I was never an anxious person. I spent my teens and early 20s like many of my friends, thinking I was invincible and acting accordingly. Anxiety simply wasn't a word in my vocabulary. Little did I know I would soon become a card-carrying member of the club.
I didn't originally think that getting diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 27 affected me much — but it must have. Even though I didn't sense it happening, I had lost my sense of steadiness in the world. At any moment, the rug could be pulled out from under me. I didn't realize how fragile I'd become until I had my first panic attack a couple of months later. A good year passed before I regained a sense of relative calm.
I have since mellowed a bit, but that sense of impending doom is always lurking, ready to rear its ugly head at any given moment — when I'm in the car trying not to skid through one of our famous South Florida thunderstorms or in a crowded mall food court scanning for the nearest exit.
Through the years, I've picked up some tips from experts on how best to deal with the occasional (or sometimes more often) flutter of anxiety. Here are a few:
1. Practice deep breathing
Shallow breathing often happens when you're anxious — and you're probably not even aware you're doing it. You can reverse course by learning to fully oxygenate your lungs. (Photo: Minoru Nitta [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
I ignored this one at first, until I hit a bit of nasty turbulence on a flight from Chicago to New York and decided to give deep breathing a go. After all, it was that or pass out from hyperventilating. When you're anxious, you often experience shortness of breath, sending your body into a tailspin. Deep breathing can help right the ship. Sometimes the very act of focusing on something else (your breathing) can take your mind off of whatever is making you nervous.
Just breathe in for a count of five through your nose and then breathe out for a count of five through your mouth. Keep doing that 10 times or until you feel yourself start to relax. To dig in a little deeper, learn about Pranayama or yoga breathing, which focuses on breathing techniques to calm and center the mind. In her story, MNN's Jenn Savedge explains that researchers, who wanted to understand the connection, discovered that of the 3,000 neurons that control breathing, roughly 175 of those neurons also control the part of the brain that regulates attention and panic.
So, getting centered with your breathing can keep the panic at bay.
2. Talk to yourself
Psychologist Aviva Oliker, a licensed master social worker in private practice in New York City, often recommends this one to her clients. A practice that's common in children because it helps them stay on task is also good for adults — and for the same reason.
"Self-talk is like putting a spoke into the wheel of a moving bike," she explains. "Telling yourself things like ‘I'm not a fortune teller,' ‘I don't know the future,' ‘I can't control the future,' can stop the freight train of anxiety in its tracks." Instead, she says, focus on what you can do right now, things you can control instead of things you can't.
The Mayo Clinic reminds us that exercise releases endorphins (those are the feel-good brain chemicals) that can help ease anxiety and depression. This can mean hitting the gym, playing a game of tennis or basketball, or something as simple as walking the dog. Anything that gets you off the couch counts as endorphin-releasing exercise. Exercise has the added benefit of helping you get fitter and trimmer, boosting your self-confidence into a new happy place. For me, exercise is just spending 30 minutes outside playing with my kids. And that brings me to my next technique.
4. Take time outdoors
For the time-crunched among us, the best part about this tip and the next one is that you can do them together. Spending time in nature can help relax and calm you. After I come in from playing outside, it helps me put everything else into perspective, knowing a big world exists out there and I'm just a small part of it. Ordinary problems don't seem so big anymore.
Spending time outside can be beneficial for your kids, too. Outdoors activities balance my kids and help them unwind after a long day cooped up in school.
5. Do power poses
This one is helpful not when a panic attack is imminent, but when you experience anxiety before a big interview or confrontation. I attended a lecture based on the viral TED talk given by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School who researched the concept of "faking it till you become it."
The idea is that the power poses help put you in a calm and confident frame of mind. One example? The Wonder Woman pose, in which you stand with your hands on your hips, legs apart, head held high.
You can view Cuddy's full TED talk above.
6. Practice self-care
Oliker the psychiatrist also encourages her clients to do things that simply make them feel good.
"If you find things that make you feel better, like cooking, reading, exercising, or even watching a movie, doing those things once a day or once a week will help keep your anxiety at bay and keep your fears from taking over and becoming larger than life," she says.
If these tactics aren't enough for you, or you feel like the anxiety is just too much or is weighing you down, go see your doctor or a therapist. A therapist can help you parse where the anxiety is coming from. Other alternatives may help you, too, but the bottom line is that no one should suffer unnecessarily.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was first published in October 2014.