If you’ve struggled with that heart-racing, chest-pounding feeling, where you don’t know what to do or say, or even sometimes how to breathe, you’ve experienced anxiety. In this constantly-connected, always-on culture, it’s not unusual to feel like you’re forever under unrelenting pressure. The good news: You’re not alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the U.S., according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, affecting more than 40 million adults.
When you’re having a panic attack, or feeling anxiety, it’s natural to want relief immediately. But, according to anxiety experts, it’s more commonly a blend of short-term and long-term solutions that will bring you solace.
We’ve broken down three of the most common types of anxiety, and steps you can take to deal with them both in the moment and for the long haul.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
You know there’s no reason to be tense or uneasy — yet you feel like you can’t stop these thoughts. Generalized anxiety disorder can be characterized as “worrying about worrying,” says Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in New York, who specializes in anxiety disorders. GAD affects 6.8 million adults, and women are twice as likely to suffer as men. Symptoms of GAD can also include headaches or trouble sleeping, so it sometimes takes several visits to a doctor before reaching an anxiety diagnosis.
Create a “zone of control,” suggests Carmichael. “In creating this [space], you break down a worry into two categories: components you have control over and those you don’t.” For example, if you are worrying about getting a promotion at work, you might put “reading books relevant to your field” as something you can take action on. Your boss not liking you would fall into the category of what is beyond your command. Once you’ve identified the items in each, “start to direct your energy into things that you can actually do to move yourself forward toward your goal,” says Carmichael.
By removing or distracting yourself from the situation, you stop the possibility of fixating on an issue.
Concerned by a larger issue like getting into business school, planning a cross-country move, or paying down significant debt? There may be many emotions tied up in a more complex issue such as these, and mind mapping can help you address these concerns in an organized way. This technique will help you generate insights to guide you to understand the emotional pieces of your goal and how they connect to each other.
Carmichael suggests writing down the worry in the center of a piece of paper, and drawing connector lines with words or phrases that come to mind when you think of the main concern. For getting into graduate school, this might be “better job,” “excitement” or “back to school.” For each connection, you can draw further correlation to the words that come up, until you have a sense of emotional awareness on how this issue affects you so that you can move forward from what is blocking you from achieving it.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
When you think of obsessive-compulsive disorder, someone who washes his or her hands over and over again may be the only thing that comes to mind. But many successful, driven people have suffered from this disease, says Carmichael. More than 2.2 million Americans experience OCD and the need for complete and utter control. “A popular trait I see in my practice,” she says, “is checking Facebook or email too often or obsessing over someone when a romantic relationship ends.”
Practicing response prevention can help you stop yourself from a behavior you know doesn’t serve you, but you’re unable not to do it. This technique is about making it impossible for you to engage in whatever actions plague you. For example, if you check your phone obsessively (we’ve all been there), you can give it to a friend to hold for 20 minutes. If you’re dieting and completely consumed with indulging in something unhealthy, try taking a walk instead, so you’re not focused on eating. By removing or distracting yourself from the situation, you stop the possibility of fixating on an issue.
If you know that you spin your wheels checking on your ex’s Instagram account, one strategy to stop yourself from obsessing is to create a mental shortlist. Similar to a dieter having healthy snacks on hand, have a list on hand of five things you’d rather focus on and put your mental energy into those activities, such as planning a vacation or figuring out your weekend plans. “It’s important to make this a physical list,” says Carmichael, “so that you can have it on hand to refer to in the middle of an obsessional fit to remember all of the important things you’d rather be thinking about.”
A panic attack can feel like you’re having a heart attack or are gasping for air. There’s no mistaking it if you’ve had one. The episodes occur when the body goes into “fight or flight mode” without being in true danger. This can be set off from stress, or phobias of experiences that have triggered previous attacks, such as flying on an airplane. Your body begins to secrete adrenaline, your cortisol levels rise, and your heart starts pumping faster. Panic disorder touches six million Americans, and twice as many women as men.
Since a tight feeling in your lungs is so common during panic attacks, deep breathing can interrupt that cycle. Carmichael suggests three-part breathing, which is one of the easier techniques to teach those new to yoga or meditation therapies. Also known as Dirga Pranayama, for this practice you completely fill your lungs with air, inhaling into your belly, ribcage and upper chest, and then reverse the process. It’s important, Carmichael says, to work on this when you’re relaxed so that you can rely on it in the throes of anxiety to shift your autonomic nervous system back towards a calmer state.
Though it feels like panic attacks start from a physical place, they actually start in our minds, says Carmichael. It’s helpful to think about how to control our thoughts so that we can manage panic attacks, if not completely prevent them. She recommends preparing an “anchoring” statement while in a neutral state that you can pull out in the heat of the attack to re-center yourself. Like a memento from a beach vacation that reminds us of good times, these logical mantras can help you return to a calmer time while you are panicking. For example, you might say to yourself, “I’ve been through this before, and I’ll get through it again.” The physical marker of when you were feeling more at peace can anchor you to decrease the intensity of the panic and return you to a calmer state.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, be sure to reach out to a medical professional to rule out other conditions. Find out more information on anxiety disorders from the National Institute of Mental Health.