How to manage crippling anxiety: Tips and treatments
Anxiety, while a normal part of the human experience, can be debilitating. If you feel like you don't have control over your anxiety—if, in fact, you feel like it controls you—you may be suffering from a more severe, “crippling” anxiety. This anxiety often feels relentless, out-of-proportion to the situation at hand, and impossible to control.
We turned to our staff of board-certified psychiatrists for their best strategies on how to tame severe anxiety—as well as how to recognize when it may be time to seek professional help.
What is crippling anxiety?
Crippling anxiety occurs when anxiety levels are particularly severe, impacting your ability to complete daily tasks, follow your normal routines, and do the things you love. Crippling anxiety can creep into all aspects of life, largely impacting overall quality of life and making it difficult to keep up with obligations.
How does crippling anxiety differ from everyday stress?
All humans experience anxiety—in fact, it can be a useful emotion. Generally speaking, anxiety is your body’s way of alerting you to danger in your environment, and the need to respond to threats. There are many normal triggers for a healthy anxiety response; things like worrying about the future, being confused about the state of the world around you, or being affected by painful memories.
Sometimes, though, the amount of anxiety you feel is out-of-proportion to the situation at hand. “Crippling anxiety,” is not an official medical term, but may refer to anxiety that’s severe enough to trickle into every aspect of your day-to-day life, and is completely disruptive, all-consuming, and intense. For some people, this might look like a racing heart and anxious thoughts at 3 or 4 in the morning, coupled with the inability to sleep.
For others, it might look like a panic attack that comes out of nowhere and leaves you feeling extreme terror and experiencing chest pains or palpitations. If this sounds familiar to you, you may be dealing with a higher-than-normal level of anxiety.
How can you recognize crippling anxiety?
Whether you consider your anxiety “severe,” “crippling,” or “normal,” we recommend seeking professional help if it has begun to affect your daily life.
Here are a few other ways to assess your relative level of anxiety:
Anxiety comes and goes; that’s expected. But if you’re spending long periods of time—days, weeks, or months— worried or anxious, it may be a sign that you're living with crippling anxiety and it’s time to seek help.
Can you identify a specific trigger for your anxiety? If you’re worried about an upcoming job interview or an upsetting news story, you should expect the anxiety to resolve over time, or when the triggering event passes. But if you can’t identify a cause for your anxiety, it may be a sign that something more is going on.
Feeling a little bit anxious about meeting a new co-worker is normal; feeling very anxious about an upcoming medical procedure may be normal, too. But if minor triggers are sending you into an anxiety tailspin that feels out-of-proportion to the situation at hand, you may be suffering from severe anxiety or an anxiety disorder.
Finally, it’s important to consider the physical and emotional symptoms that your anxiety causes.
Physical symptoms of severe anxiety or an anxiety attack can include:
- Hyperventilating, rapid breathing, or shortness of breath
- Rapid or racing heart
- Trembling or shivering
Emotional and mental symptoms of an anxiety disorder can include:
- Feelings of doom or panic
- Uncontrollable thought patterns
- Feeling stuck or trapped
- Feeling detached or disconnected
How can you cope with crippling anxiety?
Severe anxiety can feel inescapable, but in addition to seeking professional help, there's a range of science-backed strategies that can help you calm down when you’re struggling. The next time your mind starts racing, consider one of these techniques.
Paying attention to your breath can have a big impact on your anxiety levels. You may not even notice it, but when you’re anxious, your breathing typically becomes quicker and more shallow. This can perpetuate feelings of anxiety. Taking deep breaths can help you feel calm. Here’s the best way to take deep, calming breaths:
“Belly breathing,” or diaphragmatic breathing, is a science-backed way to calm your nervous system and bring your body into a relaxed state.
- Sit in a chair or lay down and place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach.
- Take a few breaths and notice if you feel the hand on your chest rising or the hand on your belly rising. Chest breathing tends to be shallow. This exercise will bring your breath into your belly and out of your chest.
- Slowly breathe in through your nose, focusing on filling up your belly with air. The hand on your belly should rise. The hand on your chest should remain still.
- Breathe out through your mouth. You should notice the hand on your belly drop.
- Repeat these breaths for several minutes.
Exercise has a stellar reputation as a way to tame anxiety. There’s many reasons for this: not only can engaging in physical activity distract you from whatever you’re worrying about, it can also decrease the tension in your muscles (a physical symptom of anxiety).
What’s more, exercise actually triggers changes in your brain chemistry—including activating areas of the brain that help you to calm down and raising the availability of critical neurotransmitters—or chemical messengers—that help you relax.
If you’re not a regular exerciser, don’t worry. Even a quick sweat session or gentle aerobic exercise can make a real difference in easing anxiety when it hits. Wondering what type of exercise is best? Experts agree that the most important thing is to pick an activity you enjoy. This will help you feel good from the start, and increase the chances you’ll actually choose to exercise.
For some people, that might be a HIIT workout (high intensity interval training) or going for a run; for others, it might mean a brisk walk or a gentle yoga session.
Vagus nerve cooling
Your vagus nerve—which carries signals between your brain and your body—plays an important role in calming your mind and body.
The next time you’re feeling anxious, apply a cold compress to your chest or the back of your neck (the vagus nerve runs down your neck from your brain to the rest of your body). Leave the compress on for a few minutes and see how you feel—if you’re monitoring your heart rate, you may notice it slowing down. If you don’t notice a change, try leaving the compress on for a few minutes longer.
Why does this work? Here’s a quick biology lesson: when you’re stressed, your body activates its sympathetic nervous system—a network of nerves responsible for your “fight or flight” response. “Fight or flight” helps you respond to danger by triggering a range of physical symptoms, including increasing your blood pressure and heart rate.
When the danger has passed, however, your body needs to calm down. It does so with the help of the vagus nerve, which helps carry the signal from your brain to your body to activate its parasympathetic nervous system—the network of nerves that helps you relax.
When you’re experiencing anxiety, stimulating your vagus nerve may help your body calm down. “Vagus nerve cooling”—literally, icing or cooling down your vagus nerve to restrict the blood vessels—can help to activate the nerve. Try cooling your vagus nerve while journaling, reading, listening to music, or spending time with a loved one.
Earthing or grounding
Research suggests that “earthing” or “grounding”—the process of directly contacting your body with the earth’s surface—can actually yield surprising physical benefits, including better sleep, reduced pain, and, according to a recent study, a decrease in anxiety.
The surface of the earth gives off a natural (harmless) electrical charge. Connecting directly to this charge influences the bioelectrical function in your body, and might decrease the production of certain stress hormones and reduce anxiety.
Although it’s possible to purchase “earthing mats” that can help you to achieve this, the easiest way to ground is to simply be barefoot outside in a yard or other space where it’s safe to do so. About 30 minutes of grounding at a time may help lower anxiety levels.
We know, it’s not fun to hear, but caffeine can exacerbate feelings of anxiety. If you find yourself regularly suffering from severe symptoms of crippling anxiety, consider evaluating your caffeine intake. Imposing some limits, including gradually reducing your overall intake, may help ease anxiety symptoms—especially when coupled with relaxation techniques.
When should you talk to a professional?
Ultimately, the tips above might not be enough to control your anxiety—and that’s okay. Up to 30% of Americans will suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, making anxiety the most common mental health condition in the country. If your anxiety is causing symptoms severe enough to disrupt your quality of life and general well-being, it may be time to get additional help.
An anxiety disorder is a mental health condition that must be diagnosed by a qualified healthcare professional, like a psychiatrist. There are many different types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, specific phobias (like a fear of flying or of blood/needles), disorders centered on social triggers or situations, and panic disorder, characterized by episodes of extreme fear or terror, known as “panic attacks.”
Because of the range and complexity of these disorders, it’s important to work with a professional to get an accurate diagnosis and set a treatment plan.
Professional treatment for anxiety
Both psychiatrists and therapists are trained to help people living with anxiety. If you’re living with an anxiety disorder, extra support—with anxiety medication, talk therapy (like cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT), or both—may be necessary to control your symptoms.
While therapists use talk therapy to help you overcome your symptoms, psychiatrists can prescribe you medications, like an antianxiety medication or antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), to manage your condition. Most people with anxiety disorders will benefit from a combination of medication and supportive therapy.
With Talkiatry, you can see a psychiatrist from the comfort of your home, and you can schedule your first appointment in a matter of days. To get started, take our free online assessment, to see if Talkiatry is right for you and get matched with a psychiatrist.
Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care. Co-founded by a patient and a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, Talkiatry has over 300 doctors, 60 insurance partners, and first visits available in days. We treat patients with anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, and more. Get started with a short online assessment.
The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.
Dr. Brenda Y. Camacho holds the position of Staff Psychiatrist at Talkiatry. She is board-certified in Adult Psychiatry. She has been practicing for over 25 years.
While having treated a wide range of adult patients, Dr. Camacho’s primary focus is treating adult outpatients with mood or psychotic disorders. Her practice focuses on medication management. Typically, she offers this in conjunction with supportive or insight-oriented therapy in 30-minute follow-up visits. On occasion, Dr. Camacho will believe additional therapy is also needed and asks that you bring a therapist into your care team to provide the best outcome.
Dr. Camacho completed her undergraduate studies at Tufts University. She received her medical degree from Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, PA and then continued with Temple for her residency in adult psychiatry. After completing training, Dr. Camacho worked at Cooper Hospital in Camden NJ as Associate Director of Consultation/Liaison Service and Psychiatry Residency Training and Co-Director of the Neuropsychiatry Clinic. She then began working exclusively in outpatient settings, joined NewPoint Behavioral Health Care, and served as Medical Director before and after their merge with Acenda Integrated Health.