Having anxiety can be a daily battle. Or you might only feel anxious once in a while. No matter the duration or severity of your anxiety, you are valid and your feelings matter. It’s when anxiety starts regularly and negatively impacting our daily lives that we need to take a step back and find healthy ways to cope. Everyone’s anxiety is different, but there are some basic steps you can take on your own to self-soothe. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 31.1% of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder at some point during their lives.1
Stress vs Anxiety
Stress is caused by an active trigger that may be short or long term, anywhere from missing a deadline at work to the death of a loved one. Anxiety is a persistent feeling of worry or dread that does not need a specific trigger. It does not go away in the absence of stress.
However, both stress and anxiety respond to similar coping strategies like diet, exercise, and getting good sleep.2
When You Feel Anxious
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we become overwhelmed by anxiety. It’s in these moments when we can use in the moment coping skills, like taking deep breaths. If you are experiencing frequent panic attacks, you should discuss it with your mental health provider.
Here are some ways you can calm down during times of stress:
Relax Your Muscles
When we get stressed, our muscles tense up. This can cause not only general body aches and pains, but also fatigue and headaches.3 If you are starting to feel your anxiety rise, you can try progressive muscle relaxation to relax. Start by choosing one area of your body (like your legs) and tense for 5-10 seconds, breathing in. Then exhale and relax for another 5-10.3 This method has shown to be effective in reducing anxiety and helping mental health. You can also skip tensing your muscles and simply relax each area of your body, bit by bit.3
Plant your feet firmly on the floor. Notice how the inside of your shoes feel, or if you are barefoot, how the floor feels. Notice how you are standing. If you are sitting, take the time to notice the chair you are in. Take some deep, slow breaths and really focus on what’s around you. Do you feel a cool breeze, or hear birds outside the window? Focus on these things and breathe. Focusing on the things immediately around you can help bring you back to the present moment.
Develop and Use a Panic Button Plan
Either by yourself or with your mental health professional, work on creating a chart of your anxiety, examining what it looks like when you are completely relaxed all the way up to the worst it gets. Next to each level, you can write down different strategies you can take to calm down. When you feel anxious, you can use the strategies appropriate to how anxious you feel.
To Get Ahead of Anxiety
In a review of different coping mechanisms published by the American Psychological Association, the APA discusses some of their favorite preferred methods for dealing with stress.
Evaluate your nutrition habits. The release of adrenaline and cortisol caused by stress can impact your system by lessening your appetite, or causing crave sugars and fats. This may cause larger deposits of fat in the body, which can cause other health issues.3 By eating a varied diet full of fruits and vegetables, you will get the nutrients you need to keep healthy during times of stress.
2. Get High Quality Sleep
How we feel during the day can impact how well we sleep. If you have racing thoughts before bed, it can be difficult to fall asleep. You can improve your sleep by not consuming any caffeine and/or alcohol a few hours before bed, avoiding excessive screen time, and by engaging in more physical activities during the day. 3
3. Ask for Help
There is no shame in asking for help, either from a loved one or a mental health provider. Those who have higher levels of emotional support reported lower stress levels than those without emotional support.4 If you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety, it’s okay to reach out.
Everyone’s needs are different. Talk with your mental health professional to gain more insight into what kind of treatment and coping mechanisms work best for you. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is very well suited to treating all kinds of anxiety disorders, and sometimes used in combination with medication, so expect to discuss those options with your provider.5
If you are having anxiety about COVID-19, here are some advisements from the CDC:
This article was written by Caroline Sebren, a senior at the University of South Carolina and current volunteer writer for Carolina Assessment Services, LLC. Caroline is a current Psychology major with a minor in Counselor Education and hopes to pursue work in the future as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
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