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I had my first panic attack in 2017.
Dan and I had just gotten married and we were living the dream of traveling full-time while I built a successful freelance career.
Everything was going well – so, why did I find myself in bed, unable to eat, with my mind in a terrible non-stop negative spiral?
It took me more than a year to even put a name – anxiety – on what I was experiencing, and even longer to recognize that anxious thoughts can be managed and to begin learning how to ground myself before they engulfed me again.
If you’re struggling with anxious or intrusive thoughts and want to learn how to ground yourself in moments when your mind is going 1,000 miles an hour, I hope these 11 tips, tools, and practices that I’ve begun to implement in my own life can help you calm your mind as well.
(By the way, I’m not a medical professional and this is not medical advice or a replacement for anxiety or depression medication. I’m just sharing some pactices that have personally helped me reduce anxious thoughts.)
1. Force yourself to be present in the moment.
Easier said than done, right?
One way to calm anxious thoughts is by snapping your brain back to reality and away from the past or future scenarios you’re dwelling on. To do this, I use the 3-3-3 rule that I learned from WebMD and list three things that I hear right now, three things that I feel right now, and three things that I see right now.
This kind of resets my brain and pulls me back into the present moment.
I find it really helpful (especially when done on walks outside) because I realize there’s so much life around me and how grateful I am to be where I am, in this moment, instead of dwelling on worries that may or may not come true.
2. Observe your thoughts rather than react to them.
This is a basic pillar of mindfulness and meditation. After a lot of practice and effort, I’m learning to observe my thoughts rather than immediately react to them.
Maybe you can relate: you’re minding your own business – working, in the shower, wherever – and all of a sudden you get an intrusive thought. Your stomach immediately knots up with anxiety.
Before, that thought would ruin my day or the next few hours at least. I thought that if I had an anxious thought there was nothing I could do to prevent the anxious spiral that always followed, but that’s not the case. Rather than hope the anxious thoughts just never come at all, I’m learning to just not react when they do.
It’s hard, but I can now see my mind start to spiral downward and instead of following it, I simply say “Ok, this thought brings me anxiety, I acknowledge that but I don’t have to continue feeling it or thinking about it.“
Daniel Kahneman, an author and psychologist, has a great quote on the topic: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.” Just looking at the thought from outside rather than being consumed in it makes it feel so much smaller and less powerful than it used to be.
I’ve found that meditating actually helps me more when I do it in a relaxed, good mood rather than when I’m in the throes of an anxiety attack, but everyone is different.
You can find free guided meditations on YouTube and Spotify, or just listen to a relaxing music playlist (there are plenty made specifically for meditating).
Some guided meditations are too new-agey for me and I tend to just go for the ones that focus on breathing rather than, like, envisioning hugging my future self on a beach somewhere.
If you feel the same, I recommend starting with Guided Meditation 1 in the “Finding Tranquility” collection by Erica Rayner-Horn on Spotify. I also recommend listening to it in headphones rather than out loud on a speaker to help you focus more as well.
4. Practice deep breathing with a breathing visual.
If you take a minute to notice your breathing right now, it’s probably pretty fast and shallow.
There’s a reason why “take a deep breath” is such a common line – it helps.
Use a breathing visual (like this one) to sync up your breath and practice deep, calming breaths until you know what they feel like and can begin to do them on your own.
5. Listen to upbeat music.
Studies show that music can affect your mood, and I can confirm this just based on personal experience.
If you find yourself dwelling on the same anxious thoughts over and over and are unable to break the cycle, put on some upbeat music to cheer yourself up!
Again, I have to recommend Spotify (it’s free) to find new artists or listen to your old favorites. I made a playlist of only cheerful songs called Upbeat Travel on Spotify, so if you don’t feel like searching around at the moment, I guarantee listening to it will boost your mood.
6. Go on a walk or to the gym.
Lots of research shows that regular exercise can reduce anxious thoughts and depression in the long term, but I’ve also found that going to the gym can help me stop anxious thoughts in the moment as well.
Just getting out of your room / apartment / office is a good reminder that there’s a whole world out there and your worries aren’t as huge as they may have seemed in a confined space. Plus, sweating on a treadmill and remembering how much you hate to run is a great distraction as well.
After going to the gym or on a long walk I always feel more clear-minded and distant from the thoughts that had seemed so looming and consuming before I went.
7. Remind yourself that there are “moments for everything.”
I read this thought online awhile ago and while I can no longer find (or even remember) where, it’s something I keep in mind.
I remind myself of this most often when I’m trying to sleep and my mind is racing with thoughts about work or future plans. Old me would follow those thoughts in endless circles, and maybe even get up to write down notes in my phone or even start completing the work I’m worried about.
New me doesn’t make that mistake anymore.
Now, I tell myself “there are moments for everything, and this one is for sleeping.” I remind myself that by sleeping now, I’m better preparing myself (by cultivating a well-rested and clear mind) to complete my work or task in the morning than staying up and worrying ever would.
8. Refuse to follow anxious thoughts.
I’ve found that the biggest mistake I can make with anxious thoughts is to try to come up with a solution for the “problem” I’m worrying about.
If I allow myself to validate the worry, I keep thinking about it in circles endlessly. There isn’t (and never will be) and good solution for an anxious, intrusive, often-ridiculous-when-looking-back but oh-so-real in the moment thought pattern.
Instead, the second I realize these are anxious or intrusive thoughts, I’ve learned how to ground myself by actually visualizing holding up a hand in the stop motion and letting the words of the anxious thought run up against them. I tell myself bluntly: “Stop. This is an anxious thought and I will not follow it,” and keep doing this every time the thought arises.
(This tip is best done in tandem with the next one for the best result.)
9. Focus on a future event.
It’s one thing to stop a thought, and another to replace it with a happy one.
When I’m telling a thought to stop and that I won’t follow it, I’ve found the best way to stick to my word is to distract myself with something I’m excited about in the future like an upcoming vacation, a friend’s wedding, or weekend plans.
If you don’t think you have anything exciting in your future, plan it! It can be as simple and free as scheduling a weekend hike on a new trail by your house, texting a friend to meet up for a night of Netflix bingeing, or anything else you like do in your spare time.
Focusing on or planning a future event feels productive and always gets me energized, and I’ve found it’s a great way to distract myself from current anxious thoughts.
10. Pinpoint the real cause behind your anxiety.
Did you get less sleep than usual last night?
Have you spent the day sitting and staring at screens with little other activity?
Are you hungover?
All three of these can cause anxiety (the last one is usually the main culprit for me) and I’ve found that just realizing my anxious thoughts are from sleep deprivation or alcohol helps me remember they’re not real and not to pay them the attention they’re trying to demand.
11. Delete social media apps from your phone.
“Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Theodore Roosevelt said this quote long before social media was born but I think it’s never been more relevant.
Psychology Today reports that “A new study of over 1 million American high school students found that teens who spend more time on screens and less time on non-screen activities like face-to-face socializing, exercise, or homework were psychologically worse off.”
So, ground yourself by taking an extended break from your screen by deleting the social media / reddit / news apps from your phone that you frequent the most. If you can only access them on a desktop, it’ll drastically reduce your time on them.
I also recommend buying a kindle because it’s been a huge help in getting me back into reading. Instead of wasting time scrolling through my phone for hours, I can immediately download any book I want from the library (without getting up off the couch) and have begun to read much more because of this.
Getting lost in a good book rather than comparing yourself to someone you went to high school with is a much healthier way to spend an evening.
These 11 tips have helped me learn how to ground myself in moments of anxiety, and I hope one or two of them can help you as well. If you have any more go-to fixes for anxious thoughts, please share them in the comments below!
Looking for more? Check out the Interesting Reads series to discover five tips for fist time flyers to overcome nervousness, see 16 dogs around the world that’ll definitely make you smile, and much more.