Home » Blogs » Cultivating Contentment & Happiness » How To Lower Anxiety When You Feel Overwhelmed

How To Lower Anxiety When You Feel Overwhelmed

In addition to containing many moments of joy, life clearly also involves hassles. Sometimes, in addition to the everyday challenges, we find (or put) ourselves in situations which seem absolutely unbearable, and we’re overwhelmed by powerful feelings that if unchecked might cause us to act in destructive ways.

It can be extremely difficult to think clearly and make healthy choices when we’re boiling over in anger, shaking with fear, or sobbing in grief. While there may be extremely valid reasons for our feelings, and we wouldn’t want to simply eradicate them, even if we could (which we can’t), how can we get a grip on ourselves, so that we don’t just make matters worse through rash words or actions?

Fortunately, just as our thoughts and emotions affect our bodies, so can our body chemistry have a powerful impact on our feelings – let this work in your favor.

The skills described below can be helpful for the following reasons:

  1. They can change our body chemistry to decrease our intense emotions and help calm us down.
  2. They can take effect very quickly, often within seconds or minutes, to reduce extreme emotional responses.
  3. They can work as well as destructive behaviors (such as alcohol, illicit drugs, binge eating, or self-harm such as cutting) that people often choose to decrease uncomfortable feelings, minus the negative consequences.
  4. Their effect can be similar to medications with a fast onset, but without the cost or potential side effects of medications.
  5. They are simple to implement, without a lot of thought.
  6. Some of them can be done in other people’s presence or in a public setting, without detection.
  • Reduce the temperature of your face using cold water.

Hold your breath, and place your face in a bowl of cold water. You could also use a cold pack, or fill a zip-lock bag with cold water, and place it on your face. Another option is to slap cold water on your face. The temperature of the water should be cold but not freezing (no ice packs). Hold this position for 30 seconds.

The cold temperature and your holding your breath sends a message to your brain that you are diving underwater. This will elicit a diving response (which may take 15 to 30 seconds to begin).

As a result of the relaxation (parasympathetic) part of your nervous system being activated, your heart rate will decrease, blood flow will redirect to your brain and heart, and blood flow to other (non-vital) organs will decrease. This significant shift in your physiology can be very helpful in managing your extreme emotions.

Important: Using this technique will slow your heart rate. If you have a heart condition or are exceptionally sensitive to cold, please check with your personal physician before trying this exercise.

  • Intense exercise.

Engage in aerobic exercise vigorous enough to increase your heart for 20 to 30 minutes. Look up the recommended maximum heart rate for your age, using the search term “calculating heart rate training zones”, and try in this exercise to get your heart rate to 70% of your recommended maximum heart rate.

Important: Get cleared with your personal physician before trying this exercise, to verify your personal heart rate training goal and maximum heart rate.

Intense exercise has been shown to increase positive emotions and decrease anxiety during and after exercise. Try using aerobic exercise when you are angry, anxious, worrying, or need to get motivated. For instance, if you’re enraged at your boss and are worried about your excessive workload, try taking a run before or after your day at the office. Doing so is likely to decrease the intensity of your anger and anxiety, so you can then feel calm and centered enough to tend to work matters more effectively.

  • Paced breathing.

This technique involves decreasing the pace of both your inhalations and exhalations, using deep abdominal breathing. Try for about five to six breath cycles (in/out) a minute, which will probably be significantly slower than you’re using to breathing. Initially, have a clock available to help time your breathing, until you get used to what breathing at this rate feels like.

Also, try to breathe out more slowly than you inhale. For instance, try counting to 4 as you inhale and to 8 as you exhale. The rationale here is that your heart tends to beat more quickly during inhalation and more slowly during exhalation. Such paced breathing can activate your parasympathetic nervous system and diminish emotional arousal.

  • Paired muscle relaxation.

In this technique, you combine muscle relaxation with exhalations.

Tense various muscle groups in your body, being mindful of the tension you feel while inhaling, and then relax these muscles while exhaling, noticing how it feels as the tension decreases. The point here is to become more attentive to sensations of tension as well as relaxation.

Tense each specific muscle group for 5 to 10 seconds, then relax for 5 to 10 seconds. You can start with your hands and wrists, then move to your lower and upper arms, shoulders, forehead, eyes, and so on, moving down through your chest, stomach, hips, legs, and feet.

This technique can lead your muscles to relax to a greater extent than they were prior to doing the exercise, and be more relaxed than had you not first tensed, then relaxed them.

The next step is to mentally say “relax” to yourself with each exhale and relaxing of your muscles. This skill may take awhile to master, but after awhile when you think “relax” and exhale, your muscles will become conditioned to relax, as well. So, take time to practice this skill, so that it will be effective when you most need it to be.

All of these techniques can help you out during moments of crisis, when your level of emotional distress is high and you feel a sense of urgency to feel better and in greater control now. Once the intensity of your feelings has been reduced to a manageable level, then you can implement additional methods of coping. But, first – engage your body’s help in returning you to a state of relative emotional balance, so you can more clearly see what your next step should be.


Reference: Linehan, M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Manual, Second Edition. New York, New York: Guilford Press.



How To Lower Anxiety When You Feel Overwhelmed

Rachel Fintzy Woods, MA, LMFT

Rachel Fintzy Woods, M.A., LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist in Santa Monica, California. Rachel counsels in the areas of relationships, the mind/body connection, emotion regulation, stress management, mindfulness, emotional eating, compulsive behaviors, self-compassion, and effective self-care. Trained in both clinical psychology and theater arts, Rachel works with people to uncover and develop their unique creative gifts and find personal fulfillment. For 17 years, Rachel has also been conducting clinical research studies at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the areas of mind/body medicine and the interaction of psychological well-being, social support, traumatic injury, and substance use. You can read more about Rachel at her website:

No comments yet... View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Fintzy Woods, R. (2018). How To Lower Anxiety When You Feel Overwhelmed. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 18, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Nov 2018
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.