There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to managing anxiety. The right strategy is the one that resonates with you, fits your lifestyle, assists you to focus your mind and succeeds in interrupting anxious thoughts. You may even find that alternating or using a combination of different techniques provides the best results.
Here are 17 ways to manage anxiety:
Slow Deep Breathing with Long Exhalations is one of most effective ways to manage anxiety. By taking slow, deep breaths through your nose into your belly and long exhalations out of your mouth, you activate the body’s calming parasympathetic nervous system which controls our flight or fight response. When experiencing an emotional reaction, slow deep breaths trigger the release of endorphins that produce a calming effect in the body. Maintaining your attention on the breath can also assist to become present moment focused when fixated on past or future events.
Mindfulness is the practice of maintaining a non-judgmental state of awareness on one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment- to-moment basis. Research shows that mindfulness actually shrinks the amygdala, the part of the brain that is associated with fear and emotion and initiates the body's fight-flight response. Regular mindfulness practice has also been associated with a natural increase in serotonin levels, which is particularly beneficial for stabilising mood and improving sleep quality. By focusing our attention on the present moment, mindfulness counteracts rumination and worrying which is commonly experienced by people with anxiety.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is an effective strategy for reversing the muscular pain, tension and stiffness in the body associated with stress and anxiety. Progressive muscle relaxation activates the relaxation response in the body, lowering heart rate, reducing body tension and calming the mind. It can also assist to develop increased awareness of the connection between physical stress and emotional dysregulation. By progressively holding and releasing tension in each of the muscle groups of the body, from the toes to the head for a count of 5, you can relax the body and help release anxious thoughts and feelings.
Safe Place Mental Imagery involves creating a detailed mental image of a peaceful setting where you can go to in your mind to feel safe. The setting can be either real or imagined. While safe place imagery techniques are not a cure for anxiety, they help cope with anxiety symptoms in several ways. Firstly, they assist to distract attention from stressors towards an alternative focus. They also essentially act as a non-verbal suggestion to the unconscious mind and body that you are in a peaceful and safe environment, initiating the body’s relaxation response. Finally, safe place mental imagery scenes become a learned cue or trigger for the recall of memories and sensations resulting from past visualisation practice. Safe place mental imagery can be self-directed or guided by another person, voice or app.
Avoid avoiding. Avoidance is a common symptom of anxiety and associated with the flight response. While avoiding things that make you feel anxious provides short-term relief, it can contribute to increasing anxiety in the long-term. Research shows that providing it is safe, approaching something that makes you anxious (i.e. events, places, tasks, activities or people) – even in a small way, reduces anxiety by demonstrating that you can cope.
Exercise has been shown to have a positive impact on anxiety, relieving stress and improving sleep. Exercise not only releases endorphins in the brain, which are the body’s natural painkillers but also plays a role in regulating mood and relaxing the mind. People with anxiety often have an excess of the stress hormone cortisol in the body, which can be reduced by engaging in physical exercise.
Stretching can be helpful for managing anxiety for several reasons. The body’s fight-flight response can be triggered at times of stress and anxiety, and during fight-flight your muscles contract. Stretching interrupts the defensive response and provides relief to a tense body. Stretching also promotes circulation of new blood to the brain, which can elevate mood, allowing stress to roll off your body and mind. Taking time out of your busy life to stretch and pay attention to your body, provides an opportunity to decompress both mentally and physically.
Distraction. Purposeful use of distraction techniques can be beneficial for coping with uncomfortable emotions, such as anxiety and fear. Distraction is anything that provides temporary relief by taking your mind off of thoughts or emotions that contribute to anxiety. Sometimes, ruminating on worries or focusing on a strong emotion can make it feel even stronger and more out of control. Temporarily distracting yourself from your feelings or thoughts can assist to decrease the intensity and make anxiety easier to manage.
Talking to others can be helpful when experiencing anxiety. Keeping things inside only lets them build up. Sometimes talking to others and getting things off of your chest can provide an outlet for pent-up emotions, provide clarity and make things feel less frightening. Talking with others who also experience anxiety, or are going through something similar, also helps you to feel less alone.
Get enough sleep. A lack of sleep can exacerbate anxious thoughts and feelings so try to get 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep each night. Creating a regular routine where you go to bed and get up at the same time each day will also help to promote healthy sleep.
Adopt healthy eating habits. It is helpful to start the day with a healthy breakfast and eat small, nutritious meals throughout the day. A long period without eating contributes to low blood sugar, which can make you feel more anxious.
Writing thoughts down in a journal, on a laptop, smartphone or tablet can be a healthy outlet for expressing yourself. When you have a problem or are stressed, writing can help you to identify what is causing the anxiety or stress. You can then work towards a plan for resolving the issues and reducing your anxiety. It can also be helpful for tracking triggers, identifying negative self-talk and monitoring the effectiveness of anxiety management strategies.
Be aware of your self-talk. Your thoughts affect how you feel. Anxiety can make you overestimate the danger of a situation and underestimate your ability to cope with it. Anxiety can also contribute to the development of unhelpful thinking habits, so it is important to consider different interpretations of a situation that is making you anxious, rather than jumping to conclusions or catastrophising. Look for the facts and challenge negative self-talk. Utilising positive affirmations and self-soothing statements such as ‘this will pass’ or ‘I can cope’ can also help to manage anxiety.
Reduce Stressors. If your stress levels are through the roof, think about how you can bring your life back into balance. There may be responsibilities or commitments that you can give up, turn down, or delegate to others to reduce your stress and lower anxiety.
Calming activities. Engaging in calming activities can counteract anxiety and activate the body’s relaxation response. These might include listening to relaxing music, going for a walk, talking to a friend, enjoying the sunshine, soaking in a bath, enjoying nature, spending time with animals, going to the beach or diffusing essential oils with anti-anxiety properties such as Lavender, Frankincense, Cedarwood, Vetiver or Ylang Ylang. It’s about choosing an activity that is soothing and calming for you.
Lightly running your fingers over your lips, as strange as this sounds, can elicit a sense of calm by stimulating the parasympathetic fibres in your lips.
Be kind to yourself. Remember that you are not your anxiety. You are not weak or inferior. You have a mental health condition. It’s called anxiety.
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