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What causes anxiety and how to stop it

woman feeling anxious sitting on a table wringing her hands before getting help at

We all experience anxiety. It’s a natural part of being alive and being human. Anxiety is actually helpful in certain amounts and doses. For some folks, anxiety (or call it nervousness, jitters, worry, etc.) looks like a temporary experience related to a specific situation (like a big test coming up, having to give a presentation, meeting a blind date, going on a job interview, etc.). This level of anxiety can push us to study harder, prepare carefully, take extra care with the way we represent ourselves….it can be helpful.

Anxiety is part of being alive.

For some of us though, anxiety has a much stronger hold. And it can be debilitating. The recent estimate is that 18% of Americans (about 40 million people) have an anxiety disorder, meaning that their anxiety is at such a high level that it impacts their daily life and their experiences.

This type of high anxiety can show up in the form of general anxiety and worry about situations in daily life, or social anxiety about relationships and interactions with others, or panic disorder (having a panic attack and then having an intense fear of having more panic attacks), or phobias of very specific things (flying, getting sick, etc.), and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder).

So why do I have anxiety that's so intense?

Anxiety is a natural response to a potentially dangerous situation. All of us humans are equipped with an anxiety response as a basic survival tool. We see a big angry bear coming our way and anxiety tells us that we need to run. In this scenario, anxiety is helpful and can keep us alive! But those with an anxiety disorder tend to feel high anxiety when there is not any actual danger to their safety. So if this is you, you might feel an intense perceived danger (based on your interpretations and feelings in the moment). There are no bears lumbering your way, but still a visceral fear inside of doom that something will go horribly wrong.

Anxiety is a basic survival tool.

How do I know if I have anxiety?

Anxiety looks different in each person and can even vary for you depending on the situation, but here are some of the most common and frequently experienced symptoms of anxiety:

  • Breathing gets shallow (you’re taking little tiny sips of air) or you might hold your breath without realizing it

  • Dizziness, lightheadedness (due to the shallow breathing)

  • Increased heart rate (pounding or thumping in your chest)

  • Stomach gets upset (nausea, diarrhea, frequent urination, difficulty eating)

  • Headaches

  • Increase or decrease in body temperature

  • Sweating or shaking

  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing or retaining information

  • Not remembering situations with detail (due to being “in your head” worrying)

  • Muscle aches and pains, body tightness (from holding a tense posture)

  • Tearfulness and crying due to overwhelm

  • Thoughts won’t seem to stop or turn off, even if you want them to

  • Keep overthinking about future situations and replaying past situations

  • Irritable, touchy, impatient with yourself and others

  • Insomnia or fitful sleep

  • Body weariness, fatigue (due to poor sleep and the energy spent on constant worry and fear, your body can feel tired a lot).

What can I do about anxiety?

Luckily, there are a lot of ways we can work to better regulate and reduce anxiety. These methods fall into short and long term strategies. In the short term, you will want to calm your body down in the moment. Try some of these in-the-moment techniques to reduce anxiety:

  • Breathing exercise - start with slow, deep breathing. Any easy method to remember is “square” breathing (inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, exhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts). Repeat this until you can feel the oxygen getting into your brain & limbs and things starting to calm down. You can’t control your sweat and jitters right away, but you can control your breathing.

  • Progressive muscle relaxation – start at the top of your body and one by one, tense and release different areas of the body. Bring your shoulders all the way up to your ears, hold it tight for a few seconds, and then release. Then move on to squeezing biceps and then fists and then muscle group at a time. This will send a message to your brain that it’s okay to relax.

  • Water - take deep breaths and splash cold water on your face for 30 seconds. You can also hold an ice pack or cold, wet washcloth on your face. Or take a shower or bath and make it cold if you really need to calm yourself. This method brings your body’s attention away from the perceived fear in your mind and focuses on managing the physical experience instead.

  • Distract yourself - give your brain an entirely different challenge to focus on. Some people find word puzzles or trivia games or number games really helpful here. The brain can only solve one thing at a time. So if you give the brain a different challenge than whatever you are anxious about, it will let your body simmer down from the high alert anxiety response. This allows you to feel in control again and hopefully see the worry situation a little differently.

In high anxiety, we end up feeling paralyzed and we want to avoid situations altogether.

Long-term strategies to manage anxiety are more focused on identifying and changing the core beliefs you have about yourself and the world. These core beliefs (we all have them) are what we use to interpret the various situations we face. And when anxiety is high, the beliefs are usually not accurate or helpful.

When we fall into anxiety, typically we are overestimating how bad something will be, while simultaneously underestimating our ability to manage that outcome. We end up feeling paralyzed and we want to avoid it altogether.

vintage drawing of the human brain because anxiety is normal and treatable at

The negativity bias: you are not crazy. Our brains all have a bias towards negativity and worry, because they are designed to constantly scan the environment for potential danger so that we can avoid harm and stay alive. So negative thoughts and a worrisome outlook are not abnormal, but when they feel out of control, are very intense, or happen all the time, the negativity bias is no longer helpful and needs to be calibrated.

Four of the most common negative thought patterns tend to occur with anxiety:

  • Catastrophizing – you imagine and expect the worst possible scenario, and then feel in your body as if it’s already happening

  • Tunnel vision – you can only focus on the possible negative outcome and are unable to see, imagine, or believe in the possibility of other outcomes.

  • Forecasting (the “crystal ball”) – you predict that things will turn out negatively and believe that these predictions are the only possible truth or are guaranteed

  • Emotional reasoning – your feelings about a situation or yourself seem like they are facts: “I feel like I can’t do it , so I must be incapable.” “I feel like a loser, so I must actually be worthless.” “I feel like they will judge me, so I’m sure they will be judging me or not like me.” “I feel like my boss hates me, so I know I’m getting fired.”

If you are living with anxiety, you may feel an undercurrent of daily worry as if you are on edge, just waiting for the other shoe to drop. The worry part of your brain is in the driver’s seat and steering you to believe that you can’t handle things. So, you may end up feeling paralyzed or stuck and just avoid dealing with things altogether.

Anxiety is highly treatable

The important thing for you to know is that anxiety is highly treatable. With regular effort to manage the physical symptoms and start untwisting from the unhelpful thought patterns, your anxiety can take a backseat and you can feel in control of your life again. Individual therapy, and especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, can also be particularly beneficial if you experience high anxiety.

If you experience intense anxiety and want to better understand yourself and learn new ways to manage anxiety and other emotions, check out my 8-week online course to see if it's a fit for your needs.


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