Before you can control your anxiety, it is important to understand what anxiety is and how it works. Anxiety is not necessarily always a negative emotion; in fact, it can be essential to our survival by making us alert and ready for action. "Anxiety is a signal of danger, and it is essential to survival," says Mark I. Levy, M.D., F.A.P.A., chairman of the San Francisco Foundation for Psychoanalysis. "Without it, you'd cross the street without concern about being hit by a car. Anxiety becomes a problem when it interferes with your life and dictates your decisions. It's the smoke detector going off when there's no smoke."
Fear--fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of change--can often be the fuel that feeds the fire of anxiety. Facing your fears will help you control your anxiety. "I like to think of the word 'fear' as an acronym for False Expectations Appearing Real," says Harold Bloomfield, M.D., author of 17 books, including "Healing Anxiety Naturally" (HarperCollins, 1999) and "Making Peace With Your Past: The 6 Essential Steps to Enjoy a Great Future" (HarperCollins, 2000). "Anxious people sometimes fear falling apart. One of the most harmful dangers of anxiety is the fear that change is catastrophic. Recognize that fear can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and replace it with positive thoughts and imagery."
If anxiety has disrupted your ability to function in your daily life, then experts such as Bloomfield recommend that you consult a physician immediately. Here are tips to help you cope with mild to moderate anxiety:
Listen to your body. Anxiety takes a toll on our physiology, so look for the symptoms of anxiety in your body. "Anxiety causes our body to produce adrenaline, and excessive anxiety can lead to excessive amount of adrenaline, which can lead to real physical illnesses when prolonged," Bloomfield says. "When your anxiety juices are chronically going, you can tear the muscle fibers in your heart, and chronic or excessive anxiety can also produce cortisol, which can kill your brain cells. Excessive anxiety can actually make you stupider."
Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. These substances can all raise your level of anxiety.
Laugh a little. Laughter can help you feel better by replacing negative emotions with positive ones.
Get plenty of sleep. "The symptoms of anxiety are exacerbated when we're not physically up to par," says Jerilyn Ross, M.A., L.I.C.S.W., president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America in Rockville, Md., and author of "Triumph Over Fear" (Bantam Books, 1995). "If you're tired, then you're more vulnerable to anxiety, so get enough sleep."
Avoid excessive worrying. "Separate the real information from catastrophic thoughts," Ross says. "If you are anxious about giving a speech, you want to normalize the situation and do things to enhance your chances of being effective, such as be well-prepared, practice your speech, and be organized."
Exercise regularly. Twenty to 30 minutes of cardio can help release endorphins and diffuse feelings of anxiety.
Pace yourself. Don't take more responsibility than you can handle and don't feel the need to immediately respond to every interruption--every phone call, every e-mail, or every request--that disrupts your day. "Anxiety is accelerating because we feel we're constantly trying to catch up to our work and responsibilities," Bloomfield says. "Organize your work and your day to reduce the potential for anxiety."
Release your anxiety in writing. Putting your feelings of anxiety down on paper will help you put them in perspective. "Writing your feelings of anxiety in a journal is literally emptying your emotional trash," Bloomfield says. "Write honest, nonjudgmental statements such as 'I feel anxiety when--,' 'I feel scared when--,' 'I dread having to--,' or 'I am insecure when--.' Writing these emotions down will help you recognize and release them."
Make personal time to relax. Anxiety can occur when we feel overwhelmed by responsibility. Relieve some of your daily responsibility by taking a break from stress. "We treat ourselves like machines, and we become human doings rather than human beings," Bloomfield says. "I call it becoming a 'role-bot' when we get caught up in our role instead of our humanity. Take time to do things that make you happy. Learn the habits of emotional freedom. Meditate. Relax. Take a moment in your day to do absolutely nothing and don't feel guilty about it. Daydream. Cultivate your imagination. These habits can help you alleviate anxiety."
Listen to music. Listening to your favorite music can help calm you and re-establish the positive rhythm of life.