When Should I Start Seeing A Therapist For Anxiety? A Psychologist Answers & Shares Mental Health Tips
This year has been one of the most challenging years in modern history, one that has taken a toll on our mental and physical health. To help you through it, we launched Experts On Call, a new series in which top-tier health and well-being experts answer your questions—however big or small—to help you find solutions, put together a game plan, and make each day a little bit easier. Don't forget, you can ask questions anytime, and we'll do our best to find the right expert to point you in the right direction. Without further ado, here's another edition of the series with a question from reader Joana R.
Can I manage my anxiety alone, or do I need to see a psychologist?
First of all, it's important to note that a healthy level of anxiety is normal. Different circumstances (say a job interview, a first date, or your wedding day), can stir up feelings of doubt, anticipation, or nervousness.
However, if those anxious thoughts begin to interfere with your ability to sleep, focus, or perform daily tasks, it may be time to seek professional help. Additionally, if you're experiencing panic attacks, lost a loved one, lost financial security, or have recently undergone a major life transition, therapy can be helpful.
In general, if your anxiety arises before or after a stressful event, dissipates relatively quickly, and feels minor and manageable, then it can most likely be managed on your own with the proper tools.
5 tools to manage anxiety when it arises:
Stop with the "what-ifs."
One of my biggest tools for reducing anxiety is to stop entertaining "what-if" scenarios and instead take in the data—aka the facts and the reality of a given situation. Because it's relevant, let's use COVID-19 as an example:
- Try not to think this: "What if I have the virus? What if I give it to my grandma when I visit her? What if she dies?"
- Instead do this: Collect the data. If you've been exposed to COVID and want to test whether you have it, you can get a test. Rather than sitting around worrying that the test is positive, take action by self-quarantining until you know the results. Video chat or call friends and family so you feel less alone during this time.
Lack of control is a major trigger for anxiety, so rather than focusing on the various outcomes beyond your control, focus on what's certain and the actions you can take in that given circumstance.
Return to the present moment.
When we're anxious, the amygdala in the brain emits stress hormones, which activate the fight, flight, or freeze response. To activate the parasympathetic nervous system, or the rest-and-digest response, it's important to bring yourself back to the present moment.
Working on a puzzle, breathing deeply, cooking a meal you love, going for a walk, or spending time in nature are just a few ways to be present.
Engage your senses.
Engaging the five senses helps activate the limbic system, which is responsible for regulating emotions. Here's how I recommend doing that:
- Sight: Nature. Whether you're going for a walk, tending to your houseplants, or looking at photos of plants, nature has been shown to reduce stress, improve self-esteem, and boost mood1.
- Smell: Essential oils. My general framework for choosing the right essential oils is lavender for sleep, citrus for mood, and eucalyptus or peppermint for stress. That said, scent preferences vary from person to person, so it's important to find oils that bring you comfort. (Here: a guide on using essential oils for anxiety.)
- Hear: Podcasts, audiobooks, nature sounds, or music. When going for a walk, listen to an audiobook or podcast that engages the mind. Nature sounds and birdsongs can be calming, as well. When deciding what music to listen to, avoid songs that directly contradict your mood (i.e., a love song when you're dealing with a breakup), as well as those that are directly anxiety-inducing when you're feeling anxious. Tip: Make a playlist of mood-boosting or calming songs ahead of time, so deciding what to listen to doesn't have to be an extra stressor.
- Touch: Soft clothing. Dressing in fleece, soft cotton, or flannel can be comforting to the body and therefore the mind.
- Taste: Soothing foods. "Comfort food" is often utilized amid anxiety (think: mac and cheese), but other more nutrient-rich food options exist, as well as soothing teas.
Practice progressive muscle relaxation.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that not only helps relax physical tension in the body but also focuses the mind away from anxious thoughts. To do it, squeeze each muscle in your body for three seconds, then release. Start with your toes, move up to your calves, and continue working your way up the body until you reach the crown of your head.
Go for a walk.
The physical act of walking has been shown to improve mood states2. Even going for a short walk can help you reclaim time in the day, soak up vitamin D, and serve as a meditative moment. Just make sure your walks are leisurely and relaxing. Note: This is entirely different from pacing, which can exacerbate anxiety.
Small bouts of anxiety are perfectly normal, so whether you receive professional guidance or not, it's important to have the tools to help manage them. The five techniques above are generally useful in those moments.
If anxiety feels chronic—meaning it occurs beyond stressful moments, and begins interfering with your overall health and well-being—that's a good time to find a therapist.
While therapy can be expensive, affordable options do exist. If you have insurance, visit your insurance provider's direct website to find a therapist who is within your coverage. Most cities also have local mental health centers that provide services at lower rates, for free, or on a sliding scale. Finally, because of COVID-19, many therapists are offering lower rates for teletherapy appointments.
Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist with a background in neuroscience. She is the Director of Clinical Training at Bay Path University, and an associate professor in graduate psychology. Hallett has a private practice in Suffield, Connecticut, and over 25 years of experience providing psychotherapy, consultation, and supervision to medical and mental health professionals in addressing relationship and major life issues with a specialty in complex trauma and dissociative disorders.
Hallett is also an executive coach, host of the Be Awesome podcast, and author of two books. She's passionate about stress reduction and self-care. Access her free guide to being stress smart and becoming your own best friend.