Everyone feels anxious at times. Anxiety can surface when you face a challenge, when the pressure’s on to do well, or when you’ve got a worry on your mind.
Anxiety turns on your body’s stress response (also called fight or flight). This instant surge of stress hormones is a survival response. It prepares you to react quickly and protect yourself if you need to. If you’re scared or not sure you’re safe, anxiety prompts you to be cautious.
But many people feel anxious in situations that are stressful to them but aren't dangerous. For example, they may feel anxious about taking tests, meeting new people, or speaking in class.
If you feel anxious in situations like these, you’re not alone. But it’s best to learn how to cope. Otherwise, anxiety can hold you back or cause you to avoid things you’d like to do.
Instead of avoiding things that prompt anxiety, it’s better to face them. You might be surprised by what you can do. Here are five things that can help you through anxious moments:
- Start with a ‘growth’ mindset. Some people have a fixed mindset. They might think, “This is how I am. I'm too anxious to speak in class. So I don’t raise my hand.” With a fixed mindset, people don’t think things can change. They think they are the way they are, period.
But brain science has shown that you can teach your brain new ways to respond. People with a growth mindset know this. They know they can get better at just about everything — with effort and practice. That includes reducing anxiety.
- Notice how anxiety affects your body. When you’re anxious, do you feel "butterflies" in your stomach? Sweaty palms? Shaky hands? A faster heartbeat? Tight muscles?
These physical feelings are part of your body’s stress response. They can be uncomfortable but they aren't harmful. You can cope. Next time you feel them, try to notice them without getting upset that they’re there. You don’t have to push the feelings away. But you don’t have to give them all your attention either. See if you can let them be in the background.
- Breathe. When you feel anxious, take a few slow breaths. Breathe in slowly. Be sure to breathe out all the way. You can use your fingers to count four or five breaths, in and out.
Taking slow breaths can slow the release of stress hormones. It can help your body and mind feel more at ease. As you guide your attention to your breath, you can pay less attention to anxious thoughts and feelings. Breathing like this can help you feel steady and less anxious.
- Talk yourself through it. When you’re anxious, you might tell yourself things like, “I can’t do this!” or, "What if I mess this up?" or, "This is overwhelming." Instead, plan to tell yourself something that could help you face the moment with a bit of courage like, “I can do this!" or, “It’s OK to feel anxious. I can do this anyway.”
- Face the situation — don’t wait for anxiety to go away. You might think that you’ll put off speaking in class or talking to that new person until you no longer feel anxious about it. But it doesn’t work that way. It’s facing the anxiety that helps you lower it.
Learning to cope with anxiety takes time, patience, and practice. Most of all it takes being willing to face situations that prompt anxiety. Start with one small step. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at lowering anxiety.
As you use these five steps, it can help to get some guidance and support from a parent, school counselor, or a therapist.
And if your anxiety feels extreme or hard to cope with, or if you're feeling anxious about a problem you need help with, tell a parent or another adult you trust. With the right care and support, you can feel less anxious and more confident.