We’ve all been there at least once in our lives where you find yourself experiencing anxiety in public. For some of us, it’s the constant thoughts that keep us from doing the things that we want to do, for others, the anxiety comes in the form of physical symptoms that can range from digestive symptoms (stomach pain, nausea, bathroom urgency) to headaches, dizziness, heart racing, and excessive sweating.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million adults over the age of 18 suffer from an anxiety disorder. If you are one of them, you know that it is not always as easy as saying to yourself “just relax” or “everything will be okay”. When anxiety begins to strike, the part of your brain that is the “alarm system” or, for you animal lovers out there, your body’s “watchdog” is activated.
This is great when there is real danger around you, but the problem is that sometimes, our brain’s alarm system does not always know how to tell the difference between real or perceived danger.
In preparation for when this happens, it is important to be able to have cognitive and/or behavioral coping strategies that will help you manage your symptoms and regulate yourself. You might be asking yourself how it is even possible to manage and calm an anxiety attack subtly when you’re out in public- here are some techniques to start you off.
Talk Yourself Back to Reality
Remind yourself that you are not in any type of actual danger, although this experience may make you feel as if there is. Ask yourself “Am I exaggerating what is actually happening (or what I am thinking)? Have I been through this before and have gotten through it? Is my anxiety based on reality or on a fear of something that has not yet happened, or that has never actually happened?
Slow Down By Breathing With Intent
As soon as you feel your first clue that the physical symptoms of anxiety might be setting in, begin to focus with intent on your breathing. Begin by taking a slow and deep breath for a slow count of three…hold that inhale for a slow count of three… and exhale slowly and controlled breath for a count of six. That’s right, the exhale, should take longer than the inhale, and the combination of all three steps will send a signal to your body that there is no real danger we are not under attack and everything is okay.
Practice Listening to Meditation
Deep breathing combined with meditation can be especially beneficial when you are feeling anxious. There are a number of apps that offer various types of meditation, some as short as five minutes. The first step is to find a comfortable place to sit and when you begin your meditation exercise, do not worry about your mind wandering because the medication will help you to bring it back. Creating a habit of daily meditation, if even for a few minutes, can help create a habit that your brain and body will welcome.
Meditation can help to “distance” you from the feelings of anxiety while creating a space where you are learning to come back to the present rather than anxiety-triggering visions of the future or past. Much of our anxiety comes from our anxious thoughts. It’s our reptilian brain trying to keep us alive by alerting us to all of the dangers around us. But when we meditate, this mind chatter goes away. Tapping into these practices when we are experiencing public anxiety can help calm us down and recenter ourselves.
Visualizations of Calm or Soothing Memories
Think of something that calms you. This may be something from your childhood, perhaps a favorite stuffed animal or the smell of your favorite food that fills the air as you come in from outside. Perhaps it is the tender and caring voice of a grandparent or the thought of your toes in the sand at your favorite beach. Use your full imagination place yourself there, in that place, and notice if that begins to help the calm begin to settle you.
Yes, really! Keep a small vial of lavender oil or cloth that smells of lavender in your purse or pocket so that you can take an inhale of its scent when you need to feel calmer. To be even more discreet, you might want to rub some between your fingers or on your wrist for easy access to the scent or rub a little on your temples.
In addition to the above exercises to calm anxiety in public, you can also try turmeric. Since turmeric is an all-natural supplement, you can take it in the privacy of your own home the same way you would take your multivitamin. While turmeric is not a cure for depression, there is some evidence that it can help manage your symptoms.
When an anxiety attack comes on, that moment in time can feel unbearable. The next time this happens to you in public, try one or more of these techniques.
About the author(s)
Karen is the founder and Clinical Director of Cohesive Therapy NYC. She earned a Masters in Social Work from New York University and has extensive training in Hypnosis, Anxiety, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Brainspotting, and DGBI. She is a member of the Institute of Certified Anxiety Treatment Professionals, The Rome Foundation, the National Association of Social Workers, The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, and the American Social of Clinical Hypnosis.