Interrupting Anxiety

March 28, 2023

It’s time for an anxiety interruption. An anxiety interruption is anything that can decrease anxiety symptoms, even just a little, in the moment to regain control.




You are sitting on an airplane. The person behind you is talking in a loud voice and the baby next to you is screaming, while the flight attendant is making the first announcement to find a seat. The space you are sitting in is small, stuffy, and uncomfortable. The panic sneaks in and you feel trapped. Your heart starts racing, your respiratory rate increases, and now you are drenched in your own sweat. How did that happen so quickly? Anxiety has taken charge. Now what? 

Let’s return to that heightened moment of anxiety on the airplane and use these three steps to interrupt the anxiety. First, naming the feeling: “I feel stuck. I am feeling anxious. I want to get out.” Next, identifying the location of anxiety in the body, “my heart rate and breathing is becoming more rapid and I’m covered in sweat.” It could be helpful to identify which symptoms are overpowering. For example, “the more I feel my breathing and heartbeat increase in rate, the more my anxiety intensifies.” This is very important because it could inform which specific grounding technique might be best to use to interrupt an episode.

Finally, it is time to apply a grounding technique. First, you take a slow, controlled deep breath but that doesn’t help. Then you reach for the “calm space” visualization that you have worked on during a previous therapy session. You find yourself focused on a relaxing beach panorama comprised of turquoise water, a clear blue sky, warm sand against your feet, the hugging breeze, and the predictable calming sound of the crashing waves.  This decreases the anxiety just enough to be able to slowly take the first deep breath. In for 1...2...3...4 counts, hold for 7 counts, and out for 1...2...3...4...5...6...7...8 counts is the goal (for beginners try in for 4 counts, hold for 2, and out for 5 counts). You repeat this breath-work five times.  

After the anxiety interruption you can reclaim control of your body. You are still anxious but you have found a way to halt the spiral. It is always important to note which techniques helped and in which specific moment so that when anxiety creeps up again you have a tangible way to manage the feeling.