7 ways to ease anxiety
We are living through some interesting occurrences right now. As one popular meme puts it, “Has someone tried unplugging 2020, waiting 10 seconds, and plugging it back in?”
Feeling jittery and nervous is thoroughly understandable at this point. But never finding the off switch turns worry into anxiety, the body’s fight-or-flight response to a perceived threat. And extended periods of anxiety can, among other things, weaken your immune system.
Fortunately, there are techniques you can use to calm your qualms before they run away with you.
Take a Breath
Start by tuning into your physical response and taking some deep breaths, says clinical psychologist Seth Gillihan, PhD, host of the Think Act Be podcast and author of The CBT Deck (PESI).
“Practice noticing the anxiety in your body as early as possible; maybe you notice your breath getting shallow,” Gillihan says. “Then take a calming breath in and a slow exhale. Most of the relaxation we get from breathing comes on the exhale.”
Controlled breathing can activate the calming part of the nervous system, which in turn slows the stress response, according to researchers writing in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
Try it by taking in a deep breath, exhaling slowly while imagining that you are exhaling out your worries. You can even say “Ahhhhh” as you do it, says psychotherapist and former monk Donald Altman, author of Reflect: Awaken to the Wisdom of the Here and Now (PESI). “It slows everything down and even gives your heart a rest,” he explains.
Turn on the Tunes
Mellow music can keep the body from going into fear mode, while upbeat rhythms can shift one’s energy from uptight to fun and motivated, even celebratory. The key is to pick sounds and songs that you appreciate and enjoy.
Career coach Melody Wilding, LMSW, recommends tuning into music with binaural beats, the sounds created by playing two different frequencies at the same time. Such music prompts relaxing brainwave changes, according to a study published in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine.
Check out the playlists found on many streaming music services, including Apple Music and Spotify, or the free recordings on YouTube.
Moving your body can also move your mood. Numerous studies have found that exercise and motion help manage anxiety.
According to Gillihan, simple stretching exercises like reaching out wide with your arms can counter the normal tendency to shrink and hide when you are anxious. The slow, deliberate movements in tai chi and yoga encourage deep breathing and focus, while aerobic exercise, such as a brisk walk or jog, can decrease tension levels, stabilize mood and improve sleep.
“Moving and stretching and exercise can get us unstuck from the freeze part of our fear response,” Gillihan says.
Write It Out
Clearing some of the mental clutter by writing out your concerns can be a good way to limit the power of anxiety-producing thoughts.
Research has shown that pouring your emotions out on a page for about 20 minutes a day can be effective.
Wilding recommends a technique called “release writing” as a way to process emotions. “Start with the structure ‘I feel,’ and fill in your emotion, then pour out all your thoughts and reactions onto the page,” she says.
Gillihan suggests making a to-do list. “Anxiety can come from a lack of direction, like when we’re drifting at work and unsure what to focus on,” he explains. “Make a list of the three most important things you plan to accomplish for the day, then focus on the first; fold over the list so you can only see the one task you’re working on. Forward progress can be a big antidote to anxiety.”