Anxiety is a feeling of tension, worry, and unease. Everyone experiences anxiety to some degree, and it’s a natural response to stress. It can help you cope with difficult situations, such as taking a test or tackling a problem at work. However, for people with an anxiety disorder, anxiety occurs often and can be overwhelming. Over 40 million adults in the United States (19.1%) have an anxiety disorder.
You can cope with anxiety caused by everyday stressors with some simple strategies on your own if you don’t have this mental disorder. However, an anxiety disorder requires treatment from a mental health professional.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or fear about an event or situation. It’s normal for people to feel anxious in response to stress. Anxiety can be beneficial when it helps prepare you to react to danger. The trick is to release these feelings before they become persistent, overwhelming, or all-consuming.
People with anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder have anxiety levels that are disproportionate to the threats and affect their day-to-day functioning. Negative thoughts and physical symptoms may interfere with academic success, career achievements, and relationships.
Recognizing the Signs
Paying attention to changes in your body in response to daily stressors and stressful life events can help you recognize the signs of anxiety. Generally, if your emotions feel like they’re in overdrive and you’re dealing with tension, sleepless nights spent worrying, or panic attacks, your anxiety levels are probably problematic.
Signs of anxiety include:
- A churning feeling in your stomach
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Headaches, backache, or other pains
- Faster breathing
- A fast, thumping, or irregular heartbeat
- Sweating or hot flushes
- Sleep problems
- Teeth grinding, especially at night
These symptoms pass once the stressor that is causing anxiety is resolved, but that’s not the case for an anxiety disorder.
Ways to Deal With Anxiety
It’s crucial to recognize that what works for someone else’s anxiety may not work for yours. You can start by identifying what (or who) triggers your anxiety and what provides relief.
Coping strategies for anxiety include:
- Think about what you can change and confront anxiety head-on so that your feelings of anxiety reduce rather than grow.
- Count to 10 slowly. Repeat and count to 20 if necessary.
- Keep a journal of your moods so you can recognize patterns. You can also write about your thoughts to figure out what’s really bothering you.
- Download one of the many apps that offer relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing or visualization, or guidance on practicing mindfulness, which can help you stay in the present rather than being overly focused on the future.
- Eat balanced, regular meals.
- Exercise three to five times a week for 30 minutes to help relieve your anxiety. This can be biking, dancing, or jogging.
- Avoid drinking too much caffeine such as soft drinks or coffee, which is known to exacerbate anxiety. Chocolate or energy bars may also contain caffeine, so check the ingredient labels before consuming.
- Limit alcohol, which can increase anxiety and panic attacks.
- Reach out to your friends or family who help you cope in a positive way, and consider a timeout from people who trigger your anxiety.
- Breathe with intention to help bring yourself back to the present.
When to Seek Help
When you realize you are not coping with your anxiety well or your anxiety is starting to interfere with your everyday functioning, you should seek help from a mental health professional. They will help you figure out whether your anxiety is caused by an anxiety disorder using criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
The signs of an anxiety disorder can include:
- Anxious thoughts or beliefs that are hard to control. They make you feel restless and tense and interfere with your daily life. They do not go away and can get worse over time.
- You experience chronic physical symptoms, such as a pounding or rapid heartbeat, unexplained aches and pains, dizziness, and shortness of breath.
- You have changes in behavior, such as avoiding everyday activities you used to do.
What to Expect During Treatment for Anxiety Disorder
Treatment for anxiety disorders typically includes medications and psychotherapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one type of psychotherapy that can help people with an anxiety disorder. It teaches people different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to anxiety-producing and fearful objects and situations.
CBT can also help people learn and practice social skills, which is vital for treating social anxiety, where someone experiences extreme anxiety regarding social situations. It may include exposure therapy if the person is experiencing phobia-related anxiety. Exposure therapy focuses on confronting the fears underlying an anxiety disorder to help people engage in activities they have been avoiding.
Medications may help alleviate symptoms of anxiety. The most common anti-anxiety medications are called benzodiazepines. Although benzodiazepines are sometimes used as first-line treatments for generalized anxiety disorder, they have both benefits and drawbacks.
Benzodiazepines are effective for relieving anxiety and take effect more quickly than antidepressants often prescribed for anxiety, but people can build up a tolerance to them if they are taken over a long period of time, and higher and higher doses may be needed to get the same effect. Some people may even become dependent on them.
Your doctor may prescribe benzodiazepines for short periods of time and the following antidepressants:
- Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Celexa (citalopram), Lexapro (escitalopram), and Prozac/Sarafem/Selfemra/Rapiflux (fluoxetine)
- Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) like Cymbalta (duloxetine), Effexor (venlafaxine), and Savella (milnacipran)
Side effects from SSRIs can include:
- Stomach issues
- Low libido (sex drive)
- Initial anxiety
You may need to try several different antidepressants before finding the one that works for you. Antidepressants can take time to work, so it’s important to give the medication a chance before reaching a conclusion about its effectiveness.
Do not stop taking antidepressants without the help of a doctor. When you and your doctor have decided it is time to stop the medication, the doctor will help you slowly and safely decrease your dose. Stopping them abruptly can cause withdrawal symptoms.
The most common black box warning (the most serious warning from the Food and Drug Administration) for anti-anxiety and depression medications is an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in children, adolescents, and young adults. If you start taking a prescribed medication and have thoughts of self-harm, contact your healthcare provider immediately or go to the nearest hospital.
Anxiety is a feeling of fear, worry, and tension experienced every day. It’s usually a response to a stressful event or trigger. It’s normal to feel anxious, and you can manage this feeling by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and adopting simple strategies like journaling and practicing deep breathing exercises. However, when you feel that way all the time or your anxiety is making it difficult for you to perform daily tasks, it may be time to talk to your doctor or mental health professional.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you deal with anxiety without medication?
Yes, but if you have an anxiety disorder, you need treatment from a mental health professional for the best outcome. Otherwise, you can cope with anxiety by journaling about your emotions, moving your body, and practicing mindfulness and meditation. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle by eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep can also help with anxiety.
How can you help someone dealing with anxiety?
The best way to help someone dealing with anxiety is to provide support. Listen to and help the person come up with a plan, and validate their feelings even if you don’t understand them. You can also suggest doing a calming activity together, such as a deep breathing exercise. Helping them find a support group or resources can be helpful.
How do you deal with anxiety attacks?
Anxiety attacks can be managed with lifestyle modifications, medications, psychotherapy, and support from loved ones. If you are experiencing anxiety attacks, you should consult with your primary care doctor or mental health professional immediately.
A Word From Verywell
Anxiety has become so pervasive that we tend to forget its seriousness. It can be motivating and helpful in some situations, but when you experience anxiety for a prolonged period of time, you may have an anxiety disorder and should seek help from a mental health professional.
The best approach to coping with anxiety is doing so when it’s still at manageable and healthy levels. If you’re already feeling overwhelmed or overly anxious, it’s time to talk to someone. This doesn’t mean you’ve failed at coping. It simply means you need a little extra support to keep your anxiety under control.