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How to calm anxiety in stressful situations

How to calm anxiety in stressful situations

These days, it feels like just being alive qualifies as a stressful situation. Now more than ever, we all need to learn how to calm anxiety and give our overtaxed bodies and minds a much-needed rest. 

So what helps with anxiety in challenging moments? If you’re struggling, here are 11 scientifically proven ways to calm anxiety, especially in difficult or stressful situations. 

1. Breathe deeply.

When anxiety or panic come up, breathing becomes shallow. You may start to breathe into your chest (thoracic breathing) rather than your diaphragm (diaphragmatic breathing). A rapid, shallow breath cycle causes physiological changes in your body, some of which feel just like the physical symptoms of anxiety.

Shallow breathing can make you feel dizzy, like your heart is racing, or that your muscles are tight. But it goes both ways. Because the body’s state influences emotions, these physical sensations can also trigger panic attacks.

Deep breathing helps calm the body, relieving uncomfortable symptoms. Here’s a breathing exercise for anxiety that you can try anytime, anywhere.

  • Inhale and exhale deeply. Breathe through your nose. Your belly should rise with the in-breath and fall with the out-breath, but your chest won’t move much.
  • Breathe in for 3 and out for 6. Use any 1:2 inhale-exhale ratio that feels right. 
  • Focus on the out-breath. Place your attention on the exhale and lengthen it as much as you can.

Long, slow exhales are linked to the body’s relaxation network, the parasympathetic nervous system. When activated, it relaxes muscles, slows heart rate, and lowers blood pressure. So focus on gently lengthening your exhale to calm your body down on a physical level. 

2. Move your body.  

Looking for an instant way to relieve stress? Exercise has an immediate positive impact on the brain, including benefits to mental health. Studies show that right after moderate or vigorous exercise, people experience a reduction in anxiety and depression. Regular exercise improves cognition, quality of life, and sleep.

There’s a well-established negative correlation between exercise and anxiety. This is true in part because physical exertion triggers the release of endorphins in the body. These neurotransmitters, which act as the body’s natural pain killers, also relieve stress. 

With regular exercise, there are dramatic improvements to long-term brain health. These include decreased long-term anxiety, improvements to deep sleep, and benefits to your brain’s executive functioning. 

That last one is important. Why? The benefits to your brain’s executive function include the ability to plan and organize, start tasks, monitor and inhibit harmful behaviors, facilitate helpful behaviors, and even self-regulate emotions

That’s right, just 30 minutes of brisk walking a day can help you learn how to calm down anxiety—no need to overdo it, either. Just aim to be breathing more heavily than usual and feel warmed up by the end of your chosen activity. That’s all the physical effort needed to reap the mental health benefits of exercise.  

3. Anchor yourself to the present.  

Anxiety takes you out of the present moment. When you worry, it’s usually about the future or the past. 

The strange thing is that, more often than not, the present moment is actually okay. That’s one way you can use the present moment as a natural remedy for anxiety. 

For many, anxiety is experienced as physical restlessness and agitation, accompanied by ruminative or catastrophic thinking, as well as a fear of being helpless or out of control. 

In the midst of this, the present moment might sound like the last place you want to be. But techniques like mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which focuses on embodied present moment awareness, can actually relieve stress and anxiety. 

You can use grounding techniques for anxiety, like this one, to bring your body and mind into the present moment in a calming and soothing way. The 3-3-3 grounding exercise below is especially helpful for people who want to learn how to stop a panic attack.

  • Look around for 3 objects. Maybe you see a rug, a tree, and a lamp.
  • Name the objects one at a time. Use an adjective in combination with the object, like its color. So you might say, “blue rug, green tree, silver lamp.”
  • Repeat these descriptions 3 times in order. Look around as you repeat the words and let your senses guide you.
  • Repeat the process 3 times. If you’re still feeling panicky, you can go through the whole exercise again.

By gently bringing your mind back into physical reality with sense-oriented relaxing exercises, you can interrupt moments of panic and anxiety. You’re reminding yourself that at this very moment, you are safe, you are okay, and you can be with what’s happening. 

4. Be mindful. 

Meditation can reduce anxiousness by rewiring the brain on a neural level. Many forms of meditation, including mindfulness, are effective at calming anxiety, a claim supported by science

Mindfulness is the practice of observing your feelings and thoughts without judgment or commentary. When you do mindfulness meditation, you train your mind to watch the way it thinks. 

Human beings have a fundamental capacity for awareness that holds experience in a broad and spacious way. When you tap into this kind of expansive awareness using meditation, you create space between yourself and your thinking. 

Over time, this distance can allow you the space to change the way you interact with your thoughts, especially those associated with anxiety. It can also help increase your tolerance for distress. 

Victor Frankl said it best: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Try it right now. Find a comfortable position and take 3 deep breaths. Then let your breath return to normal and see if you can widen the aperture of your mind to take a broad view of your thinking. 

  • Watch. Focus on watching the way your brain thinks thoughts.
  • Label. When you notice a thought, label it “thought.” 
  • Notice. Pay attention as a thought arises and passes away. 

Do this the same way you’d watch clouds drifting through a blue sky. There’s no need to judge, interpret, or attach. 

If you’ve tried meditation for anxiety in the past and it hasn’t seemed to help, don’t give up. It takes practicing more than a few times to see any improvement.  Plus, there’s no “right” or “best” way to meditate. Meditation is fundamentally an individual exploration, and it’s all about finding the practice or technique that works best for your body, mind, and spirit. 

If sitting still with your mind feels like too much, trust yourself. Try yoga for anxiety or other mindful movement-based practices. You can also check out this anxiety-sensitive meditation guide for more helpful recommendations.

5. Accept your anxiety

As counterintuitive as it sounds, many people experience relief by making peace with anxiety. Studies show that unconditional self-acceptance has a negative correlation with the symptoms of anxiety. When you make room to let it be part of life, your whole relationship with, and experience of, anxiety can shift. 

Accepting anxiety doesn’t mean you like it. It doesn’t mean you’ve resigned yourself to living with it forever or that you’re helpless to change it. Accepting your anxiety can be as simple as an attitude of “okay, this is here right now.”

It’s natural to dislike feeling anxious. But did you know that anxiety is an adaptive part of the human brain? It’s actually trying to take care of you. Understanding why we experience anxiety can be one pathway to accepting it.

The so-called “reptilian brain,” the oldest part of the human brain, is responsible for fear and anxiety. It evolved to manage instinctual behaviors aimed at self-preservation. One of its primary functions is to determine whether a situation is physically threatening or not and trigger a stress response to help protect you. 

It’s what allowed early humans to notice and prioritize physical danger—while releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to mobilize for escape. 

So try this attitude on: Thanks, Anxiety, for working so tirelessly to help protect and take care. I couldn’t have made it this far without you! Even though you’re unpleasant, I accept that you’re here, and I recognize that you’re trying to help.

6. Train in compassion

Did you know that practicing compassion can literally rewire the brain? Pathways in the brain can be changed and reorganized over time—a quality called neural plasticity

Because even the adult brain is malleable in this way, repeated efforts at empathy and compassion can directly restructure patterns of thought and behavior. 

Over time, self-compassion can help with mood regulation. More than that, it can enable you to feel safe, accepted, and soothed inside yourself.

Many people who suffer from anxiety blame themselves for the painful and frightening experience. But anxiety is not your fault. Nor is it a personal weakness or failing. It’s simply part of being human. 

By regularly extending compassion to your own suffering, you can change your brain’s neural pathways, reduce anxiety, and increase emotional well-being. In fact, compassion-focused therapy has proven effective in treating several anxiety disorders.

Try using a loving-kindness meditation to cultivate self-compassion. Offer empathy to the parts of yourself that are struggling or hurting.

Forgive yourself for the painful experience you’re having. And offer the wish or intention that you may be contented and at peace with yourself and the world around you.

7. Keep a gratitude journal 

Gratitude is good for you! The benefits of gratitude include better health, less physical pain, greater overall happiness, freedom from toxic emotions, and better sleep. 

It can also increase two essential mood-regulating hormones, dopamine and serotonin. In fact, researchers have even been able to measure specific gratitude brain activity using an fMRI. 

Here’s where it gets tricky. The human brain is wired to look for threats and danger—a phenomenon called the negativity bias. On top of that, it stores negative experiences 5 times stronger than positive ones. But you can use gratitude practice to combat the neurobiology of negativity. 

Here’s how it works. The basic principle of neurological learning is that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Each time you have a feeling, thought, felt sense, or experience, thousands of neurons are triggered in an electrochemical event that takes place in your brain. 

With enough repetition, your brain learns to activate the same groups of neurons for repeated thoughts and experiences.

This means that the more you travel down certain neural pathways with thoughts, attitudes, and feelings, the deeper the groove of those pathways becomes. By the same logic, the more often you practice gratitude, the more grateful you’ll feel. 

Start by writing a daily gratitude list or keeping a gratitude journal. It doesn’t have to be complicated or profound. Maybe you’re grateful for your morning coffee, your pet, or the loving support of a friend or relative.

Spend just a few moments each day reflecting on the things in your life you feel grateful for and jot a few of them down. For added accountability, ask a friend to practice with you and share your daily gratitude reflections with one another.

8. Nourish yourself

Anxiety depletes you. Undergoing stress can trigger or aggravate diseases and drain the body’s store of essential vitamins. That’s why it’s so important to take really good care of yourself when you’re experiencing stress and anxiety.

Make sure you’re doing the following things each day to boost your physical and emotional well-being. 

  • Get enough sleep. Sleep is the time your body and mind restore themselves. Plus, insomnia has been linked to higher levels of anxiety and depression, and other health problems. So getting lots of good rest can help with managing stress. 
  • Stay hydrated. When you’re dehydrated, your body’s stress responsiveness slows down, which means you have less capacity to regulate anxiety and fear. Drinking plenty of water helps keep your body’s natural defenses working well.
  • Eat nutritious meals. Your body and mind need vitamins and nutrients to function at full capacity. Stress uses up vitamins and minerals your brain and body need. Recently, mood disorders have been linked to low levels of omega-3 fatty acids. That’s why feeding yourself wholesome and nutritious meals can help you fight anxiety naturally. 

Plus, certain things can increase anxiety. It’s equally important to stay away from alcohol and caffeine, which are well-known to worsen anxiety. 

9. Regulate your emotions

When you’re anxious, it’s much harder to regulate your emotions, which means you’re not as able to moderate the intensity of your feelings, leading to less control over how you experience and express feelings. Instead of controlling your emotions, your emotions control you. 

Emotional regulation, sometimes called self-regulation, is the ability to modulate the feelings you experience so you can choose how to relate to them, how much power you give them, and whether or not to take action because of them. 

Instead of focusing solely on changing your environment, it’s empowering to focus on the one person you can change—yourself.   

Here are some emotional regulation skills you can try when you feel anxious.

  • Reframe negative experiences. Actively change the way you’re thinking about the situation. For instance, instead of beating yourself up for making a mistake, frame your experience as a learning opportunity.
  • Interrupt the cycle. If you’ve been working from home and feeling stressed about a work project, distract yourself by getting up and out for a walk. You can do other things like cooking a meal or taking a shower to interrupt the anxiety.
  • Turn away from the source of pain. If there’s an emotional disturbance, shift your attention elsewhere. Putting too much attention on what’s not right can make it feel like everything’s going wrong. If you need something new to focus on, you can actively turn toward something positive.
  • Focus on what’s going right. Concentrate on the things that are good or positive in your life. Spend time really relishing whatever it is you’re grateful to have and expressing that gratitude. 

By shifting your relationship with emotional triggers, especially those that make you anxious, you empower yourself to control the impact anxiety has on your life. 

10. Share about it

Anxiety makes it hard to see things clearly. More than that, it’s an isolating experience. That’s why it can help to share your experience with at least one trusted person. It could be a friend or a professional counselor. In addition to reducing isolation, sharing your thoughts can bring a welcome change in perspective and help with anxiety management.

When you’re experiencing anxiety, it’s natural to feel cut off or separate from others. Maybe you believe that because of your mental state, you no longer fit in or belong. Internally, it may feel like your world is falling apart, while others seem to be doing just fine and holding it together.

It’s easy to believe these thoughts are an accurate representation of reality. But saying these thoughts or beliefs aloud to a friend, therapist, or other understanding allay can offer some healing perspective.

It’s often a reminder that others understand and relate to the feelings you’re describing. 

Saying things out loud to another person is one powerful way you can label your experience and give yourself a little space from it. In fact, connecting with others is one way to protect yourself from anxiety and depression. 

We all experience anxiety, especially at stressful times. Talking about it with another person creates an opening for you to receive the support and empathy you need. 

11. Use a visualization

Just as the body has an impact on thinking, thoughts have a physiological effect on the body. In other words, the movements of the mind cause chemical reactions in the brain that alter the physical reality of the body. That’s why using your mind to visualize something peaceful can help with managing anxiety.

Find a calming mental image that resonates with you and call on it in difficult or stressful times. It can be especially useful to think of something calming in the natural world, like a trickling stream or a quiet forest. That’s because nature-based guided imagery has been shown to reduce anxiety. 

Here’s an example. Your metaphor for calm might be the bottom of the ocean floor. Even though the waves on the surface of the ocean can be stormy, chaotic, or even violent, there’s always a still and peaceful place deep below the turbulence. 

You can use the ocean floor as a reminder that the deepest part of yourself has access to a safe, still place, even in the most difficult situations. This can help you frame anxiety as an experience rather than an identity

You can even use a mantra or self-affirmation during the visualization. Find a phrase or sentence that helps you tap into that sense of calm and repeat it to yourself when you’re experiencing stress.

You might say, “I am the calm of the ocean floor,” to remind yourself that your body and mind have the ability to access peace and calm, even in moments of extreme anxiety.  

Next steps for anxiety treatment

If you’ve never seen a medical or mental health professional about your anxiety, it can be a good place to start. A healthcare professional can help you better understand the experience you’re having and prescribe medications to support you as you learn how to overcome anxiety. 

It’s not right for everyone, but many people suffering from anxiety and panic benefit from prescription medication. Talk with a medical professional and see if meds would be a good option for you. 

Takeaway

  • If you’re struggling with anxiety, there is help and hope available. 
  • Learning to manage anxious feelings is a process, and these anxiety coping skills can help.