5 Ways to Control Anxiety in the Moment 

It’s that feeling again: the rush of panic, the sweaty palms, the chest tightness and small breaths, the sense that everything is quickly spiraling out of control. Your old friend Anxiety is back. 

When we’re in the midst of it, particularly during a full-on anxiety attack, trying to control anxiety can seem impossible. A lot of this has to do with its vicious feedback loop – our attempt to control the anxiety doesn’t work, which makes us even more anxious because we can’t control it. 

We sat down with Cassie Williams, LCSW, associate director of crisis services at WellPower, to find out about some real tips that can actually help control anxiety in the moment. 

Anxiety vs Nervousness vs Panic – What’s the Difference? 

First, let’s start by defining our terms. When it comes to the world of anxiety there is no shortage of terminology that spans the pop culture – actual clinical spectrum. 

Nervousness is a feeling of worry or agitation, often focused on a particular situation – a big presentation at work or school, a significant life change, waiting for the outcome of a medical appointment. 

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a more general stress response – feelings of dread, fearfulness, tension; often involving sweaty palms, nausea, butterflies in the stomach – which may or may not be tied to a specific situation or event. 

“Whereas nervousness is a response to a stressor, anxiety is more of a persistent state,” Williams explained. “It can come up at any time, not just when you’re prompted by a specific stressor.“ 

What about panic? According to Williams, “panic is a sudden and really intense fear of losing control or impending doom.” Often there are physical sensations that come with a panic attack – shortness of breath, racing heart, dizziness and trembling. These can last just a minute or two, or for hours. 

Anxiety is a Normal Part of Life 

One quick note: Anxiety is a normal part of our life – one that can actually be helpful to us. 

As Williams explained, “If I have this feeling of anxiety about an upcoming work deadline, that can be a motivator to get me going and hit that deadline.” At its best, anxiety can activate our focus and help us recognize a situation as significant – and then treat it accordingly. 

“It doesn’t have to be something that is detrimental or incapacitating. You will experience anxieties – it’s part of life,” said Williams. 

Just because anxiety is a normal part of a full life, though, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. So let’s talk about some tips to control anxiety in the moment. 

How to Control Anxiety Tip #1: Name It 

“When I‘m working with people experiencing anxiety, my number one recommendation is being able to name the anxiety,” said Williams. Paying more attention to our anxiety might feel a bit counterintuitive at first – when we’re experiencing anxiety we want it to go away, so we often try to ignore or avoid it. Unfortunately that can actually make the anxiety stronger. 

“A really good strategy is to name that what you’re experiencing is anxiety, and remind yourself that it’s temporary, that it won’t last forever,” Williams suggested. “If you’ve ever experienced anxiety in the past, it’s something you’ve gotten through and will get through again.” 

How to Control Anxiety Tip #2: Grounding 

In the moment, employing some well-practiced grounding exercises can be helpful in bringing you back to the moment and controlling anxiety. 

“This can be as simple as reminding yourself where you are and what your reality is,” said Williams. “Often times when we’re experiencing anxiety we feel that we are in a threatened position. Try reminding yourself – either in your head or even aloud depending on where you are at the time – ‘I’m in my office, I’m with people who care about me and my well-being, I’m safe right now.’” 

Another grounding technique is to name five things you see, four things you hear, three things you feel, two things you smell, and (if you’re in a place with food) one thing you taste. If going through the five senses seems like too much to keep track of, try just noticing how it feels to have your feet planted firmly on the floor. 

As Williams explained, “Grounding can not only help to reestablish a sense of place and safety, but can also distract you from your anxiety, to allow your mind to focus on something else.” 

How to Control Anxiety Tip #3: Breathe 

When we’re experiencing anxiety, our nervous systems are activated in a stress response. Because our bodies and our minds are so closely linked, doing a simple practice like being intentional about our breathing can help control our anxiety. 

“For many people, breathing exercises are really effective for regulating that nervous system,” explained Williams. “When someone is anxious their nervous system is activated, so doing something like breathing can help bring it back to baseline.” 

What does this look like in practice? In its simplest form, it can mean breathing out more slowly than breathing in. Because of the way our brains and breathing interact, breathing out slowly signals to our brain that we are not in danger and thus ready to relax. 

Another popular technique for controlling anxiety is known as square breathing: 

  • Inhale for four counts 
  • Hold for four counts 
  • Exhale for four counts 
  • Hold for four counts 

Try completing this cycle three times, and keep going if needed. 

How to Control Anxiety Tip #4: Burn It Off 

For many people, grounding and breathing exercises can be very helpful in controlling anxiety; however, for others, it can be even more helpful to “burn off” the anxiety through activity. 

“Some people find that doing an exercise that is going to get your heart rate up can really help get the anxiety out of their bodies – it can help get adrenaline out of the system,” Williams explained. When we are experiencing the flight-or-flight response involved with an activated nervous system – such as during anxiety – our stress hormones are at heightened levels. Doing something physically active like going for a walk, doing a workout, or even squeezing a stress ball can help work through the sense of nervous energy we get from our elevated nervous system. 

Plus, as Williams explained, “when your adrenaline is going, it can be hard to do a relaxation exercise.” So sometimes “burning off” our anxiety can be a necessary first step to controlling it. 

How to Control Anxiety Tip #5: Don’t Make It Worse 

Aside from doing something active like naming, breathing, grounding or burning it off, sometimes the simplest thing we can do is refrain from things that might make our anxiety worse. 

“When your nervous system is feeling activated it can be helpful to avoid things that are stimulating like caffeine, alcohol and other things that are going to continue to stimulate your nervous system even more,” said Williams. 

Caffeine might seem obvious, but alcohol might appear counterintuitive – after all, alcohol is a depressant, right? Yes, and it’s a depressant that also raises our levels of cortisol, a powerful stress hormone. So while consuming alcohol might initially make us feel more relaxed, in the background it’s contributing to some of the physiological processes that underlie our anxiety. Best to stick with herbal tea or sparkling water if you’re feeling anxious. 

Bonus Tip for Controlling Anxiety: Music 

Another strategy for controlling anxiety in the moment is listening to music. This bonus tip for controlling anxiety is highly individualized – music that makes someone feel reassured and relaxed might be another person’s gym anthem. 

“Find something that is going to calm you when you’re experiencing anxiety,” Williams recommended. 

Key Takeaway for Controlling Anxiety in the Moment 

As you may have gleaned, what works for one person might not work for another – and might even exacerbate the experience of anxiety. The key takeaway here is to find what works for you and practice in advance so when anxiety comes for an unexpected visit, you’re already prepared. 

“Prior to having anxiety, when you are in a good place where you’re feeling calm, feeling regulated, it’s important to think through some of the strategies you’d use if you experience anxiety in different situations,” said Williams. “Practice when you’re not experiencing that anxiety, so when and if it hits and your nervous system is flooded, these techniques will kick in by muscle memory, not something you have to bring up in your mind; your body will already know, ‘When I have this feeling here’s what I can do.’ Practice when you’re feeling good.” 

And it doesn’t have to be one technique for every situation. “Think about which of these coping skills could I use when I’m at home, if I’m at work, what could I use if I’m in a meeting with people.” 

Think of this guide like a menu – even better, a tasting menu you can add to with your own dishes – so the next time you find yourself experiencing anxiety, you’re ready to meet it head-on. 

How to Get Help with Anxiety 

Even with the most intentional preparation paired with the most flawless grounding exercises, we can often struggle to get a handle on anxiety. Often times, working with a professional therapist can be life-changing in helping us control anxiety. A therapist or counselor can help us get to the root of what is causing our anxiety, work through past trauma and practice more advanced techniques for managing it in the moment. 

If you feel like therapy might be your next step, or you just want to see what working with a therapist is like before making a longer-term commitment, we’re here for you. Whenever you’re ready, you can connect with a professional therapist or peer counselor in minutes, all online, no appointment needed, through WellPower’s TherapyDirect program. Available for adults in metro Denver and beyond, Monday – Friday, 9:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. at wellpower.org/therapydirect. (Prefer to schedule an appointment so it’s on your calendar? Check out wellpower.org/mytime

Here are some other ways to get help with anxiety in the short and long term. 

Immediate Help 

If you or a loved one need immediate support 24/7/365, contact Colorado Crisis Services: 

  • Text TALK to 38255, or 

For support outside of Colorado, call 988 to be connected to local support based on your area code. 

Free Therapy for Children & Teens 

Colorado’s “I Matter” program offers no-cost virtual therapy for children and teens under 18 years old at imattercolorado.org. This site also offers resources for parents. 

Ongoing Support from WellPower 

If you want to get a handle on your anxiety once and for all, WellPower’s therapists are here to help. Just gives us a call at (303) 504-7900 or find out more at: wellpower.org/access-services