SOS! I'm feeling anxious — what can I do? : Life Kit Anxiety can feel awful and overwhelming. But it can also be a helpful warning signal — telling us when we're in danger or out of alignment with our true feelings. We share tips on how to turn down the dial on your anxiety symptoms, so you can listen to what they're trying to tell you.

SOS! I'm feeling anxious — what can I do?

SOS! I'm feeling anxious — what can I do?

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Kaz Fantone/NPR
Illustration of five faces in profile with a gradient of emotions. The leftmost face is the most anxious, with fire bursting out of their head and exclamation points ringing out in their head. Each following face becomes more calm.
Kaz Fantone/NPR

As bad as it feels, anxiety is essential, says psychotherapist Britt Frank. "It's awful, but imagine not having it?"

Anxiety is a helpful warning signal, says Frank, the author of The Science of Stuck. "Imagine the state of our lives and relationships if we didn't have that little feeling inside us going, 'Ah, don't go there. Don't do that.' So it's awful, but we need it." Frank says anxiety is how our body can signal to us when we're in danger or out of alignment with our true feelings.

But when anxiety hits, it's hard to remember its importance. In her book, Frank outlines interventions to help dial down your stress for those moments. "None of these interventions are going to magic your way out of a stressful environment or a difficult job or a financial situation," she says. But they can "take your brain from being on fire, where you can't think at all" to a place where you can access more choices.

Name things that make you feel safe

If you're feeling overwhelmed, Frank advises asking yourself, "What are some things that help me feel safer?"

It could be a person you feel comfortable around, a warm cup of tea or a TV show you love rewatching because you already know what will happen. "A lot of people will find that watching the same things over and over or listening to the same song over and over is comforting."

Once you have your list of people or activities that make you feel safe, Frank says to pick one off the list and do it.

Use your senses to ground yourself

Try naming five things you can hear, taste, touch, smell or feel, says Frank. You can also try splashing your face with cold water. Frank says that smelling something strong like lavender can help too.

These strategies help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which can allow the body to relax. "That way, the part of your brain responsible for logic and executive functioning can come back online."

Acknowledge your physical sensations

Naming how you feel physically when anxious can help "dial down the intensity," says Frank.

For example, let's say you feel anxiety in your stomach. Frank says to notice that "your stomach feels like it's on fire and it's tight." Then, pick a part of your body that is not in active pain. "Notice your left ear, and notice that your left ear is feeling neutral or nothing," she says.

Next, alternate attention between the place in your body where you feel pain and the place where you do not feel pain.

This mindfulness technique can help you tolerate or even reduce your pain, says Frank. "We're trying to help your body understand that it's not globally feeling terrible."

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Margaret Cirino and edited by Meghan Keane.

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