Anxiety is a painful emotion and a potentially debilitating mental health condition. Feeling anxious sometimes is normal, but persistent anxiety that interferes with your quality of life or ability to function needs to be addressed.
If you feel increasingly anxious, you might want to know some steps you can take to feel better. While there are several effective drugs to treat anxiety, people often want to try nonprescription remedies first.
That is understandable, but also remember that sometimes anxiety keeps us from trying medication that could be needed, says UNC Health psychiatrist Mary Kimmel, MD. This is especially true if you continue to struggle with anxiety despite trying coping strategies on your own.
“Often you need both coping tools and medication,” she says. “You need a number of tools in your toolkit.”
Dr. Kimmel offers these skills to try the next time you feel anxious.
Simple breathing exercises can help ease anxiety. Start by taking a deep breath in, counting to five and then blowing it out slowly to the count of eight.
Dr. Kimmel says some people find the “tracing a box with your breath” method helpful: Take in a deep breath, counting to four or five, and imagine tracing the side of a square. Then hold your breath for a count of four as you imagine tracing the top of the square. Breathe out for four or five counts as you trace the other side of the square and hold for four tracing back to the original spot—again, this is all done with your imagination.
The technique helps calm the autonomic nervous system and grounds people in the present moment rather than the anxiety of the past or future, Dr. Kimmel says.
Meditation takes deep breathing a step further, but it doesn’t need to be a heavy lift. You can meditate for a few minutes; you don’t have to sit still for hours. Meditation is about learning to focus on your breath and allowing thoughts to come in and out of your mind without struggling with them. Studies show that meditation can help ease your mind and reduce worrisome thoughts.
Don’t know where to start? Try a meditation app on your phone.
3. Try progressive muscle relaxation.
Anxiety can lead to muscle tension and pain. Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique in which you move through your body, tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups. There are many guides online for how to do it, but the basic idea is to tighten your muscles so you can then relax them and reduce your overall tension.
4. Move your body.
Studies show that exercise is effective in reducing anxiety and depression in part because it produces endorphins, brain chemicals that contribute to a sense of well-being. Gentle or moderate exercise is fine; you don’t have to run 3 miles a day to experience the anxiety-reducing benefits. Try yoga, tai chi or taking your dog for a walk.
5. Find comfort in grounding objects.
Do you have a favorite raspberry lip balm, lavender-scented candle or soft scarf? Pull it out when you feel anxious. Or maybe brushing or cuddling your dog helps you feel more at peace. These are grounding techniques, which engage your senses to bring you back to the present and out of your anxious mind. Note how the candle smells or how your dog’s fur feels in your fingers.
6. Write out your feelings.
Keeping a journal or writing a letter to someone (it doesn’t have to be delivered) can be therapeutic. It gives you a place to release your thoughts, fears and emotions. It can also help you identify patterns in your thoughts and behaviors that might contribute to anxiety.
7. Get spiritual.
Tapping into your spiritual side can help you take a broader perspective that might calm your mind. Spirituality can mean many things; it could be religious practices like prayer or connecting to nature by walking outside and feeling the sun on your skin. Some people have a spiritual experience when they take photographs, draw or do something else creative. Whatever you find meaningful and peaceful is going to work best for you.
8. Talk to someone.
Confiding how you’re feeling in a trusted friend or loved one can help reduce anxiety, but there’s no substitute for professional therapy. Therapy—alone or with medication—can help you uncover the cause of your worries and fears and learn how to identify when you are spiraling into a cycle of anxious thoughts. Therapists can work with you to develop the skills to manage your anxiety. Often this is done with cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches skills to change thinking patterns.
Whatever approach you take to dealing with your anxiety, it’s important to try something—or several somethings at once, Dr. Kimmel says.
“Anxiety is highly treatable, but it can be so hard to be going through it and to feel it will not improve,” she says. “We can use different strategies to find out what helps at various times and in various situations.”
Struggling with anxiety or stress? Talk to your doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.