Althought Therapy

From Paralyzed to Empowered:
Overcoming Intense Anxiety

Do anxious thoughts pop into your mind and consume you? Does it feel like no matter what you do, you just can’t make those thoughts go away? If so, you are not alone. 40 million people in the United States suffer from anxiety or an anxiety disorder every year. It can be debilitating for many, taking over our thoughts and distracting us from what we want to be doing. It can make us feel powerless.

What causes anxiety in the first place? 

Anxiety is a normal stress response, which is a normal part of life. Our brains and bodies are designed to experience stress as a means of preserving life. If you were in imminent danger, experiencing stress and figuring out how to escape the situation would be beneficial. This often activates your fight-or-flight response. However, our bodies can’t distinguish between a threat to our safety and the stress of running late to work. We experience stress in the same way, regardless of the stressor.

If stress is normal, does that mean I am always going to experience stress? Yes and no. While you can’t avoid stress entirely throughout your life, you can identify what triggers your stress and then find healthy ways to cope with and manage your stress levels.

Overcoming Intense Anxiety

What does anxiety feel like?

Anxiety can feel different for everyone, and there is a range of symptoms you may experience. Sometimes, people feel as though they are having an anxiety attack or a panic attack. Below is a list of common anxiety symptoms that you might experience:

  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Excessive worrying
  • Feeling irritable, tense, or restless
  • Experiencing nausea or abdominal distress
  • Having heart palpitations
  • Sweating, trembling, shaking
  • Sensation of choking or not being able to breathe (shortness of breath)
  • Pounding or racing heart
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Somatic complaints (upset stomach, headaches, fatigue, muscle aches)
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom

  • For some people, these experiences may be so normal in their everyday lives that they don’t recognize they are experiencing anxiety. It might feel normal to worry every day about various things, such as whether your children are making enough friends at school or how to manage your daily schedule. However, no matter where your brain focuses your attention and worries, if it becomes distressing or pervasive in your life, you are likely experiencing anxiety.

    How can I adjust my lifestyle habits to reduce my anxiety?

    There are several ways you can make lifestyle changes to reduce your anxiety. These healthy and natural remedies can help you manage your anxiety without the need for medication. Below is a list of strategies for combating anxiety by making small adjustments to your life:

    • Exercise
    • Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs
    • Quit Smoking
    • Reduce your caffeine (do not consume caffeine after 12:00 PM)
    • Prioritize your sleep
    • East a healthy, well-balanced diet
    • Socialize with your friends and family
    • Journaling

    How do I gain control over my anxiety?

    The first step in reducing anxiety in your life is identifying when you are experiencing anxiety. To reduce your anxiety levels, you must first be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of anxiety. You can refer to the list above (What does anxiety feel like?) to get an idea of how you might be experiencing anxiety symptoms.

    The second step in reducing anxiety is to identify what triggers your anxiety. So, once you know what anxiety feels like and recognize that it is happening, ask yourself: What happened right beforehand that made you feel anxious? Was it the pressure to say yes to helping a friend move? Did an email alert distract you from your current task? Are you running late to an important appointment? Identifying what triggered your anxiety is a crucial step in learning how to manage your anxiety levels.

    The third step is to implement healthy coping skills or mechanisms to manage your anxiety levels when they arise. There are various coping methods you can use. It is best to practice your coping strategies when you are calm and feeling good. This practice allows you to fully engage with your coping skills, so you are prepared to implement your new strategy when you experience anxiety. Practicing your coping skills ahead of time is like building any other skill set. For example, professional athletes spend time practicing their skills before a big game or meet.

    3 Steps to Managing Your Anxiety:

    1. Learn what your anxiety symptoms are
    2. Identify what triggered your anxiety symptoms
    3. Practice and develop coping skills or coping mechanisms to manage your anxiety

    5 Coping Skills for Anxiety

    There are many coping strategies for dealing with anxiety. There are five different techniques for reducing anxiety to try. Remember, it is important to practice some of these coping skills when you are relaxed so it is easier to implement them when you are experiencing anxiety.

    333 Approach

    The 333 method is a grounding strategy that involves identifying three objects you can see, three sounds you can hear, and three items you can feel. This practice aids in anchoring you to the present moment and reconnecting you with your surroundings.

    Progressive Muscle Relaxation

    You will start by intentionally tightening specific muscles and then relaxing them. 

    • Forehead: Begin by contracting the muscles in your forehead, holding the tension for 10-15 seconds to fully acknowledge the sensation of tightness. Then, gradually let go, counting slowly to 30 seconds or until you feel a complete sense of relaxation in that area.
    • Jaw: Tighten your jaw muscles by pressing your teeth together, maintaining this tension for 10-15 seconds to recognize the buildup of pressure. Afterward, gently ease the tension, counting down to 30 seconds or until you achieve total relaxation.
    • Shoulders: Engage your neck and shoulders by elevating your shoulders towards your ears (without causing discomfort), keeping this position for 10-15 seconds. Follow with a relaxation phase, counting slowly as you release the tension.
    • Arms: Clench your fists and draw them towards the center of your chest, tensing your arms. Hold this for 10-15 seconds before gradually releasing the tension, counting to 30 seconds as you do so.
    • Buttocks: Tighten your buttocks muscles for 10-15 seconds, becoming aware of the tension. Then, proceed to relax as you have with the previous steps.
    • Legs: Gradually increase tension in your thighs and calves, holding for 10-15 seconds. Release the tension slowly, counting to 30 seconds, and notice the sensation of relaxation and tension dissipation.
    • Feet: Contract the muscles in your feet and toes as tightly as possible. After holding, relax and observe as the tension and tightness diminish.

      By the end of this sequence, you should find your breathing more regulated and feel recentered, ready to re-engage with your environment feeling less overwhelmed and more grounded.

    Mindful Breathing

    This is a mindful breathing practice to help you engage in your senses. Pay attention to how your body feels when you inhale and exhale. You can try the 4-7-8 breathing technique. To do this you inhale while counting to four. You hold your breath for seven seconds. Last exhale for eight seconds. Repeat this cycle until desired. 


    Submerge Your Hands in Cold Water 

    Submerging your hands in cold water is an effective grounding technique that can help manage anxiety, stress, or overwhelming emotions. This method leverages the body’s physical reaction to cold temperatures to bring your focus back to the present moment, thereby reducing the intensity of distressing feelings. Here’s how to do it:

    • Find a Basin or Sink: Locate a basin, sink, or any container large enough to hold water and both of your hands.
    • Fill with Cold Water: Fill the chosen container with cold water. If available, add ice cubes to lower the temperature further, enhancing the grounding effect.
    • Submerge Hands: Gently submerge your hands in the cold water. If you’re using a sink, you can also turn on the tap and let cold water run over your hands.
    • Focus on the Sensation: Pay close attention to the sensation of the cold water on your skin. Notice the temperature, the feeling of water moving around your fingers, and any other sensations you experience. This intense physical sensation helps divert your mind from overwhelming thoughts or feelings.
    • Breathe Deeply: While your hands are submerged, take deep, slow breaths. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. This helps enhance the calming effect of the technique by regulating your body’s stress response.
    • Duration: Keep your hands submerged for as long as it’s comfortable, aiming for about 30 seconds to a few minutes. The goal is to shift your focus and reduce distress, not to cause discomfort from the cold.
    • Dry and Reflect: After removing your hands from the water, dry them gently. Take a moment to reflect on how your body feels now. You might notice a decrease in heart rate, a calmer mind, or a more grounded sensation in your body.

    This technique can be particularly useful in moments of acute stress or when you find yourself caught in a cycle of negative thoughts. It’s a simple, quick, and accessible way to help regain your composure and reconnect with the present moment.

    Holds Ice Cube

    Holding an ice cube is a simple and effective grounding technique that can help you manage acute stress, anxiety, or overwhelming emotions by engaging your sense of touch with a strong physical sensation. This method draws your attention away from distressing thoughts or feelings and anchors you in the present moment. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to use this technique:

    • Prepare an Ice Cube: Retrieve an ice cube from your freezer. If you have sensitive skin or are concerned about discomfort, consider wrapping the ice cube in a thin cloth or paper towel.
    • Find a Comfortable Space: Choose a comfortable and quiet place where you can sit or stand peacefully for a few minutes.
    • Hold the Ice Cube: Take the ice cube in your hand. If using two, hold one in each hand. Focus on the sensation as the cold begins to transfer to your skin.
    • Observe Sensations: Pay close attention to how the ice cube feels against your palm and fingers. Notice its hardness, the coldness, and the sensation of melting water. Observe any changes in temperature, texture, and size as the ice begins to melt.
    • Breathe Deeply: While holding the ice cube, practice deep breathing. Inhale slowly through your nose, allowing your abdomen to expand, and then exhale slowly through your mouth. This helps regulate your body’s stress response and enhances the grounding effect.
    • Shift Your Focus: If your thoughts begin to wander back to stressful or overwhelming thoughts, gently redirect your attention back to the ice cube in your hand. Concentrate on the here and now, focusing on the physical sensations you’re experiencing.
    • Duration: Continue to hold the ice cube for as long as you can comfortably tolerate. The aim is not to cause harm or discomfort, so if it becomes too painful, it’s okay to stop.
    • Reflect on the Experience: After you’ve finished, take a moment to reflect on the experience. How do your hands feel now? Do you feel more present, less anxious, or more grounded than before?
    • Dispose of the Water: If you’re left with any melted water, dry your hands and dispose of the water appropriately.

    This grounding technique leverages the mind’s focus on the strong and undeniable sensation of cold, providing a distraction from overwhelming emotional or psychological distress. It’s particularly useful for moments when you need a quick and accessible way to bring yourself back to the present and reduce feelings of anxiety or panic.

    Anxiety impacts all of us at different points in our lives. I hope this article has helped you gain an understanding of what anxiety is, how to identify it when it occurs, and has empowered you to take action to reduce anxiety in your life. If anxiety feels like it’s impacting your daily life, you may want to speak to a professional about anxiety treatment.


    Anxiety and Depression Association of America

    World Health Organization

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