Sweaty palms, jagged nerves, choking insecurity: LEVEL ORANGE. Heart pounding out of your chest: LEVEL RED.
Most of us know what it is to feel like a walking Homeland Security alert system. In fact, an estimated 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders, and millions more face the everyday panic that comes with job interviews, public speaking, entering a party, and other stressful situations. What's surprising, especially to the highly strung, is that we don't have to live with it.
Allow Yourself to Be Nervous
Accept that you're having an anxiety moment. Trying to squelch or deny it will only make it worse—and just focus on what's in front of you, says David Barlow, PhD, founder of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University. If you're at an interview, meeting, or party, listen intently to what the other person is saying. Make eye contact. When it's your turn to speak, be conscious of every word you say.
If you're at your desk, respond to overdue e-mails or tackle the pile in your in-box. Whatever you're doing, take a few deep breaths to help let the anxious thoughts and feelings float on by.
Stop Trying to Be Perfect
"Almost by definition, if you're anxious, you're being overly perfectionistic in the goals you're setting for yourself," Barlow says. "You see all the ways you won't meet them, the thought of failure makes you anxious, and anxiety makes you think the worst."
Look at the hard evidence from past experiences. Honestly, have you ever been laughed out of a job interview or a work presentation for not getting every word just so? "Most of the time, people will see that things went all right, even if they thought they could have done better," says Barlow. "Tell yourself, 'It's extremely unlikely that anything will ever go as badly as I think.'"
Stop Being So Nice
When you find yourself on edge for no obvious reason, it's your body's way of signaling there's a problem you're avoiding, says David Burns, MD, author of When Panic Attacks: The New Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life. Most anxiety-prone people try so hard to be agreeable, he says, that when confronted with an upsetting situation (being denied a promotion though they know they deserve one, for example), they'll sweep their feelings under the rug rather than stand up for themselves.
Look back over the last week or so, he suggests, to see if something like this happened, then take steps to express your thoughts and resolve the situation.
Take a Walk on the Mindful Side "Whether a threat is from a scary thought or an actual danger, your body tenses up," says Jeffrey Brantley, MD, director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at Duke Integrative Medicine and author of Calming Your Anxious Mind.
A walking meditation sends an instant message that it's okay to relax. To begin, turn your attention to your right foot. Slowly start to walk, noting every sensation as your foot lifts up, swings forward, and settles to the floor. Do the same with your left foot, observing and allowing whatever thoughts and feelings arise. Keep moving until you feel the sense of urgency ebb. "Walking like this helps restore balance so you can gain some insight into what's bothering you," says Brantley.
Face Your Fear
If there's a specific activity like public speaking that always makes you break into a cold sweat, try a technique used by cognitive-behavioral therapists: First do something similar but less frightening (making a toast each night at dinner), then gradually move your way through more nerve-racking occasions (giving a toast at a wedding, guest-teaching a class).
"Your fear diminishes with each step," says Martin Antony, PhD, professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Ontario, so by the time you get to the original alarming activity, it will feel less overwhelming. It helps to progress quickly through the list and practice as frequently as possible, he adds: Research shows that this is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety.