A couple years ago, I was sitting in my seat on a plane bound for Yemen. Panic seized every part of my body. My legs were shaking so bad they were literally both jumping up about 6 inches in the air involuntarily.
My heart was racing, and everything around me was spinning. I couldn’t see because everything was blurry. I was sweating heavily, and I could feel the cold moisture as my shirt dampened.
I didn't know anyone else on the plane, and I was sitting next to a businessman who was reading a magazine.
I just grabbed his hand and squeezed it as hard as I could. He was startled, but when he saw the abject terror on my face, he was kind enough to just let me hold his hand for a few minutes.
Two hours before I got on the plane, I turned on CNN and watched as they announced “The US has issued a travel advisory for Yemen. All Americans are advised to leave immediately. An attack against Americans may be imminent”. But, I had to go, so boarded the plane anyway.
These attacks of sheer terror happened all the time, no matter where I was, but the incident on the plane was one of the worse.
So why does that story matter?
Because I don't have those attacks anymore.
I had read all the self-help books, gone through therapy, and visited doctors. And none of that did anything to help me. I suffered for many, many years.
I realized an important point, though, and then I worked all day every day to change. You can, too.
No time to read? Download a checklist of 18 tools for how to cope with anxiety.
Here's the fact that started the journey where I could successfully help myself:
All my suffering was just a matter of the thoughts I was having. So, if I could learn to control my thoughts, I could stop the suffering.
It didn't feel like I was in control. After all, anxiety would attack at the worst possible time in the worst possible place. And no matter what I did, I couldn’t make it stop.
Until I learned how to first manage the symptoms and then control my thoughts.
Here are actions you can take today to take back control once and for all.
Anxiety is normal, and everyone experiences it at times. You’re not crazy just because you get anxious. (Even if it’s constant!)
When I get anxious, I feel very alone, and that makes my anxiety worse. However, I am not alone, and neither are you. It’s important to realize this and remind yourself of this fact when anxiety rears its head.
On the surface, it seems like we’re all separate and so different from each other. But this world is not always as it seems. Everything and everyone is connected.
I read a story once about the interconnectedness of life, and I always remember it.
Imagine the sun shining on a corn field. The plant leaves soak up the sun, and the molecules inside change as a result. The corn grows and inside it is the sun, the wind, and the rain. Imagine the farmer who cares for the corn. He’s just like you, with the same hopes, dreams, cares, and concerns.
The farmer harvests the corn and takes it to the market. The person who buys it is supporting the farmer, and he is now connected to the farmer as well as to the wind, the sun, and the rain. He is just like the farmer, with similar needs, hopes, dreams, and desires.
Then the corn ends up in the grocery store, sitting on the shelf. The stock boy who stocked it becomes part of the chain. Then you come and buy it. You are now connected to everyone who helped that corn get to this spot. And when you eat it, you are ingesting the pureness of the earth – the sun, the wind, the rain. You are connected to the earth and to all the people involved in growing and selling the corn.
We all rely and depend on each other, and we are all connected. No one is an “island”. I am not alone, and neither are you.
2. What You Resist, Persists
When you start feeling anxious, the best way to make it go away quickly is to remind yourself that "what you resist, persists". If you fight the feelings and try to make them go away, as weird as it sounds, that just makes them stick around longer.
When I was anxious, I'd scream at myself, "Calm down! Just get over it! It’s okay!" And…..that never worked.
Try this next time you feel panicked:
Breathe deeply and just acknowledge it. Accept it for what it is – a feeling. It si not you. You are not your thoughts, and you are not your feelings. Thoughts and feelings come and go, and the fact is, they always - on their own, without any help.
Tell yourself, "I see you. I feel you. You can pass through as you see fit. I'll wait". Just breathe, and feel the wave pass by. If you focus on it intensely, you help it grow. So instead, just casually acknowledge the feeling and separate yourself from it. See it as an unwelcome visitor who’d just passing through. It will subside if you let it.
3. Be Gentle with Yourself and Take Baby Steps
A lot of times, we're nicer to others than we are to ourselves. We'll help a stranger who drops their bag, but when we're not feeling well, we'll mentally beat ourselves up.
"You're so stupid! Why do you always do this? Get a grip!"
The first step is to notice when you’re not being kind to yourself, then gently remind yourself that you deserve kindness, too. Treat yourself like you would treat your own helpless child.
Replace those thoughts with positive ones, like "It’s okay. No one’s perfect. You are strong, and you can do this. There’s no need to hurry. Take your time and do what you need to do".
Remind yourself that you can’t change everything overnight. It takes practice. It takes time. It takes trial and error. Give yourself the space you need to progress a little every day. And if you go backward, tell yourself that that’s just a natural part of the process.
Success never comes in a straight line. You go forward, you go backward, then you go forward again. Baby steps!
4. Focus on Right Now
A lot of anxiety comes from thinking about the future or the past, instead of just being in this moment right now.
When anxiety overcomes you, remember to get out of the future and focus on right this minute.
You're breathing, aren't you? You're okay. You can see, can't you? You're okay. What do you see around you right this minute? Focus on that for a minute. You can hear, can’t you? You're blessed to have your senses! Imagine what life must have been like for Helen Keller (well, that helps me!). You are alright, right here, right now.
Don't think about 5 minutes from now or what might or might not happen in the future. The future will get here when it gets here, and when it does, you'll handle it just fine. You always have. You are not in the future. You are right here, right now, and you are just fine. Go through your five senses and really observe everything as it is right now in this very moment. Be here in the now.
5. Step Outside Yourself
You are not your thoughts, and you are not your feelings. Experienced meditators experience this phenomenon frequently. When anxiety overtakes you, try putting some distance between yourself and your thoughts and feelings.
One way to do this is to address yourself in the third person. Instead of thinking, "I am freaking out and I don't know what to do!", talk to yourself using your first name.
Say, "Mary, you are feeling anxious, and that's perfectly normal. Here are the things you need to do to take care of yourself. First, take that seat over there. Then, take 4 deep, slow breaths…".
Ethan Kross conducted studies that showed that by addressing yourself in the third person (known as "Illeism"), you create emotional distance. It's an easy way to gain control of yourself mentally.
This little trick offers more benefits, as well. You will find that you act more rationally, observe more clearly, and treat yourself with more kindness. You will also improve focus, enhance self-control, and ruminate less once the event has ended.
Other studies show that when you mentally walk yourself through a process step by step, you are more rational, you gain control, and you are more likely to have a successful outcome.
6. This, Too, Shall Pass
If you use this mantra to remind yourself that feelings and thoughts are fleeting – and they are never permanent, you can better take control over your anxiety as it’s happening.
It's a great quick reminder that this episode isn't a big deal. Anxiety comes and goes. Let it pass through, because this, too shall pass. No biggie.
7. Change Your Label
Physiologically, fear and excitement are almost identical. Whether you’re afraid or really excited, your body’s nervous system responds the same way.
Your heart races, your pupils dilate, your blood flow gets diverted from the extremities to your core organs, you sweat, your throat gets dry, etc.
So next time anxiety takes over, instead of telling yourself, "I'm scared! I'm dying!", change the label. Instead, say, "I'm excited! Woah – what a rush!"
I often add, "Wow! I am living the life, man! I'm feeling my heartbeat, and I feel shaky all over which is proof that I'm alive! Not only am I alive, but I'm perfectly fine! Woah! What an exciting challenge! This is just a new opportunity for me to prove how strong I am!".
8. Picture Your Hero
I had an aunt once, and she was amazing. She was strong, courageous, and went through some of the worst situations life had to throw at her. And she came out on top every time.
Once, she was a passenger in a car, and the car went off a cliff. She survived, but she had broken her back. When she told the story to me, she said, "I knew no one would find the car under the trees down in that ravine. So, I said to myself, 'Dorothy, if you want help, you have to go get it yourself'". So, for 5 hours, she crawled up the hill of the ravine to get to the road so she could flag down help.
She succeeded. That’s just one of her life stories – and there were many more.
She died many years ago at the age of 88, but she is still my role model. If she can be so strong and face life head-on, so can I.
Find someone you admire. If you don't know anyone in real life, read some biographies and find your hero. Find someone who embodies strength, courage, determination, and perseverance. If they can do it, so can you. You are not "less than" them.
Next time anxiety hits, picture this person standing right next to you. What would they say? What would they do? What advice would they give you?
Remember that you are just as strong and courageous as them. If need be, imagine them holding you up, encouraging you, or hugging you. They are real. They are a survivor. And so are you.
9. Remember that Anxiety Isn't Going to Kill You
When I had a panic attack, I thought I was dying. I stopped a passenger train once because I just <em>knew</em> I was having a heart attack and was going to be dead in the next two minutes!
When you're in the throes of an attack, it's hard to remember that this is just a feeling – one that can be controlled by you. Anxiety is not going to kill you. It’s not even going to hurt you! It’s simply a feeling.
That feeling produces some physiological effects, but once you control your thoughts (or your body, as we'll talk about later), that feeling will pass, along with the physical effects. You’re not going to die from it!
10. You’ve Done It Before
You have gotten through many difficult times. You've probably survived many anxiety attacks, too. You are strong and resourceful. You can handle anything that comes your way.
When you're freaking out, gently remind yourself that you've "Been there and done that". Sit down sometime and make a list of some of the most difficult things that have happened to in your life, and realize that you got through them!
When you're freaking out, it's hard to remember all those times when you were strong and victorious, so it's a good idea to carry that little list around with you. Then when you need it, take it out and remind yourself of how awesome you really are.
You woke up today, so your success rate for getting through the rough times is 100%. You've done it before, and you can do it again. You are stronger than you think you are.
11. Deep Breathing and Meditation
Take time to learn deep breathing and meditation exercises. They have been my #1 lifesaver.
It's nearly impossible to freak out and, at the same time, take slow, deep controlled breaths. At the very least, this technique can slow your racing heart.
Focus on the air that you’re breathing in, and "see" it as it goes deep into your abdomen below your diaphragm. A deep breath should extend your abdomen, pushing it out as if you’re pregnant. Breathe in over 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, then breathe out for 4 counts.
Guided meditations are a WONDERFUL way to calm yourself down and regain control. One of my favorites is The Healing Waterfall by Max Highstein.
12. Focus on Someone Else
When anxiety hits, we tend to block everything and everyone else out and focus on our sweaty hands, our racing heart, and our labored breathing.
It’s imperative that you take the focus off yourself and put it on someone else. It’s not easy, but you get better with practice.
If you have a pet, go pet them, play with them, or give them a treat. If you have a child, go sit next to them and ask them a question about their day. Reach out and put the focus on someone else, and your anxiety will lessen.
13. Let the Past Go
Just because something happened in the past doesn’t mean it will happen that way again.
The past is gone. It’s done with. Let it go.
Dale Carnegie said a lot of wise things, but one of my favorite quotes is “Each day is a new life to the wise man”. And it’s true.
You don’t have to bring yesterday into today. That’s done and over with. I don’t have to be the same person today I was yesterday.
“Each day is a new life to the wise man”
In fact, change is the only thing that’s certain in life, and if you aren’t changing and growing, then you’re dying. Change is the cycle of life, and it’s present in every single aspect of nature. You are no different.
Forget the past. If fear stopped you in the past, it doesn’t mean it must stop you now. Today, it’s just your stepping stone to something better!
14. Remember that One Time…
Have you ever had an experience like this?
I was visiting Salem, Massachusetts one day in the Fall several years ago, and they have a pier there that went out into the ocean. It was dusk, the sun created beautiful colors in the sky, and I walked out to the end of the pier and sat down.
As I sat there listening to the seagulls screeching offshore and the gentle lapping of the water as it hit the pier, I was overcome by an incredible sense of peace. It filled my whole body. In that moment, I knew that no matter what happened to me, it didn’t matter. I was truly and wholly overcome with intense peace. I was so relaxed that I thought I would just melt and slip into the water and drown, and even that was perfectly okay. It was a transcendental moment.
Somewhere, sometime in your life, there must have been a time when everything seemed perfectly okay and you had a sense of calm and inner peace. Can you remember such a time?
If not, make one up. Close your eyes and imagine a place of such incredible peace that you’re so relaxed, your muscles won’t even move. Someone could come up and hit you, but it wouldn’t even matter because you are so completely relaxed and at peace with everything. Use all your senses – what does it look like there? What sounds can you hear?
Once you have your place – your moment – make it memorable. One way to do this is to give it a symbol. For example, touch your fourth finger on your right hand to your thumb. That could be your symbol.
When you do that, you remember that place – that moment – and feel that peace once again. If you don’t want to use a gesture, grab a trinket or a special rock and make that your symbol. The important thing is to have something that, when you touch it or make that gesture, you are reminded of that peaceful place. It transports you back into that state of mind.
That feeling is always with you, and you can recall it anytime you want. You can feel it anytime you want. All you need is a reminder and will to do so.
15. Use the Wonder of Embodied Cognition
The common thought goes like this:
The brain (or mind) creates thoughts, those thoughts create feelings, and those thoughts and feelings create electrical signals in the brain which leads to chemicals being released in the body. So basically, the pathway is: brain –> body.
However, scientists now have discovered that it can work the other way around, too. Embodied Cognition is a rather new discovery. Studies show that your body and your environment can change your thinking. And this is good news for you!
One study showed that people who lean back slightly are more apt to think about the past, while those who think about the future tend to lean forward slightly. If you think about the future and worry all the time, you could purposely remind yourself to lean backward throughout the day to help yourself stop worrying and thinking about the future so much. You can use your body to influence your mind.
Tony Robbins has talked a lot about how physiology changes your mind. If you’re depressed, you slouch, you drag your feet, you breathe shallowly, you look downward, etc. In order to help yourself not be depressed, do what non-depressed people do: walk quickly, talk with passion, gesture wildly with your hands, hold your shoulders back, take deep breaths, smile, etc. Your mood will lift! Your body can and does influence your mind.
16. Fake it Til You Make It
This is an old cliché, but there’s scientific proof that it does work.
Studies show that the brain cannot distinguish between what you imagine and what is really occurring in the outside world. If it’s in your mind – your brain thinks it’s real. Of course, there are mechanisms that help us distinguish between reality and fantasy, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
Researchers at Harvard University took two groups of people. One group was told to mentally practice playing a song on the piano every day for several weeks. The other group didn’t practice in their minds. Before and at the end of the experiment, brain scans were done on the two groups.
The group who mentally practiced playing the piano strengthened the area of the brain responsible for finger strength, while the other group showed no change. So even though they never moved their fingers or played the piano, just the thought of the action strengthened that area of the brain!
There are many studies showing the same thing, especially in the case of athletes. Those who visualize themselves performing an action very often increase their skill so that when they perform the action in real life, it’s as if they had been practicing all along.
The point is this: When you act as if the goal you want to achieve has already happened, it will most likely happen because that’s how the brain works.
So, when you’re feeling insecure and anxious and fearful, act as if you are the most confident, strong, fearless person on the planet. Is it easy? No. But you get better with practice. After a while, you will become that fearless, strong person!
17. Avoid Cognitive Distortions
We tend to think that we know ourselves pretty well. We know why we do what we do, what we believe, and how we think. But it turns out, your mind can trick you, and you might not know yourself as well as you think you do.
Cognitive distortions are a bunch of ways that the mind tricks you into believing things that just aren’t true. If you want to explore this, here’s a list of 15 cognitive distortions to look out for.
For example, a common one is called the “negativity bias“. Your brain is hard-wired to be more sensitive to negative information than positive information. If you are presented with some positive things and some negative things, your brain naturally filters out the positive ones and focuses on the negative ones.
Another one is over-generalization. You take something that happened once and think “This always happens!” Then, you think that it is an ongoing event that is going to happen over and over again in the future.
When you’re feeling anxious, take note of the thoughts you are having at that moment. Write them down. All of them. Then, go over the list of cognitive distortions and see if you’re employing them in your thinking. Then, work to correct it.
18. Try Some Natural Supplements
Some natural plants have been shown to reduce anxiety in scientific experiments. A few are:
This has been a very long article, and if you made it to the end, I commend you!
If you take the time to employ each of these techniques in your life and work on them consistently, I’m positive that you will come a long way to putting your anxiety behind you.