How to help anxiety when life is stressing you out

How to help anxiety when life is stressing you out

You have deadline pressures at work. Or your kid is having problems at school. Or a health concern is nagging at you. Suddenly, anxiety has taken over your life. “Anxious thoughts activate the limbic system — the fear center in our brain — and it’s on a hair trigger,” says psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD.

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

How does anxiety build up?

Anxious thoughts chase each other like a dog chasing its tail.

“Imagine a guy who thinks, ‘What if my hair is thinning?’” suggests Dr. Bea. “That creates anxious energy. He feels his head, checks in the mirror and asks his wife, who says, ‘You’ve got a nice head of hair.’

“That feels good for about 20 seconds, until he thinks, ‘She wasn’t really listening to me.’ Next thing you know, he’s online, searching for baldness cures. One of them looks good until he sees its side effects include ED and thinks, ‘That’s no good!’” Now he’s back to square one.

This is one small example of how trying to quell anxiety with reassuring thoughts, or to “fix” anxious thoughts with other thoughts, just doesn’t work.

It’s also exhausting. “Reassuring thoughts are like a short-acting drug; they wear off quickly,” says Dr. Bea.

What should you do if you’re anxious?

So what can you do if you notice yourself feeling anxious? Start by facing your anxiety, advises psychologist Susan Albers-Bowling, PsyD. Then try these 9 ways to calm yourself:

  1. Think of yourself as a firefighter. Put out the flames of anxiety with some cool breaths. Breathe in and out, deeply and slowly. “When you slow down your breathing, you trick your body into thinking you’re relaxing or going to sleep,” she says.
  2. Cool down anxious thoughts. “Thoughts like, ‘I can’t stand this; this is awful!’ fuel the fire of anxiety,” says Dr. Albers. Instead, think about what you can and cannot change about the situation. Then take steps to change what you can, and work on accepting what you can’t.
  3. Get some perspective. Anxiety can stem from needless worry about a lot of things that aren’t important in the long run. “Consider how this will really impact you in five minutes, five months or five years,” she says.
  4. Soothe your system. Try some yoga stretches, or take a tennis ball and rub it under your foot or behind your back. “Find gentle ways to calm your body,” says Dr. Albers.
  5. Talk it out. Research proves that simply naming your feelings can help to calm you down. “This is easier to do when you share your feelings with others,” she notes.
  6. Don’t ignore. Anxiety is like a red flag, telling you that something needs attention. “Don’t ignore this sign — contact a professional to help you through it,” says Dr. Albers.
  7. Rule out other causes. Sometimes medical issues can mask themselves as anxiety or mimic its symptoms. “Don’t forget to get your checkup each year,” she says.
  8. Wait it out. “Sometimes, you just have to let anxiety come and go, like riding a wave,” says Dr. Albers. Remember that it will fade and that “This, too, shall pass.”
  9. Be mindful.Stay in the moment instead of jumping ahead. To bring yourself back to the present, try this 5 senses exercise. Hold your fist out, and extend one finger at a time as you name: 1 thing you can taste; 2 things you can smell; 3 things you can touch right now (your skin against the chair, a soft sweater); 4 things you can hear; and 5 things you can see in the immediate environment.

Adds Dr. Bea, “When you take in a sensory experience, your fear sensations fall away — the chemicals flow out of your body.”

What makes anxiety worse?

Avoid soothing your anxiety with things that can lead to more anxiety, advises Dr. Albers.

“For example, stress eating is like putting a Band-aid® on a gaping wound,” she says. “You want to deal with your anxiety directly.”

Dredging up bad experiences from the past or imagining scary scenarios in the future will just heighten your anxiety. When this happens, realize what you’re doing.

“Remind yourself that bad things happen relatively sparingly and that our brains are well-equipped to handle a crisis, if one occurs,” says Dr. Bea. “Be engaged in your real life, not in imagined moments.”

The best way to begin is to work on developing a new relationship with your thoughts.

“Thoughts are like breezes. They’re not good or bad, they just come and go,” he says. “You don’t have to react to them — ‘Oh, wow,’ works better than ‘Oh, no.’ Being grounded in the present moment, without judgment, is the place to be.”

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

If you deal with anxiety on a regular basis, medication doesn’t have to be your only treatment.

To calm your mind and cut stress, try working these self-care tips into your daily routine:

Move your body. Exercise is an important part of physical — and mental — health. It can ease your feelings of anxiety and boost your sense of well-being. Shoot for three to five 30-minute workout sessions a week. Be sure to choose exercises you enjoy so you look forward to them.

Pay attention to sleep. Both quality and quantity are important for good sleep. Doctors recommend an average of 8 hours of shut-eye a night. If anxiety is making it hard for you to fall asleep, create a routine to help you catch your ZZZs:

  • Leave screens behind before you hit the hay.
  • Try to stick to a schedule.
  • Be sure your bed is comfy.
  • Keep your room’s temperature on the cool side.

Ease up on caffeine and alcohol. Both caffeine, which is an “upper,” and alcohol, which is a “downer,” can make anxiety kick into overdrive. Cut back or avoid them if you can. Remember, coffee and soda aren’t the only things with caffeine. It can also pop up in:

  • Diet pills
  • Some headache medicines
  • Chocolate
  • Tea

Schedule your worry time. It may sound backward to plan to worry, but doctors actually recommend that you pick a time to think about your fears on purpose. Take 30 minutes to identify what’s bothering you and what you can do about it. Have your “worry session” at the same time every day. Don’t dwell on “what-ifs.” Focus on what actually makes you anxious.

Breathe deep. It sends a message to your brain that you’re OK. That helps your mind and body relax. To get the most out of it, lie down on a flat surface and put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Take a slow breath in. Make sure it fills your belly enough that you can feel it rise slightly. Hold it for a second, then slowly let it out.

Continued

Be the boss of your thoughts. Try to turn any negative thoughts into positive ones. Picture yourself facing your fears head-on. The more you do this in your mind, the easier it will be to deal with it when it happens.

Tame tense muscles. Relax them with this simple exercise: Choose a muscle group, tighten it for a few seconds, then let go. Focus on one section at a time and work through your whole body. This is sometimes called progressive muscle relaxation.

Help out in your community. Spend time doing good things for others. It can help you get out of your head. Volunteer or do other work in your community. Not only will it feel good to give back, you’ll make connections that can be a support system for you, too.

Look for triggers. Think of times and places where you notice yourself feeling most anxious. Write them down, if you need to. Look for patterns and work on ways you can either avoid or confront the feelings of panic and worry. If you know the causes of your anxiety, that can help you put your worries into perspective. Next time, you’ll be better prepared when it affects you.

How to help anxiety when life is stressing you out

While it’s normal to get nervous about an important event or life change, about 40 million Americans live with an anxiety disorder, which is more than the occasional worry or fear. Anxiety disorders can range from a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which is intense worrying that you can’t control, to panic disorder — sudden episodes of fear, along with heart palpitations, trembling, shaking, or sweating.

For those with an anxiety disorder, it’s important to look into strategies that can help manage or reduce anxiety in the long term, like talk therapy or medication. But everyone can benefit from other ways to reduce stress and anxiety with lifestyle changes such as eating a well-balanced diet, limiting alcohol and caffeine, and taking time for yourself.

Plus, there are steps you can take the moment when anxiety starts to take hold. Try these 10 expert-backed suggestions to relax your mind and help you regain control of your thoughts.

1. Stay in your time zone.

Anxiety is a future-oriented state of mind. So instead of worrying about what’s going to happen, “reel yourself back to the present,” says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety. Ask yourself: What’s happening right now? Am I safe? Is there something I need to do right now? If not, make an “appointment” to check in with yourself later in the day to revisit your worries so those distant scenarios don’t throw you off track, she says.

2. Relabel what’s happening.

Panic attacks can often make you feel like you’re dying or having a heart attack. Remind yourself: “I’m having a panic attack, but it’s harmless, it’s temporary, and there’s nothing I need to do,” Chansky says. Plus, keep in mind it really is the opposite of a sign of impending death — your body is activating its fight-or-flight response, the system that’s going to keep you alive, she says.

3. Fact-check your thoughts.

People with anxiety often fixate on worst-case scenarios, Chansky says. To combat these worries, think about how realistic they are. Say you’re nervous about a big presentation at work. Rather than think, “I’m going to bomb,” for example, say, “I’m nervous, but I’m prepared. Some things will go well, and some may not,” she suggests. Getting into a pattern of rethinking your fears helps train your brain to come up with a rational way to deal with your anxious thoughts.

4. Breathe in and out.

Deep breathing helps you calm down. While you may have heard about specific breathing exercises, you don’t need to worry about counting out a certain number of breaths, Chansky says. Instead just focus on evenly inhaling and exhaling. This will help slow down and re-center your mind, she says.

5. Follow the 3-3-3 rule.

Look around you and name three things you see. Then, name three sounds you hear. Finally, move three parts of your body — your ankle, fingers, or arm. Whenever you feel your brain going 100 miles per hour, this mental trick can help center your mind, bringing you back to the present moment, Chansky says.

6. Just do something.

Stand up, take a walk, throw away a piece of trash from your desk — any action that interrupts your train of thought helps you regain a sense of control, Chansky suggests.

7. Stand up straight.

“When we are anxious, we protect our upper body — where our heart and lungs are located — by hunching over,” Chansky says. For an immediate physical antidote to this natural reaction, pull your shoulders back, stand or sit with your feet apart, and open your chest. This helps your body start to sense that it’s back in control, she says.

8. Stay away from sugar.

It may be tempting to reach for something sweet when you’re stressed, but that chocolate bar can do more harm than good, as research shows that eating too much sugar can worsen anxious feelings. Instead of reaching into the candy bowl, drink a glass of water or eat protein, Chansky says, which will provide a slow energy your body can use to recover.

9. Ask for a second opinion.

Call or text a friend or family member and run through your worries with them, Chansky says. “Saying them aloud to someone else can help you see them clearly for what they are.” It can also help to write your fears on paper.

10. Watch a funny video.

This final tactic may be the easiest one yet: Cue up clips of your favorite comedian or funny TV show. Laughing is a good prescription for an anxious mind, Chansky says. Research shows that laughter has lots of benefits for our mental health and well-being; one study found that humor could help lower anxiety as much as (or even more than) exercise can.

Sources

Tamar Chansky, PhD.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

How to help anxiety when life is stressing you out

You might think of stress as good or bad. Planning a wedding? Good stress, right? Losing your job? Bad stress. But that’s not exactly the right way to look at it.

“Stress is just our body’s natural way of responding to demanding circumstances. It’s a programmed neurobiological response,” Vaile Wright, Ph.D., senior director for health care innovation at the American Psychological Association, told TODAY Health. You can feel stress about positive events or negative events.

“What the stress is telling us is the degree to which these things are important to us,” Wright said. “It’s not like there’s good stress and bad stress. There’s just stress and then how we manage it.”

How to help anxiety when life is stressing you out

New study reveals physical impacts of pandemic stress

Ideally, you want a Goldilocks level of stress — not too little and not too much. “That moderate level of stress leads to optimal or peak performance,” Jennifer Beckjord, Psy.D., senior director of clinical services at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Psychiatric Hospital, told TODAY.

Too little stress? You might feel less challenged and motivated.

Too much stress? You might feel overwhelmed, distracted, unsettled or anxious.

“Under moderate stress, we can feel more physiologically and physically charged up. We might feel a more heightened sense of clarity and alertness and feel more motivation to perform well,” Beckjord said.

Related

Health & Wellness How’s your mental health? 1 year into pandemic, experts offer advice

Remember that stress brings valuable life benefits

“Stress can lead to increased resilience, and an ability to manage and respond to life stressors and to adaptively manage life situations in general,” Beckjord said.

Even in a stressful situation like losing a loved one, you can find things you can learn or changes you can make. “That’s really where we find that beneficial things happen as a result of stress — when we can take those moments of stress and learn from them and grow from them,” Beckjord said.

Stress can give you an increased ability to tolerate and adapt to life’s challenges and changes. It can give you self-confidence in your ability to manage the next stressful event you face. It can also make you more comfortable in taking reasonable risks that might lead to personal and professional growth.

Reframe how you perceive stress

Try to reframe stress as something that can be helpful. You might perceive losing your job as negative. “But sometimes losing your job can be the catalyst that you need to spur you on to doing what you really wanted to do,” Wright said. “How we interpret events is really the critical component. If you’re always thinking from this lens that it’s bad, then it’s always going to be bad.”

Beckjord agreed. “Once you start perceiving stress as something negative, it can quickly devolve into catastrophizing about it and leading to that feeling of overwhelm and that fight, flight or freeze response,” she said.

If you can think of it as something temporary, something you’ve overcome before, and your body’s way of telling you to pay attention, stress doesn’t feel so negative.

Related

Health & Wellness How to calm down: 3 ways to reduce anxiety and stress

Focus on the things you can control

“It’s really important to cognitively shift to focusing on what you have control over in a given situation. That can help keep stress in that kind of moderate, manageable level,” Beckjord said.

Take climate change, for example. “There are lots of things related to climate change that are out of our control. We don’t set the laws, and we can’t control the companies. But what we can do is recycle. We can use a hybrid car. We can support politicians and companies that are engaged in climate change,” Wright said. Focusing on what you can control gives you more agency and less of a sense of hopelessness.

Related

Health & Wellness Stressed? This 7-step plan will help you respond better

Here’s what to do when stress gets to be too much

Stress at a constant high level is not helpful or beneficial. So, as much as possible, you want to take steps to reduce chronic stress and give yourself breaks in between stressful events or situations:

  • Cover the basics — eat right, drink enough water, get enough sleep and make time for the things you enjoy doing.
  • If you’re feeling stress physically — you grit your teeth, tense your muscles or have headaches — try stress-reduction techniques like walking and diaphragmatic breathing to reduce that physical response.
  • If you’re feeling emotionally stressed — you’re overwhelmed or facing the fight, flight or freeze response — try self-soothing activities, stay socially connected, connect spiritually, meditate or listen to music.
  • Know what’s right for you. “Some people are naturally more resilient and can respond more effectively to stressors, where others may require more learned skills,” Beckjord said. Moderate doses of stress, over time and with breaks, can build that resilience.

Stephanie Thurrott is a writer who covers mental health, personal growth, wellness, family, food and personal finance, and dabbles in just about any other topic that grabs her attention. When she’s not writing, look for her out walking her dog or riding her bike in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.

How to help anxiety when life is stressing you out

You might think of stress as good or bad. Planning a wedding? Good stress, right? Losing your job? Bad stress. But that’s not exactly the right way to look at it.

“Stress is just our body’s natural way of responding to demanding circumstances. It’s a programmed neurobiological response,” Vaile Wright, Ph.D., senior director for health care innovation at the American Psychological Association, told TODAY Health. You can feel stress about positive events or negative events.

“What the stress is telling us is the degree to which these things are important to us,” Wright said. “It’s not like there’s good stress and bad stress. There’s just stress and then how we manage it.”

How to help anxiety when life is stressing you out

New study reveals physical impacts of pandemic stress

Ideally, you want a Goldilocks level of stress — not too little and not too much. “That moderate level of stress leads to optimal or peak performance,” Jennifer Beckjord, Psy.D., senior director of clinical services at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Psychiatric Hospital, told TODAY.

Too little stress? You might feel less challenged and motivated.

Too much stress? You might feel overwhelmed, distracted, unsettled or anxious.

“Under moderate stress, we can feel more physiologically and physically charged up. We might feel a more heightened sense of clarity and alertness and feel more motivation to perform well,” Beckjord said.

Related

Health & Wellness How’s your mental health? 1 year into pandemic, experts offer advice

Remember that stress brings valuable life benefits

“Stress can lead to increased resilience, and an ability to manage and respond to life stressors and to adaptively manage life situations in general,” Beckjord said.

Even in a stressful situation like losing a loved one, you can find things you can learn or changes you can make. “That’s really where we find that beneficial things happen as a result of stress — when we can take those moments of stress and learn from them and grow from them,” Beckjord said.

Stress can give you an increased ability to tolerate and adapt to life’s challenges and changes. It can give you self-confidence in your ability to manage the next stressful event you face. It can also make you more comfortable in taking reasonable risks that might lead to personal and professional growth.

Reframe how you perceive stress

Try to reframe stress as something that can be helpful. You might perceive losing your job as negative. “But sometimes losing your job can be the catalyst that you need to spur you on to doing what you really wanted to do,” Wright said. “How we interpret events is really the critical component. If you’re always thinking from this lens that it’s bad, then it’s always going to be bad.”

Beckjord agreed. “Once you start perceiving stress as something negative, it can quickly devolve into catastrophizing about it and leading to that feeling of overwhelm and that fight, flight or freeze response,” she said.

If you can think of it as something temporary, something you’ve overcome before, and your body’s way of telling you to pay attention, stress doesn’t feel so negative.

Related

Health & Wellness How to calm down: 3 ways to reduce anxiety and stress

Focus on the things you can control

“It’s really important to cognitively shift to focusing on what you have control over in a given situation. That can help keep stress in that kind of moderate, manageable level,” Beckjord said.

Take climate change, for example. “There are lots of things related to climate change that are out of our control. We don’t set the laws, and we can’t control the companies. But what we can do is recycle. We can use a hybrid car. We can support politicians and companies that are engaged in climate change,” Wright said. Focusing on what you can control gives you more agency and less of a sense of hopelessness.

Related

Health & Wellness Stressed? This 7-step plan will help you respond better

Here’s what to do when stress gets to be too much

Stress at a constant high level is not helpful or beneficial. So, as much as possible, you want to take steps to reduce chronic stress and give yourself breaks in between stressful events or situations:

  • Cover the basics — eat right, drink enough water, get enough sleep and make time for the things you enjoy doing.
  • If you’re feeling stress physically — you grit your teeth, tense your muscles or have headaches — try stress-reduction techniques like walking and diaphragmatic breathing to reduce that physical response.
  • If you’re feeling emotionally stressed — you’re overwhelmed or facing the fight, flight or freeze response — try self-soothing activities, stay socially connected, connect spiritually, meditate or listen to music.
  • Know what’s right for you. “Some people are naturally more resilient and can respond more effectively to stressors, where others may require more learned skills,” Beckjord said. Moderate doses of stress, over time and with breaks, can build that resilience.

Stephanie Thurrott is a writer who covers mental health, personal growth, wellness, family, food and personal finance, and dabbles in just about any other topic that grabs her attention. When she’s not writing, look for her out walking her dog or riding her bike in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.

  • facebook
  • twitter
  • linkedin

Carly Snyder, MD is a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist who combines traditional psychiatry with integrative medicine-based treatments.

How to help anxiety when life is stressing you out

B. Blue / Getty Images

Do you wonder if you may worry too much? And how much anxiety is officially “too much?” To answer these questions, you may need to deepen your understanding of stress and anxiety, and how they help and hurt you.

Why Worry?

Stress and anxiety actually do have their functions if they’re not experienced in excess. They push us to make necessary changes in our lives. They signal when we may be in danger, and inspire us to take action to get ourselves out of danger. (This danger can be any type of threat to our physical or emotional well-being, from not doing well on a test to losing a job to losing a friend.) In this way, feelings of stress and anxiety are healthy and necessary; without them, we may not act in our own best interest.

How Much Stress and Anxiety Is Too Much?

The point at which worry and anxiety become unhealthy is when they immobilize us rather than inspire us to act.

Whether we’re worried about things in the future, or so stressed and anxious we can’t move forward, the stress takes a toll on our minds and bodies, and affects our health. Excessive or unmanaged anxiety can become unhealthy if it takes the form of an anxiety disorder, for example.

Dealing With Anxiety

So now that you understand the nature of stress and anxiety a little better, we can focus on eliminating them. The best remedy for anxiety is self-examination and action. Here are some easy steps to follow:

  1. First, look inside. What is causing you to worry? Ask yourself this question and think carefully about your answer. Be specific. (For some situations, this may be readily apparent; other times, you may really have to think about it.) Writing in a journal or talking to a friend about it can help you sort out your feelings.
  2. Then, decide what action, if any, should be taken. Try to figure out what part of the situation is under your control. Assess the problem to see whether the threat is real, or if you are blowing it out of proportion. If the problem is just a hypothetical situation or a worst-case scenario, decide if it is really likely that your fears will actually come to fruition.
  3. Next, come up with a plan that tackles the part of the problem that is under your control. Taking action to protect yourself is a good way to channel nervous energy and provides reassurance against your fears. It is, in most cases, the healthiest response to realistic fears and worries. You may not be able to fix the entire problem, but even taking some steps toward improving your situation can significantly minimize your anxiety.
  4. Once you have done all you can, just let it go. Like everything in life, this is easier said than done, but with practice, you can get pretty adept at letting go of excessive levels of stress and anxiety. You can do this by focusing on something else, reminding yourself of the solutions you have worked on, or trying some stress management strategies that can help you feel more centered and at peace, such as prayer or meditation, journaling about your feelings, or listening to music. Getting regular exercise has been found to be especially helpful in combating the physical effects of anxiety and stress.

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

If you still find yourself concerned on a constant basis, you may want to talk to someone about it, either a friend or a professional, depending on how severe your worry is and how much it is affecting your overall stress level.

If you deal with anxiety on a regular basis, medication doesn’t have to be your only treatment.

To calm your mind and cut stress, try working these self-care tips into your daily routine:

Move your body. Exercise is an important part of physical — and mental — health. It can ease your feelings of anxiety and boost your sense of well-being. Shoot for three to five 30-minute workout sessions a week. Be sure to choose exercises you enjoy so you look forward to them.

Pay attention to sleep. Both quality and quantity are important for good sleep. Doctors recommend an average of 8 hours of shut-eye a night. If anxiety is making it hard for you to fall asleep, create a routine to help you catch your ZZZs:

  • Leave screens behind before you hit the hay.
  • Try to stick to a schedule.
  • Be sure your bed is comfy.
  • Keep your room’s temperature on the cool side.

Ease up on caffeine and alcohol. Both caffeine, which is an “upper,” and alcohol, which is a “downer,” can make anxiety kick into overdrive. Cut back or avoid them if you can. Remember, coffee and soda aren’t the only things with caffeine. It can also pop up in:

  • Diet pills
  • Some headache medicines
  • Chocolate
  • Tea

Schedule your worry time. It may sound backward to plan to worry, but doctors actually recommend that you pick a time to think about your fears on purpose. Take 30 minutes to identify what’s bothering you and what you can do about it. Have your “worry session” at the same time every day. Don’t dwell on “what-ifs.” Focus on what actually makes you anxious.

Breathe deep. It sends a message to your brain that you’re OK. That helps your mind and body relax. To get the most out of it, lie down on a flat surface and put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Take a slow breath in. Make sure it fills your belly enough that you can feel it rise slightly. Hold it for a second, then slowly let it out.

Continued

Be the boss of your thoughts. Try to turn any negative thoughts into positive ones. Picture yourself facing your fears head-on. The more you do this in your mind, the easier it will be to deal with it when it happens.

Tame tense muscles. Relax them with this simple exercise: Choose a muscle group, tighten it for a few seconds, then let go. Focus on one section at a time and work through your whole body. This is sometimes called progressive muscle relaxation.

Help out in your community. Spend time doing good things for others. It can help you get out of your head. Volunteer or do other work in your community. Not only will it feel good to give back, you’ll make connections that can be a support system for you, too.

Look for triggers. Think of times and places where you notice yourself feeling most anxious. Write them down, if you need to. Look for patterns and work on ways you can either avoid or confront the feelings of panic and worry. If you know the causes of your anxiety, that can help you put your worries into perspective. Next time, you’ll be better prepared when it affects you.

How to help anxiety when life is stressing you out

When you’re dating, anxiety is the ultimate third wheel: You overanalyze everything you say on dates ― that is, the ones you actually go on and don’t cancel at the last minute.

It doesn’t necessarily get easier when you’ve gotten past the dating phase and are ready to get serious: You want to commit, but worry that your anxiety might sabotage an otherwise great relationship.

It doesn’t have to, though. Below, therapists share six ways to keep your anxiety in check during the beginning of a relationship and as it progresses.

1. Practice vulnerability in stages.

True intimacy is letting someone in and giving them access to parts of yourself that you hide away from the rest of the world. When you have anxiety, though, you might worry that exposing the messy, real, complicated side of yourself might make your S.O. like you less.

Don’t fall prey to that kind of thinking: If this person loves you, they’ll love all sides of you.

“Plus, you don’t have to share your deepest, darkest feelings all at once,” said psychologist Stacey Rosenfeld. “Experiment with small ‘exposures,’ exercises where you try out being vulnerable with your partner and, as your confidence builds, work toward increased vulnerability over time. Fears associated with vulnerability should lessen with increased exposure.”

2. Clearly communicate your expectations.

How to help anxiety when life is stressing you out

Anyone who has anxiety has gotten stuck in thought loops: Those unwanted, repetitive thoughts you can’t seem to escape even if you know they’re silly. That kind of thinking is particularly damaging in relationships. For example, maybe your girlfriend doesn’t call you after work a few nights in a row like she usually does. Stuck in a thought loop, you figure she’s bored with you when the truth is that she’s on a project deadline.

You don’t want to constantly ask your partner for reassurance, but when something is continually bothering you, talk about it. Say, “I know you’re busy, but I really look forward to your calls in the evening. When I don’t hear from you, my mind gets stuck in a story that you’re sick of me.”

“The person with the anxious mind ruminates,” said Jenny Yip, a psychologist based in Los Angeles. “Most people with anxiety will ruminate and imagine the worst possible thing happening. Rather than dooming your relationship, clarify and communicate what your expectations are from the start so that your mind doesn’t have to ruminate to the worst possible places.”

3. Separate your “anxious self” from your “true self.”

Him: will you marry me?
Me: are you mad at me?

A wise man on Twitter once said, “Anxiety is literally just conspiracy theories about yourself.” Don’t let that negative self-talk sabotage your relationships. Instead of listening to your anxious inner voice, listen to your true voice, said Jennifer Rollin, a psychotherapist in North Potomac, Maryland.

“Your ‘anxious self’ may tell you things like, ‘If you open up to him about your anxiety and going to therapy, he will leave or think you are unstable,‘” she said. “That’s because you have anxiety, your mind often comes up with a variety of scenarios that often are not true. It can be helpful to practice speaking back from your ‘true self.’”

If your true self is speaking, it will probably say something far more comforting, like: “Going to therapy doesn’t mean you’re crazy, it means you’re taking proactive steps to becoming the best version of yourself.”

“And worst-case scenario, if he does think it makes you crazy, it says a lot about him and nothing about you,” Rollin said. “You deserve to be with someone who doesn’t judge you.”

How to help anxiety when life is stressing you out

You might think of stress as good or bad. Planning a wedding? Good stress, right? Losing your job? Bad stress. But that’s not exactly the right way to look at it.

“Stress is just our body’s natural way of responding to demanding circumstances. It’s a programmed neurobiological response,” Vaile Wright, Ph.D., senior director for health care innovation at the American Psychological Association, told TODAY Health. You can feel stress about positive events or negative events.

“What the stress is telling us is the degree to which these things are important to us,” Wright said. “It’s not like there’s good stress and bad stress. There’s just stress and then how we manage it.”

How to help anxiety when life is stressing you out

New study reveals physical impacts of pandemic stress

Ideally, you want a Goldilocks level of stress — not too little and not too much. “That moderate level of stress leads to optimal or peak performance,” Jennifer Beckjord, Psy.D., senior director of clinical services at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Psychiatric Hospital, told TODAY.

Too little stress? You might feel less challenged and motivated.

Too much stress? You might feel overwhelmed, distracted, unsettled or anxious.

“Under moderate stress, we can feel more physiologically and physically charged up. We might feel a more heightened sense of clarity and alertness and feel more motivation to perform well,” Beckjord said.

Related

Health & Wellness How’s your mental health? 1 year into pandemic, experts offer advice

Remember that stress brings valuable life benefits

“Stress can lead to increased resilience, and an ability to manage and respond to life stressors and to adaptively manage life situations in general,” Beckjord said.

Even in a stressful situation like losing a loved one, you can find things you can learn or changes you can make. “That’s really where we find that beneficial things happen as a result of stress — when we can take those moments of stress and learn from them and grow from them,” Beckjord said.

Stress can give you an increased ability to tolerate and adapt to life’s challenges and changes. It can give you self-confidence in your ability to manage the next stressful event you face. It can also make you more comfortable in taking reasonable risks that might lead to personal and professional growth.

Reframe how you perceive stress

Try to reframe stress as something that can be helpful. You might perceive losing your job as negative. “But sometimes losing your job can be the catalyst that you need to spur you on to doing what you really wanted to do,” Wright said. “How we interpret events is really the critical component. If you’re always thinking from this lens that it’s bad, then it’s always going to be bad.”

Beckjord agreed. “Once you start perceiving stress as something negative, it can quickly devolve into catastrophizing about it and leading to that feeling of overwhelm and that fight, flight or freeze response,” she said.

If you can think of it as something temporary, something you’ve overcome before, and your body’s way of telling you to pay attention, stress doesn’t feel so negative.

Related

Health & Wellness How to calm down: 3 ways to reduce anxiety and stress

Focus on the things you can control

“It’s really important to cognitively shift to focusing on what you have control over in a given situation. That can help keep stress in that kind of moderate, manageable level,” Beckjord said.

Take climate change, for example. “There are lots of things related to climate change that are out of our control. We don’t set the laws, and we can’t control the companies. But what we can do is recycle. We can use a hybrid car. We can support politicians and companies that are engaged in climate change,” Wright said. Focusing on what you can control gives you more agency and less of a sense of hopelessness.

Related

Health & Wellness Stressed? This 7-step plan will help you respond better

Here’s what to do when stress gets to be too much

Stress at a constant high level is not helpful or beneficial. So, as much as possible, you want to take steps to reduce chronic stress and give yourself breaks in between stressful events or situations:

  • Cover the basics — eat right, drink enough water, get enough sleep and make time for the things you enjoy doing.
  • If you’re feeling stress physically — you grit your teeth, tense your muscles or have headaches — try stress-reduction techniques like walking and diaphragmatic breathing to reduce that physical response.
  • If you’re feeling emotionally stressed — you’re overwhelmed or facing the fight, flight or freeze response — try self-soothing activities, stay socially connected, connect spiritually, meditate or listen to music.
  • Know what’s right for you. “Some people are naturally more resilient and can respond more effectively to stressors, where others may require more learned skills,” Beckjord said. Moderate doses of stress, over time and with breaks, can build that resilience.

Stephanie Thurrott is a writer who covers mental health, personal growth, wellness, family, food and personal finance, and dabbles in just about any other topic that grabs her attention. When she’s not writing, look for her out walking her dog or riding her bike in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.