Anxiety can show up in our lives in any number of ways. We might feel a bit (or overwhelmingly) nervous. We might start to sweat, turn red, shake, feel panicky, or start breathing hard.
Social situations may trigger social anxiety. Maybe we feel an urge to flee or hide. Our blood pressure may go up. We might feel hot or cold, light-headed, fatigued, or numb. We might feel anxious that something terrible is going to happen—even if, rationally, we know it’s not.
This mix of emotional and physical symptoms of anxiety, and social anxiety in particular, is unique for each person and circumstance.
For some people, anxiety is occasional or mild. At the other extreme, anxiety can be debilitating and significantly interfere with day-to-day life. People with anxiety may worry about their job, family, money, failing, socializing, personal relationships, public speaking, unpredictable events (like crime or a pandemic), politics, or some other trigger. Or you might just feel anxious and not really understand why.
Even if you want to meet up with friends or go to a party, social anxiety may keep you from those activities. But, while anxiety (and social anxiety) are unique for each person, what sufferers share is a desire to overcome or relieve anxiety, and to rid themselves of the paralyzing feelings that so often accompany this kind of nervous energy.
From person to person, anxiety runs the gamut from a manageable form of worry or anxious thoughts to more serious mental health conditions and extreme fear or worry, much like you would find with social anxiety and generalised anxiety disorder.
However, regardless of where we are on that spectrum, there are many effective ways that we can work to calm anxiety and dismantle the hold it has on us. In this guide to overcoming anxiety, we offer a primer on anxiety disorders along with a practical overview of how to stop anxiety in its tracks.
What are anxiety disorders?
According to Harvard Medical School, an anxiety disorder is present if a person has “persistent worry for more days than not, for at least several months.” Anxiety is a persistent or excessive worry, stress, fear, or unease that causes both psychological and physical symptoms.
These intense feelings are often triggered by everyday stressors or situations that have unknown variables or outcomes. Or you may have anxious thoughts about something that you’re unhappy about. Social anxiety is when social situations cause anxious thoughts, dread, and/or panic. However, anxiety can occur in relation to just about anything.
Additionally, a variety of health conditions are known to make anxiety worse. Likewise, anxious thoughts and high anxiety levels can also aggravate or cause physical symptoms and contribute to mental and physical health conditions, such as having trouble sleeping, depression, heart conditions, and digestive issues.
Your anxiety trigger could be something that causes you unease or to feel afraid. This could be something unusual or rare (such as earthquakes or bankruptcy), cerebral (questions like “what am I doing with my life?” or “am I a failure?”), mundane (ordering at a restaurant or asking a question), or outlandish (an alien or zombie attack).
However, many people experience anxiety during social interactions and/or when doing something in public or that feels on display or under scrutiny. This is called social anxiety (we have a whole article on how to overcome social anxiety here, if you’re interested).
Fearing bad outcomes—financially, medically, professionally, academically, socially, or romantically—is common as well. In these cases, anxiety may either cause avoidance or a hyper focus on whatever is increasing your anxiety levels.
Types of anxiety disorder
As noted above, anxiety can range from mild to severe and can come and go over time. For some anxious thoughts may feel like a relatively minor issue or may present as troublesome, frustrating, or annoying. Or it may feel completely overwhelming and a real detriment to your daily life.
You may have anxiety over one specific thing or a more general kind of anxiety that extends into many facets of your life. For some people, anxiety causes them to focus more inward, others become less introverted and cope by distracting themselves with more extroverted behaviors. However, introverts tend to experience more anxiety, possibly because they may be more in tune with their inner life and anxiety level.
For many people, anxiety is relatively manageable, but others feel ruled or limited by it. How we cope with our anxiety has a big role in how impactful it becomes. For some, anxiety tips over from typical nervousness or apprehension into more profound anxiety disorders. According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 43% of people with anxiety have mild cases, 33% have moderate anxiety, and almost 23% have a severe prognosis.
When does anxiety become a mental health condition?
In psychiatry, anxiety is a nervous disorder with intense, unmanageable worry or discontent, often accompanied by avoidance behaviors, panic attacks, or obsessive thoughts or behaviors. Typically, these fears and feelings of unease are not grounded in an actual discernible threat.
When anxiety levels interfere with daily life they may reach the threshold of a diagnosable mental health condition. Anxiety disorders are typically divided into several different categories. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, these include five major types of anxiety conditions:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Social anxiety disorder (SAD)
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
As mentioned above, social anxiety is more focused on social interactions and fears relating to public embarrassment or attention. With general anxiety, there is a more pervasive sense of unease rather than anxiety fixated on specific situations. With OCD, people become swept up in obsessive, anxious thoughts and behaviors. Panic disorders involve having regular anxiety attacks. PTSD is anxiety caused by traumatic experiences, such as war, abuse, or an accident.
Additionally, another type of anxiety commonly experienced by babies and young children is separation anxiety. In separation anxiety the child feels great distress at being separated from their parent or caregiver.
Symptoms of anxiety
The experience of anxiety will vary among people and the severity of their condition. Generally, the signs and symptoms of anxiety may include the following:
- A sense of dread
- Chest pain
- Dizziness, shaking, or light-headedness
- Feeling a need to shut down or retreat
- Feeling tired, hot, or cold
- Lack of concentration, energy, or focus
- Nervousness, worry, tension, fear
- Obsessive thoughts or behaviors
- Panic attacks
- Rapid breathing or hyperventilating
- Rapid heart rate
- Sleep issues
Anxiety often coexists with other mental health conditions, such as depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Another key thing to know is that when you are in the midst of intense anxiety, such as during a panic attack or when dealing with compulsive anxious thoughts or social anxiety, your fight or flight instincts have taken over. So, while you may not be in real danger in a practical sense, your mind and body think that you are. This means your body releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, amplifying your sense of urgency, fear, stress, and unease.
Prevalence of anxiety
Experiencing anxiety is extremely common. In fact, it’s the most prevalent mental health concern in the United States. Alarmingly, research shows that rates of this condition are on a steady upswing. In one study, experts at The City University of New York and Columbia University reported that, in 2008, approximately 5% of American adults said they’d experienced anxiety in the prior month. That number increased to nearly 7% ten years later, in 2018.
Plus, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, the percentage of adults who had anxiety at any point over the course of a year is even higher—a whopping 19%. Rates are higher among women, with approximately 23% reporting periods of past-year anxiety, compared with about 14% of men. Prevalence is also greater among those under age 45, with the biggest drop off after 60. Interestingly, just 9% of U.S. seniors report experiencing anxious thoughts.
Note that these are pre-COVID-19 numbers. Since the pandemic began, rates of people seeking help for anxiety disorders have only gone up. In fact, it’s been well documented that rates of mental health concerns like anxiety have skyrocketed.
Scientific studies done during the height of the lockdowns, case surges, and quarantines, from Toronto to Singapore, have reported staggering levels of anxiety—with some showing up to 50% or more of participants adversely impacted.
What makes you anxious?
As previously noted, there are a variety of reasons that people experience anxiety. These include general unease, heredity, brain chemistry, personality, upbringing, or life events. Typical contributing factors include extreme events (such as natural disasters or violence) and stressors like marriage, money, kids, or work. Also, for some, simple everyday activities like going to the grocery store or deciding which shirt to wear can create anxiety.
Additionally, a number of other triggers commonly cause or worsen anxiety, such as health issues, skipping meals, lack of sleep, stress, feeling under pressure, comparing yourself to others (such as on social media), and worry about failure. Women are also more prone to anxiety than men.
Anxiety disorders also may run in families. People with chronic health conditions tend to be more susceptible. Those in underserved communities, such as people with disabilities, communities of color, those living in poverty, and other historically marginalized groups also often experience higher rates of anxiety.
Is anxiety always bad?
Having anxiety can be extremely distressing, isolating, debilitating, and embarrassing, particularly for those with more extreme experiences. The physical impact of anxiety is very real as well. For example, research shows that prolonged anxiety may contribute to advanced aging, impaired immune function, poor sleep, poor diet, poor digestive function, and stress on the cardiovascular system.
However, it is worth exploring that at the root of anxiety is your mind and body alerting you to pay attention to something. Sometimes, this hyperfocus can be positive or helpful. For example, if you are a person who has anxiety about the weather, you may be extra prepared when big storms or other climate events happen. Or if you feel intense dread over hosting social occasions, you might be meticulous about your party preparations.
You might fear failure or being late, which might make you vigilant about getting your work done early or arriving places on time, respectively. But the cost of living with anxious thoughts can be extremely taxing emotionally and physically.
Ways to overcome anxiety
You may appreciate some of the outcomes of your anxiety (particularly if it spurs you to accomplish your goals) but likely you don’t enjoy the process that gets you there. This is where learning to overcome your anxiety comes in. However, it’s key to dig down into what is causing the underlying stress or apprehension.
What is the anxiety, fear, worry, or unease trying to tell you? Listen to these messages and explore how you can use this information to alleviate their grip on you. (In more severe cases, this is where a therapist, medication, and/or other support can be a huge help.)
Also, seek to ground yourself, as much as possible, in the reality of whatever situation is causing you apprehension. Think about what is really likely to happen, including the true worst case scenarios. Maybe even make peace with them.
Once you can start to see the role that your perspective plays in your anxiety—and that you have agency in your own thoughts—you can begin to free yourself from its hold. Overcoming anxiety really starts with reframing your own thoughts.
Is there any treatment for anxiety?
When your basic drives for survival are in high gear, it becomes exceedingly challenging for your rational brain to function properly. In other words, the work of overcoming anxiety needs to take place before or after anxiety attacks to be the most helpful—and to give you the tools to react more effectively the next time anxiety strikes.
It’s important to reiterate just how pervasive anxiety has become in our culture. So, one, you’re not alone. Most people have either experienced anxiety themselves or it has impacted people close to them. So, aim to let go of any embarrassment, shame, or negative self-talk that you feel. And, two, there are a lot of services and strategies out there that can help you fight anxiety.
Seek counseling from a specialist in treating anxiety disorders. Research shows that talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, can be very effective in unpacking the causes of anxiety and learning effective ways to cope. Successful treatments can help you change your thinking and viewpoint—a process that can be life changing.
Additionally, there are a variety of prescription medications your mental health provider or doctor may suggest that can help reduce the severity of symptoms. Support groups are often productive for people struggling with anxiety. Additionally, there are many useful lifestyle changes and other strategies that can have a profound effect and aid you in overcoming anxiety.
How do I stop anxiety?
What helps one person rein in their anxiety may not work for another. It’s important to try a variety of techniques until you find the right ones for you. However, the important part is seeing that while some of your anxiety may be hardwired or conditioned into your brain, you also have agency over your anxious thoughts and reactions. And you can make changes to control, lesson, or fight your anxiety.
Also, note that rarely will these techniques (or counseling, support groups, or medication) work instantaneously or perfectly. Overcoming anxiety is a learning process and will take effort and commitment. So, remember to give yourself grace and time while you learn and practice these strategies.
Small changes can have big results
Many of these proven anxiety fighting tips are relatively simple, but don’t let that fool you into thinking they won’t have a big impact. Plus, simple doesn’t mean easy or that there aren’t many nuances or layers to these strategies that you can explore and benefit from.
In fact, studies show that simply focusing on and altering your breathing can be very helpful. We all “know” how to breathe, but making slight shifts and really getting in tune with your breathing can be extremely relaxing, restorative, and re-centering—and help combat anxious thoughts.
Adding physical exercise into your day, even a few minutes at a time, is a proven way to beat anxiety. This can be anything you enjoy, such as going on a walk, running, swimming, playing a sport, biking, jumping jacks. The key is to get the heart pumping and the mind focused on the physical rather than on worries
Relaxation techniques relieve the apprehension or fear caused by anxiety. These practices include breathwork, such as found in many yoga practices. In fact, yoga, tai chi, and other martial arts may be helpful as they all offer repetitive, controlled movements that promote self-discipline, self-knowledge, and mind-body connection.
Other relaxation techniques to try include massage, mediation, listening to calming music (or any other kind you enjoy), doing hobbies, talking with friends, aromatherapy, biofeedback, or whatever else you find eases your mind.
Many people with anxiety benefit from adjustments to their daily life. These include making sure to follow healthy sleep habits, maintain a healthy weight and diet, and taking care of your physical health.
Chronic pain, living with a lot of clutter, and being surrounded by negative people can also breed stress. The goal is to acknowledge, understand, and release the stressors that may be contributing to your anxiety. For example, for some people, anxiety comes from being overwhelmed. If that’s you, take steps to regain control over your life. If disorganization and lack of productivity are driving your anxiety, take steps to address those issues.
Make daily to-do lists, tackle the projects or issues you keep putting off, and ask for help when you need it. If social anxiety is your issue, work on your social skills and challenge yourself to expand your comfort zone by attending social events and engaging with new people.
Having anxiety can breed a lot of unhelpful, unkind feelings about yourself, which in turn can fuel even more anxiety. Get yourself out of this negative self-affirming loop by actively choosing to give yourself love instead of grief. Accept that anxiety is an issue for you. Love yourself anyway—or even more because of this. Know that it’s not your fault and that having anxiety does not make you a bad or broken person. It makes you human. Everybody has their issues. Love that, too.
Struggle is a normal, inevitable part of life—and so is the anxiety that often comes with it. Embrace that and honor your experiences and feelings. Choose to see your relationship with anxiety as a vehicle for growth and a path toward humility, strength, self-knowledge, community, and love.
Be as patient and kind to yourself as you would to a dear friend. Love yourself for trying, even if your efforts to quell your anxiety don’t always succeed. With patience, support, and effort you can overcome your anxiety. Most importantly, keep trying—because you’re worth it.
things can get better
Are you ready to overcome your obstacles today?