mindfulness Meditation and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I can't fully cover them in this short article, but if you're interested you can check into other sources.

Calm yourself with deep breathing

Now the "active reduction" approaches. Deep breathing puts your body into "relaxation mode". Since you can't be relaxed and keyed up at the same time, that will help counteract the anxiety. Breathing works best if you can catch the anxiety early. If you're already fairly worked up it's less effective. I summarize some simple breathing exercises in this article:

Breathing And Relaxation Exercises For Stress And Anxiety

Distract yourself

To repeat myself again, you definitely don't want to use distraction as your only coping mechanism against anxiety. However, it can be useful in moderation. It gets you out of your head and focused on something other than your worried thoughts or physical discomfort. It could mean putting on some music, going for a walk, throwing yourself into a mentally taxing project, doing some math in your head, or starting a movie. If you're in a group it could mean paying extra-close attention to the conversation and everyone's reaction to it, rather than dwelling on that dumb thing you said two years ago.

Focus on the next simple thing you need to do

Anxiety can make your mind race and send it in a million directions. One second you're zeroed in on how nauseous you feel, the next on all the ways your life could fall apart in fifteen years, then on how you let your teacher down in the fourth grade. It's hard to focus or concentrate. If you're in the middle of something it can help to take it one tiny step at a time and just think about the next sub-task you need to do. If you're getting ready to go to a party, just aim to put your shoes on, then tie them, then open the closet door, then grab your coat, and so on.

Put on some soothing music or a guided meditation

If you're somewhere where it's possible, and you need to calm down, put on some relaxing music, or nature sounds, or play one of those guided relaxation meditations. You can find recordings of them easily enough. There are also tons of them on YouTube. Do a search for something like relaxation meditation, rain sounds, or relaxing music. Of course, if you get into a habit of relaxing or meditating regularly, it will also help lower your anxiety levels overall.

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Use calming visualizations

Your mind treats imagined situations somewhat as if they were real. So if you picture a relaxing, comforting scene it will help you calm down. This article covers a bunch of different exercises:

Visualization Techniques To Calm Anxiety

Use grounding techniques

When you're nervous you can disappear into your own brain, and lose touch with the physical world as you imagine a catastrophic future or catalog all the ways your friends probably hate you. Grounding techniques let you reestablish a connection with your present day surroundings.

Here are a few of many: The first is the 5-4-3-2-1 Technique, where you name five things nearby you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and (maybe) one you can taste. Another is to sit down and really take in the physical sensations of your body and feet touching the chair and floor. One more is to pick a color and look around for everything that matches it.


Exercising over the long term is a very useful way to reduce anxiety. It can also help in the short term by boosting your mood and giving you a way to burn off some of your jitters.

Channel your nervous energy into something useful

Sometimes someone will get really anxious and worked up, and even if they handle it well they may still feel keyed up for a little while. Getting nervous just chemically puts their body into an alert state. Some people take the attitude of, "Well if I have all this extra energy I may as well use it" and then clean their bathroom or organize their apartment's storage locker or whatnot.

Question and replace the counterproductive thoughts that feed your nerves

When you're anxious all kinds of worst case scenario thoughts are probably passing through your mind. It can help to catch them, examine the evidence for them, and replace them with more balanced, realistic alternatives. I cover this approach more in this article:

Challenging Maladaptive Thoughts

This method probably won't work if you're ultra nervous, and the logical parts of your mind aren't totally online, but it can be effective if you're only somewhat jittery. The Accept And Ride It Out angle I mentioned earlier would argue there's no point in trying to dissect and debate your anxiety, because it's not rational. It would be like wasting your time trying to argue with a drunk person. But again, different tools work for different people at different times.

Get your worries down on paper

I guess you could say this is more of a long-term tactic too, but I'll throw it in this article because it can also provide some immediate relief. It seems like a gimmicky little trick, but you can often cut down your worrying by putting your problems into some physical form. Write them down on paper, or type them out on your computer.

Why this seems to work as well as it does is that by writing your thoughts somewhere, you're sending a message to your mind saying, "There's no need to keep dwelling on this over and over again. It's already on the record that I think it's a concern. It's been acknowledged and taken care of in a sense." Also, sometimes just seeing something on paper makes you look at it from a different, more-detached perspective. Issues often seem a lot more mundane and manageable when they're not bouncing around in your mind.

Commit to worrying about something at a later time

This is another tactic that also helps in the long term. It can also seem a little corny at first. I think it works best when your worries are about legitimate concerns. What you do is tell yourself you won't worry about them right now, but you promise to do it at a pre-designated time in the future. Like you may tell yourself that from 7:30 to 8:00 in the evening you'll do nothing but worry.

This seems to work by acknowledging and satisfying your anxiety. You're not dismissing it or endlessly trying to brush it off. You're saying, "I hear you. These things you're bringing up are real problems that I do have to deal with at some point, and I will think about them, just not right now."

Sometimes you can combine the last two techniques. You could perform a little ritual where before you go to work you write down all the things you're going to worry about later and then put them in a box. It's a physical way of telling yourself, "I'm going to get back to this stuff later and not let it interfere with my day."

Anxiety always eventually ends, regardless of how you try to cope with it. No emotion lasts forever, and our bodies aren't physically capable of being nervous non-stop. Though hopefully the ideas here can make it wrap up more quickly.