Anxiety: Steps to Take When You Feel Overwhelmed

Illustration by Chris Larson

Excessive worry, feelings of fear, dread, uneasiness, panic—these experiences can hijack your life and leave you overwhelmed and/or terrorized. One doesn’t need to have clinical anxiety to understand its impact on life. It can be the nerves before speaking to a group; shakiness before a competition; worry about asking someone on a date; ruminating over how someone perceived a text you sent. Anxiety exists in all of us! It not only ravages our bodies, but it also can create distance (real or perceived) between us and those who are important to us. It can truly be a bummer.

A bad reputation

Anxiety gets a rough reputation and quite understandably—it’s uncomfortable to feel, can lead to circular thinking, and can stop us from doing things we really want to do. However, anxiety is there for a reason. Evolutionarily, if we didn’t experience fear and worry, we may have made choices that led to harm. Anxiety helps us survive. It helps us take caution in new or difficult situations. We have heightened observations and we attempt to identify the safest ways to get out of perceived danger unscathed. Although anxiety doesn’t feel the best, it certainly does some nice things to help keep us safe. 

Body, heart, and mind

Anxiety triggers your body to get blood to the brain, increase your breathing, and elevate your heart rate. These physiological responses prepare your body to face the perceived danger, including the nervous system response of fight, flight, or freeze. If anxiety begins to overwhelm you, breathe in sharply through your nose for two seconds, hold the breath for one second, and then exhale for five seconds. Imagine the breath filling you up like a balloon rather than just filling your chest and belly. This type of breath starts to slow down your heart rate and lets your cognitive brain turn back on, allowing you to make better sense of the threat. You can often find smarter, less impulsive ways of dealing with the situation.

When anxiety levels up

In the event your anxiety has turned into a panic attack, breathing like this slows the body down. Don’t hesitate to talk yourself through it, too. Mindfully identify the sensations moving through you (and know that “mindfully” doesn’t have to mean “calmly”—the fear may have you shouting); tell yourself that it will end (panic attacks have a beginning, a middle, and an end); ask someone to help you through it (before a panic attack happens or during it—either is fine); and find things that comfort you. 

Although it’s hard, don’t judge your panic attack. Don’t let the anxiety tell you how “embarrassing this looks,” or how “it is inconveniencing those around you.” We need anxiety to survive in this world and for a moment, it spiked too high—that’s it. Remember: panic attacks aren’t always about fear, sometimes they come out as rage and other times as a complete system shut down. There is no wrong way to have a panic attack.

Reflect and explore

Once your body has calmed down, it is important to explore what happened leading up to the rush of anxiety. Go over your day and try to get a sense of whether anything overwhelmed you—it may be something big or small. Identify any negative judgments you or others may have made of yourself prior to the anxiety. See if there are any feelings you have a hard time with, or were taught not to feel—were you angry, sad, afraid, disgusted, or even happy or excited? Anxiety can emerge to cut off these feelings before you feel them fully, especially if they were not allowed in your living spaces when you were younger. But these feelings were meant to be felt! Connect with them in whatever ways you can, whether they be body sensations or identifiable emotions. Express them in ways that honor them.

Healing

Any anxiety, whether it be chronic or a one-time event, needs tending to. Give yourself the space and time to heal. Find practices that help you connect with yourself and express yourself—mindful meditation, physical movement or exercise, writing, or creating art. In the event your anxiety is bigger, you might cancel plans or take time off, just like you would if you had the flu. It also may mean asking for help from friends, family, your support network, or from a professional. Anxiety is a part of all our lives but when it starts to harm us, we deserve the help required to heal it. 

Rick Laska is the director of clinical services for JustUs Health (justushealth.org)

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