Your heart is pounding. You’re breathing heavily, and that lump in your throat is getting bigger and bigger.
No matter how fast you breathe, you can’t seem to get enough air. As you realise that you could suffocate, you begin to tremble, and chills run down your spine.
You’re consumed by fear, you can’t think straight. You just pray that the people around you won’t notice what is going on. If they could see how anxious you are, they’d think you were crazy. And besides, it would be too embarrassing to open up to anyone.
So you sit there, with the panic mounting and the fear of what other people might think. You want to run and hide in the comfort of your home. But even then, you can’t escape a racing mind.
Even if you find shelter, you can’t escape those panicky thoughts. And you’ve become too scared to move, almost paralysed – a helpless spectator to your anxiety.
The fear builds and builds, adrenaline rushes through your systems, and you think: this is it. I’m going to die.
Of course, you’ll be alright. But right now, you can’t imagine that your fear will ever pass.
Having an experience like this can be scary. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Today, I want to share a few tips to get immediate relief from anxiety and overcome panic attacks.
Tip 1: Breathe
When we get anxious, we hold our breath. We take in less oxygen than we need, and the carbon dioxide levels in our blood begin to rise. This creates stress in our bodies, and we do everything we can to get rid of that extra CO2.
We might begin to hyperventilate or breathe more heavily, and the build-up of CO2 sends our brain into overdrive, creating a vicious loop that reinforces our anxiety.
While this anxiety can help us get out of dangerous situations, it becomes problematic when we’re dealing with an imagined threat.
If you notice yourself tensing up at the sight of a spider, a cute guy, or another low-stakes situation, the easiest way to reduce anxiety is by taking a few deep breaths. Simply inhale for 2-4 seconds and exhale for 2-4 seconds. Repeat as needed until you’ve calmed down.
Even the military uses these types of breathing techniques to stay calm in high-pressure operations – so you can bet this works. And while it might take some practice, slow breathing has been the single most effective way for me to snap out of anxiety instantly.
Tip 2: Sit up straight and smile
Apart from our breathing, our posture also has an incredible impact on our mood. Think about it: we slouch in fear, take a fighting stance when angry, and smile to welcome our loved ones with open arms.
While all of these expressions come naturally, they show how strong the connection between mind and body actually is.
A change in mood changes your posture – often without you even realising. But the connection also works the other way round: if you change your posture, after a few minutes your mood also begins to change.
This means that you can use your body language to your advantage to reduce anxiety in stressful situations.
Let’s see how this works with a small exercise:
First, think of something that makes you slightly nervous. This can be anything from speaking at a conference or getting a big spider out of the dining room.
Now, say exactly what scares you – but when you speak, to speak as if you are telling a funny story and laughing about it.
When you tell this anxiety-provoking story with a smile on your face, you’ll see that it’s less scary or daunting than you originally thought.
But how can you apply this in your day-to-day life?
Well, next time you start worrying about this or that – sit up straight, smile and know that it’s okay to feel anxious.
Tip 3: Be present
Most of our anxiety comes from a constant sense of worry about the future. We’re in a safe space right now, but we catastrophise what might happen. The plane could crash, we could fail that class, or lose our job.
All of these are merely probabilities – no matter how likely or unlikely, they’re nothing we need to be afraid of at that point in time.
Even if that plane was going to crash, our advance worry won’t make things better. And while losing your full-time job can keep you up at night, there’s no value in worrying excessively about things that haven’t even materialised.
Instead, we can shift our focus back to the present moment, and acknowledge that we are safe and loved. No matter how scared we are about what could go wrong, we can trust that if things do go belly-up, we will have the resources and strength to cope with that.
Most of our fears are not grounded in life-endangering threats, so matter how scared we feel right now about something in the future, that feeling will eventually pass. And a month or year from now, we can probably laugh about the things that used to scare us. So shift that focus back to the present moment, and enjoy the experiences and opportunities you have right now.
Tip 4: Use the ‘worry hole’
Whenever your mind is filled with anxious thoughts and an unstoppable sense of worry, imagine that you are standing in a serene field in the countryside. The wet grass tickles your feet, the sun warms your body, and you spot a tiny hole in the ground in front of you.
As you sit down in the field, sheets of paper and a black marker pen fall into your lap. You pick up the pen and slowly write down an anxiety-provoking thought on the first sheet of paper. Once you finish writing, you fold the paper sideways so the text is covered and dump it into the tiny hole in front of you.
As the paper falls into the magic hole, it begins to dissolve – and at the same time, that anxious thought inside your mind dissolves as well. You feel slightly more relieved and dump the next pieces of paper into the worry hole until you feel liberated from all fear.
The worry hole is a very useful tool when you feel stressed because you’ve been overthinking a situation – but it is most powerful in the early stages of anxiety.
Tip 5: Connect with your surroundings
When you’ve moved beyond those early stages, and you’re already trapped in the panic mindset, I recommend another technique, which allows you to focus on the things going on around you.
If you feel trapped or scared, and you’re caught in that panic mindset, simply take an observing perspective. Ask yourself:
- What can I see? What are the people around me doing?
- Which sounds do I hear?
- What does it smell like where I am standing right now?
- How does the air feel? Hot? Cold? Wet? Or Dry?
- Am I aware of the way my clothes caress my skin?
When you answer these questions, you are forced to shift your focus from panicky thoughts to what is going on around you. In this way, your senses can help you halt your anxious thoughts and stop you from spiralling further and further.
Tip 6: Cut the secret cord
Every time you feel threatened, your mind plays out mental images and scenarios that match your feeling of anxiety.
Suppose you’re walking down a dark alley and a guy comes running at you from behind. Instantly, a series of anxious thoughts races through your mind: what if he’s going to attack me? Does he have a knife? Will he do me any harm?
But instead of playing this movie in your head, you can also imagine how the inner film is printed onto a DVD. Then visualise how you throw away that DVD, and cut the invisible ties from the negative experience to yourself. Imagine that you’ve drawn a clear separating line between you and then, and any hidden cords have been cut. You live in your own safe bubble and nothing or nobody can remove you from it.
Bonus tip: Uncover your deepest fear
One of the deepest fears we have (but almost never talk about) is our fear of death. This fear feeds all our other fears, and so making peace with it, is one of the most powerful things you can do to overcome anxiety in the long term. Check out this article for some tips on how to overcome your fear of death.