10 Effective Coping Skills for Anxiety

In Education, Emotional Health, Mental Health, Self-Care, Wellness by Courtney ArcherLeave a Comment

While there is a wide range of coping skills available to cope with distress and illness, not all of them are tailored specifically to anxiety. These coping skills for anxiety are specific and targeted to help with feelings of fear, nervousness, and uncertainty.

After all, if you are feeling restless and uneasy, it might not be the best thing to soak in the tub. Maybe that would be soothing, or maybe it would give your concerns way too much availability to run amuck through your mind.

Similarly, a breathing meditation also might not give your brain the outlet it needs to get some distance from your anxious thoughts. This is not to say that breathing meditations will not work for people experiencing anxiety, just that effective anxiety coping skills tend to be the ones that redirect your current experience.

With that in mind, the coping skills for anxiety listed below are meant to give you some space from your thoughts and emotions.

Thoughts and emotions are valid responses to your experience. The goal of giving yourself some space from them is not meant to get rid of or invalidate them. Rather, it is meant to help you see them more clearly.

It is common to hold thoughts as true and emotions as all-encompassing. We do not usually say, “I’m feeling angry,” we usually say, “I’m angry.” When we think, “this is going to end in disaster,” we tend to believe it.

You are not your emotions, and thinking a thought does not make it true. Making this distinction can make the difference between being paralyzed by your fears and being able to move on with your day.

In order to make that distinction, it is crucial to take a step back from your thoughts and your emotions so you can evaluate them. The coping skills for anxiety listed below will help you gain some space so that you can breathe, process, and move forward.

coping skills for anxiety

10 Effective Coping Skills for Anxiety

What is Anxiety?

There are two definitions for anxiety, depending on which version of it is in question. Anxiety is an emotion, a feeling of nervousness and uncertainty. It is also a diagnosable mental illness.

Both lend themselves to feelings of distress and unease, and the symptoms can be similar if not identical. The difference between the emotion and the illness is that the illness gets in the way of living the life you want to live.

We all get worried from time to time. It is a natural response to many of life’s stressors, especially when those stressors involve some element of the unknown. Worrying, feeling anxious, that is not a diagnosable illness.

When worries and concerns get in the way of being able to work, maintain relationships, or engage in hobbies, that is when they start looking more like an illness than a common emotional response.

If you are interested in the criteria that professionals look for to make a diagnosis, check out this article about it. However, you do not necessarily have to be diagnosed to know that your concerns are getting in the way of living the life you want to live.

Regardless of whether you are feeling anxious or have anxiety, therapy and coping skills can help. You can find a licensed professional on PsychologyToday if you are interested in therapy.

If you just came here for the coping skills and not to find a therapist, check out the tried and true, curated list of coping skills for anxiety below.

Photo of the sentence: anxiety is a feeling of nervousness or uncertainty that can also be a mental illness if it is affecting your ability to successfully live your life.

List of Coping Skills for Anxiety

Below are several examples of coping skills for anxiety. Anxiety comes in many forms, the most common of which is general anxiety disorder, or GAD. While social anxiety, PTSD, panic disorder, and OCD are also forms of anxiety, they are unique.

The anxiety coping skills listed below are meant to assist with feelings of anxiety and with general anxiety disorder. Even though they are targeted toward general anxiety, they can still help with social anxiety, PTSD, panic disorder, and OCD.

As mentioned above, they are meant to pull you out of your thoughts and emotions a bit so that you are able to observe them from a distance. Some of them are focused on the initial distraction needed to get that distance, and others are focused on breaking your thoughts and emotions down to better observe.

Essentially, coping with anxiety is at least a two-step process.

  1. Get some distance.
  2. Observe and interpret.

The coping skills for anxiety listed below are broken down into these two categories so that you can choose the right one for which step you are at in the process.

Photo for coping skills for anxiety that says: coping with anxiety is a 2-step process: 1. get some distance from your thoughts and emotions. 2. observe and interpret those thoughts and emotions.

Anxiety Coping Skills to Give You Distance

Distance Coping Skill for Anxiety #1: 5 for 5 Breathing

5 for 5 breathing is a coping skill that I recommend for almost everything. It is simple enough to be easily accessible in a variety of situations and involved enough to make your brain to think about something else for a minute.

Hold up both of your hands. Breathe in for 5 seconds, using the fingers on one of your hands to count up to 5. Breathe out and use your fingers to count down from 5.

Use your other hand to keep track of how many times you have breathed in and out, counting the combination of an in-breath and an out-breath as one cycle. Do at least 5 cycles, repeating it as long as you need to.

It might seem too simple to make a difference, but it really does. Using your hands brings in a tactile element that helps you stay focused, while having to count makes it hard for your brain to think about other things.

5 for 5 breathing does not require a ton of experience, will not take a lot of time, and can be done basically anywhere.

Photo of the steps for 5 for 5 breathing, one of the copings skills for anxiety.

Distance Coping Skill for Anxiety #2: Look, Point, Name

If breathing practices really are not your thing, even the ones that are more about counting than breathing, then Look, Point, Name just might be the anxiety coping skill for you.

Like 5 for 5 breathing, Look, Point, Name requires you to use your hands (well, one hand) which forces your brain to do something besides worry. It also involves the part of your brain that manages language and speech.

Basically, the more parts of your brain you can devote to something else, the less all-encompassing your anxiety can be.

Look, Point, Name is also great because the instructions are in the name of the coping skill. Yes, it really is that simple.

Look at something, point to it, and speak its name. It is best to speak the name out loud, but if you are not in a place where you can do that, it is okay to think its name.

If you want to take it a step further, spell the name of whatever you are looking at. Doing so helps this skill be a little less repetitive, and also uses more brainpower. The whole point of distracting coping skills is to give your brain something else to do for a bit, and this coping skill for anxiety does just that.

Photo of the steps for the Look, Point, Name anxiety coping skill.

Distance Coping Skill for Anxiety #3: Sing Along to Your Favorite Song

Music has a profound ability to influence the emotions we experience and hold onto. It also has the ability to replace the thoughts in our heads, which makes it an excellent tool for distraction.

Many people list music as a coping skill, but there are a few ways to make it a more effective one. Instead of just turning on the radio, or listening to your liked songs on Spotify, choose a song that you know all the words to.

Play it, and sing along with it. Remember, the best coping skills use more than one part of your brain. Listening to music only occupies part of your brain.

Singing along though, that uses the part of your brain that controls your lungs, vocal cords, and language. It requires more focus–it requires you to think about the words.

You can take this coping skill a step further by choosing a song that reflects the emotions you want to feel instead of the emotions you are currently feeling. When angry, it is typical for people to listen to angry music. Generally, we reserve happy music for happy times.

When using music as a coping skill for anxiety, try to choose a song that is soothing or inspiring. One that makes you feel like you can take on the world, let alone the thoughts in your head.

Once you have one, put it on as loud as you can stand without hurting your ears, and belt it out. Live the song–embody it. You can even make yourself a playlist of similar songs so that you can sing as long as you need to.

Photo with the instructions for using music as one of your coping skills for anxiety.

Distance Coping Skill for Anxiety #4: Eat Something Sour

Remember those Warheads candies from your youth? Do youths still eat those? My siblings and I had contests to see who could eat them without making a face, and I usually lost.

You do not have to eat something as sour as Warheads to make eating something sour into one of your coping skills for anxiety. The sourer the better, but you also do not want to give your tongue an acid burn so choose wisely.

Some other options are citrus fruits or candies, sour patch kids, or a citrus drink like lemonade. I recommend choosing food over drinks though–can you guess why?

The answer is because it is more involved and so takes more attention. Even though it is just adding the action of chewing or sucking, the additional action means additional focus, which means it will be more effective in giving you some distance from your thoughts and emotions.

If you cannot do sour, find some bitter like a radish or spicey like a jalapeno. Again, do not eat whatever it is to the point that it causes mouth or stomach discomfort.

Rather, find something with a strong enough flavor that it is a bit of a jolt to the senses. It is really hard to think about whatever it is that is plaguing your thoughts when you have something super sour, bitter, or spicey in your mouth.

Photo with the instructions for how to use eating something sour as one of your coping skills for anxiety.

Distance Coping Skill for Anxiety #5: Do Something Immersive

You may have noticed a trend by now in these coping skills. They all have to do with utilizing different parts of your brain to pull it away from the anxious thoughts holding you hostage. The more immersive your anxiety coping skill is, the more likely it is to be effective.

You probably have a favorite book, movie, game, or hobby. Something that is so good, so entertaining, or so thought provoking that it captivates your attention.

Anxiety captivates your attention, but it is not the only thing that can do that. You can, by finding something else to take its place for a little while.

Think about yourself and the things that truly occupy your attention whenever you do them. For me, those things are reading The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, watching the last Hunger Games movie, playing Beat Saber on VR, and drawing.

What are some things that completely occupy your attention? Note that these things do not need to be talents or something that you are necessarily good at, just something that will take up the vast majority of your attention.

Coping skills for anxiety that distract you give you the distance you need to be able to observe and interpret your anxious thoughts and emotions. Once you have distracted yourself enough to be able to think about your thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them, then you can gain some power over them.

Photo of instructions for doing something immersive for one of your anxiety coping skills.

Observe & Interpret with These Coping Skills for Anxiety

Observational Coping Skill for Anxiety #1: Write Your Thoughts Down

One of the reasons why you cannot get the anxious thoughts out of your head just might be because you have not given them enough attention.

Out of all these coping skills for anxiety, this one might seem the most counter-intuitive. Especially if the thoughts in question run circles around your brain all day every day. Brains hold onto whatever thoughts or details they deem important, keeping them front and center so that we do not forget them.

The thing is, if you write your anxious thoughts down you will not forget them. Writing things down frees up space in your brain so that it can keep track of other things. It also helps you to begin processing whatever it is that has you so occupied.

Writing things physically with pen and paper is more effective than doing so electronically. It adds a tactile element to it that makes the brain process it on another level.

Another benefit of writing things down is that you can complete the story.

A personal example of this comes from my experience with type 1 diabetes. I can get some pretty obsessive, overwhelming thoughts about my blood sugar; worrying about it being high or low.

When I write these thoughts down, I also complete the story. I write my concern, and then I write what will happen–if my blood sugar is high, I will continue to regularly check it and give insulin at regular (doctor prescribed) intervals until it comes down. If my blood sugar is low, I will continue to regularly check it and eat measured amounts of food at regular intervals until it comes up.

Doing this makes the thought less powerful. While it does not necessarily fix the problem, it does give you a game plan and a picture for how things will go. Then, instead of getting sucked into the quicksand of your terrifying thoughts, you can pull yourself onto solid land.

Photo with instructions for how to use writing your thoughts down as one of your anxiety coping skills.

Observational Coping Skill for Anxiety #2: Look for Patterns

When observing your thoughts and emotions, it can be helpful to look for patterns. This anxiety coping skill goes hand in hand with writing your thoughts down, although you do not have to write them down to find patterns.

What are the anxiety-provoked thoughts that you think most often? Look for patterns in them. They probably have a central subject, theme, or fear.

Figuring out what they have in common can help you get to the root of what is causing them. For example, going along with my personal example above, a lot of my anxious thoughts have to do with my blood sugar and diabetes. I worry about it because I want to be as healthy as I can for as long as I can.

Knowing this, I can make goals that go in line with this central theme of wanting to be healthy, like eating nutritious food and working exercise into my day to day routine. Then, when my anxious thoughts start circling like vengeful vultures, I can combat them with the knowledge of what I am doing to take care of myself.

Look for the patterns in your anxiety provoked thoughts and emotions. Figure out some things you can do to address them. When they start circling remind yourself what you are doing to take care of them.

Photo of instructions for how to use looking for patterns as one of your coping skills for anxiety.

Observational Coping Skill for Anxiety #3: Determine if Your Thoughts are Helpful

All of these coping skills for anxiety go together in one way or another. Once you have written things down and found some patterns, it can be helpful to ask yourself if your rampant thoughts about your fears are helpful.

The immediate response might be an emphatic “No!” But give it a little more thought than that. In general people are not stupid and we all do things for a reason.

To reiterate, in general you are not stupid, and you do things for a reason. Anxiety is often born of the self-protective impulse to plan for the worst so that you are prepared when things go wrong. So while your constant fear-driven thoughts might not be comfortable, your brain is trying to be helpful.

The thing is, sometimes it can be helpful to remind our brains about what is and is not actually helpful. Or rather, what things would be more helpful.

Being able to see the patterns in your anxiety responses gives you the ability to figure out what your brain is trying to protect you from. This gives you the chance to figure out how you could protect yourself better.

Continuing with my personal example, obsessively worrying about my blood sugar might keep me from having high or low blood sugar. But it also stops me from being able to enjoy food, engage fully in my relationships, and concentrate on important tasks at hand.

For me, it was more helpful to get a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) that would track my blood sugar for me. While I am perfectly capable of obsessively checking my blood sugar manually every five minutes, it is much more helpful to have my CGM do that for me.

Are there other ways to track the things you are worrying about besides constant worry? This might mean adding someone else to the process, writing things down, simplifying, or making a plan to address whatever it is that you are concerned about.

This coping skill is all about addressing the concern that your anxiously consumed by with something besides your thoughts and emotions. It is about figuring out and implementing strategies and solutions that are more helpful than the endless negative narrative inside your head.

Photo with instructions for how to determine the helpfulness of your thoughts and emotions.

Observational Coping Skill for Anxiety #4: Talk to Someone

One of the coping skills for anxiety you might already have run into is talking to someone. However, there are a number of someones who you might not have considered yet.

Family members can be a good place to start looking for someone you can talk to. So can professionals, like therapists and/or doctors. Friends can also be a great option.

The most important thing when considering talking to someone about the things that are stressing you out is trust. It is imperative that whoever you talk to is someone you can trust. Talking about your fears, especially if they do not seem rational or legitimate, is a scary thing in and of itself. Find someone you trust to make it a little less uncomfortable.

If you do not have a person you can trust, it can help to tell things to a pet. They might not respond, and they probably will not be a great sounding board, but they will not judge you either.

Sometimes the best medicine is just getting the thoughts out of your head. You do not need an actual person to do this. Find someone or something that you can talk to so that you can process through your thoughts out loud.

Photo of information about how talking to someone can be one of your coping skills for anxiety.

Observational Coping Skill for Anxiety #5: Try this Decatastrophizing Worksheet

One of the biggest causes of anxiety-driven thoughts and emotions is the tendency to catastrophize. Therefore, one of the greatest coping skills for anxiety is decatastrophizing. Catastrophizing is when you make a problem into the end of the world.

In grad school, one of my professors always gave the following as an example of catastrophizing: You realize on the way to class that you forgot your pen. Forgetting your pen means you won’t be able to take notes, which means you won’t pass the exam, which means you won’t graduate, which means you’ll never succeed in your career, which means you won’t be successful in life, which means you’ll never be worthy of love, which means you’ll die alone and unloved without a single accomplishment to your name.

See how quickly that escalated from something so simple as forgetting a pen? I felt a little anxious just writing it out, and I always carry a handful of pens on me.

Catastrophizing is a doozy, even if you do not take it as far as that example. It happens so fast, and it can be difficult to stop it before it becomes an all-encompassing problem.

The decatastrophizing worksheet linked here and down below has very detailed instructions to help you analyze your catastrophizing and break it down into less of a…well, catastrophe.

Decatastrophizing Worksheet

In Conclusion

Anxiety can be an overwhelming, all-consuming thing, but it does not have to be. Distraction is one of the greatest coping skills for anxiety because it gives you some distance from your thoughts and emotions. Once you have that distance, you can employ the next wave of coping skills for anxiety: the ones that help you observe, process through, and resolve your anxiety-driven thoughts and emotions.

There are a number of distraction and observational coping skills for anxiety that you can use in both steps. This list is not meant to be comprehensive, but rather to get you on the right path to figure out what works for you.

Coping skills tend to be reactive. Self-care is a little more proactive and can help address anxiety before it gets overwhelming. Learn more about self-care here, with tips for how to make it more effective here.

Please remember that you do not have to manage everything on your own. Asking for help is one of the most common factors in success. If you need a therapist, there are hundreds listed on PsychologyToday to choose from.

Want to read more? Recommended articles below:

What is Self-Compassion? 3 Basic Steps to Help

5 Simple Problem-Solving Skills to Solve All Your Problems

Need a Break? 7 Simple Ways to Rejuvenate

3 Solid Ways to Find Meaning in Your Life

Coping Skills: What they Are & How to Use Them

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