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Reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Anyone who deals with anxiety knows that anxious thoughts and feelings can often appear at the most inopportune moments. You may freeze up before a big presentation, or find yourself unable to fall back asleep after heading to the bathroom at night.
So what are your options?
While getting a hold on your anxiety can take time, patience, and practice, there are certainly some techniques you can use to help yourself calm down in the moment.
Here’s a rundown of how anxiety works and the tips we recommend for giving yourself some peace.
Put simply, anxiety itself is a completely normal stress response to influences in our environment. As with many of the other feelings we may experience such as happiness, excitement and fear, anxiety is part of emotional regulation in our daily lives.
Anxiety disorder, however, takes things a step further.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, anxiety disorder is marked by fear or anxiety that is out of proportion to the situation related to it, inappropriate for a person’s age or a hindrance to their ability to function normally.
The symptoms of anxiety involve mental, physical and behavioral impacts and include:
Heart palpitations or elevated heart rate
Shortness of breath
So, how do you know if you have an anxiety disorder? Your mental health provider is your best resource in seeking a diagnosis. They can help assess your level of anxiety, determine whether it qualifies as an anxiety disorder and help you seek treatment.
Talk therapy is great, but what about when you’re experiencing anxiety in the moment? What can you do in those moments where you are dealing with symptoms of anxiety?
Let’s hop into some types of relaxation techniques we recommend for managing your anxiety and overall mental health.
The Anxiety & Depression Association of America notes that exercise is “very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration and enhancing overall cognitive function”.
While you may think this means that you need to jump into an exercise routine that sees you hitting the gym multiple times a week, you need not push yourself so hard to start.
While there can certainly be benefits to an exercise routine that extends past your mental health, you can get started with a 10-minute walk.
A 2006 study on the effects of Shinrin-yoku, a Japanese practice that means “taking in the atmosphere of the forest,” found that walking in a forest can induce feelings of calm and significantly reduce activity in the prefrontal areas of the brain.
Now, we fully realize that not everyone reading this will be within walking (or even driving) distance of a forest, but you need not go that far.
There are demonstrated benefits to getting out into nature in general, whether it be a neighborhood park, your nearest green space or summiting Everest.
Okay, summiting Everest actually sounds pretty stressful — we take that one back.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a relaxation technique that involves tensing a group of muscles as you breathe in for a few seconds and then releasing the tension as you breathe out.
The goal is to mindfully relax the muscles across your body so that you’re able to achieve a sense of calm.
There are a number of studies on the effects of progressive muscle relaxation across different groups, including a 2021 study that found benefits in both mental and physical relaxation and stress reduction.
It may be helpful for you to find an audio guide, or consult with your mental health provider to learn more about how to understand your muscle groups and use this technique.
Okay, let’s take a deep breath together. In through your nose and into your belly for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, and breathe out through your nose for eight seconds until your lungs are empty.
Now, repeat that five times and come back to us.
How do you feel?
The same 2021 study mentioned above that found benefits in mental and physical relaxation and stress reduction with progressive muscle relaxation also found the same for deep breathing exercises.
There are a number of exercises you can try — check out our guide to square breathing on our resources page.
Please note, this method is not recommended for individuals with breathing problems.
If what is making you anxious is that you simply have too much on your plate, this is the sign you’ve been looking for to cancel your plans. You can go ahead and blame us if you’d like.
It’s probably one of the types of relaxation techniques you wouldn’t normally consider, but canceling your plans is a viable way to free up some space in your brain and give it a chance to relax.
Sometimes it’s far too easy to put too much on our plates and end up with a packed schedule before we realize it. However, downtime is important for calming an anxious mind.
One 2017 study specifically looked at a group of 441 nursing students to see if there was an identifiable correlation between time management skills and anxiety levels and, as you’d probably expect, the relationship between time management skills and anxiety levels was statistically significant — those who were better at managing time were less anxious.
Use your newly acquired free time to practice a relaxation technique covered here, catch up on sleep, or just do nothing. Whatever you do, resist the urge to fill the time with productivity, the goal is to relax.
Our last tip is particularly helpful if you find yourself too anxious to fall asleep. While anxiety lives in both the body and the mind, physical symptoms can manifest as tension in our bodies without us realizing it. You may be surprised to find that there is a quick fix for that.
The purpose of a body scan is to examine your body from head to toe, or from toe to head — your choice — and mindfully relax each part of your body as you get to it.
So while breathing normally and laying in the position that you’d prefer to fall asleep in, you can start with relaxing your toes, then ankles, calves, knees, thighs, and so forth until you reach the top of your head.
You may be surprised to see how much tension you’ve been holding — and tense muscle doesn’t let you sleep.
As you move forward in seeking help to manage your anxiety, relaxation therapies are a great way to help yourself calm down in a moment of particularly high unrest.
Speaking with a healthcare professional to help you identify your anxiety symptoms is definitely the first step, but learning how to cope with in-the-moment anxiety is an invaluable coping tool.
Try these techniques and see how they work out for you.