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DIY Techniques for Reducing Anxiety
Anxiety isn’t always a disorder or a symptom of a mental health condition. It’s a natural mental state that everyone experiences at some point. It’s normal to feel anxious when you’re under stress, anticipating unpleasant situations, or facing an uncertain future.
Normal anxiety comes and goes, while clinical anxiety is more constant. When you have an anxiety disorder, you experience intense and chronic anxiety that interferes with your daily life. Clinical anxiety can have dramatic effects on your social life, your physical health, and your success at work or school.
Clinical anxiety is the most common mental health condition in the United States, affecting 19 percent of the adult population, or 62 million adults, every year. Mental health treatment, whether medication or therapy (or both), is often necessary for recovery from anxiety disorders.
That said, there are things you can do on your own to feel better regardless of what kind or level of anxiety you have. Do-it-yourself anxiety management techniques are self-care tools you can use any time you feel anxious. While these DIY techniques won’t cure anxiety disorders or completely keep anxious feelings at bay, they can help you get through stressful situations and enhance the effects of formal anxiety treatment. Read on for ten self-care techniques for anxiety we encourage you to try.
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Practice Breathing Techniques
When you’re feeling anxious, you’re probably also thinking anxious thoughts. Taking your mind off what you’re thinking can reduce your anxiety level. One way to do that is by shifting your focus to your body. An accessible and natural way to do that is to pay attention to your breathing.
Focusing on the breath has been an important form of meditation for most, if not all, of human history. One of the simplest and most popular meditation techniques is counting your breaths. But you don’t have to meditate to benefit from breath counting. You can stop and count your breaths anywhere and any time you want to try to calm yourself.
A Simple Breath Counting Technique
Focus on a place in your body where you can feel your breaths come and go. For example, you can focus on the rising and falling of your belly or the sensation of breaths coming in and out of your nose.
Count each in-breath or out-breath until you reach the number 10 and then start again. Alternately, you can just focus on the place where you feel the sensation of breathing and hold your attention there.
Lightly modulating your breath can help you focus your attention. You can do any of the following to try to enhance the calming effects of breath counting:
- Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.
- Try breathing deeply enough to feel your abdomen fully rise and fall.
- Try lengthening your breaths, such as by counting to 5 on each inhale and 5 on each exhale.
- Try other ways to alter the rhythm of your breathing, such as by taking longer pauses in between out-breaths and in-breaths.
Try Other Grounding Techniques
One of the simplest grounding techniques is also one of the most powerful: the room scan. Mental health professionals often recommend this DIY grounding technique to people who need to manage severe post-traumatic symptoms like flashbacks and intrusive memories. It’s also an effective technique for managing anxiety symptoms.
The Room Scan Technique
When you do a room scan, you shift your attention away from your anxious thoughts by taking an inventory of your immediate personal environment. This can help you get back into your body when you’re stressed.
One way to do the room scan is to list five things you can sense with each of your five senses—five each of what you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.
A popular variation of this is the “5-4-3-2-1 method” in which you identify five things you can see, four you can hear, three you can feel, two you can smell, and one you can taste.
You can also simply start naming objects in the room. This pulls you out of anxious thoughts and helps you recognize that you are safe.
Another grounding technique you can do is standing up and focusing on the feeling of your feet touching the ground. You can enhance the grounding effect by imagining calming energy flowing up to you from the ground and negative energy flowing out of you into the ground. You can further enhance this technique by practicing it barefoot outdoors.
Do Gentle Exercise
Another way to alleviate anxiety is to do gentle exercise like yoga, stretching, or walking at a slow to moderate pace. These exercises anchor your attention on the sensations in your body in a calming, meditative way.
Gentle exercise releases feel-good chemicals in your brain, including many of the same ones released by higher-impact exercise, and helps you focus. An additional benefit of yoga and stretching is that they release muscle tension, which reduces psychological tension.
The Creative Practice of Walking
For centuries, writers, poets, and other people in creative professions have noted that a daily walk helps them think more clearly and enhances their creativity. In part, this is because it helps them release anxious thoughts and allows their minds to wander to new ideas and solutions.
You can combine breathing techniques and gentle exercise by breathing in rhythm with your steps or movements. This enhances your focus and harmonizes your body and mind.
Do Vigorous Exercise
Vigorous exercise like running, doing group fitness classes, swimming, or playing tennis can also alleviate anxiety.
Intense exercise has powerful psychological effects and can immediately change your brain chemistry. During and after intense exercise, your brain releases natural chemicals that boost your mood and alleviate pain and discomfort.
Aerobic exercise does more than just boost your mood for a short while, though. It also has long-term effects on your mental health. Research shows that it reduces activity in the sympathetic nervous system and improves levels of norepinephrine and serotonin over time.
In other words, exercise regulates and balances your brain chemistry. It also activates the parts of your brain that help you manage anxiety. These adaptations make it possible to bounce back from stress faster—and to get less stressed out in the first place.
Learn Meditation and Mindfulness Practices
There are dozens of meditation techniques, some of which are powerful yogic methods that are thousands of years old. But at its heart, meditation is a simple, universal activity. You don’t have to be a yogi or a monk to benefit from it.
It might help to think of meditation as an enhanced breathing technique. (Breath is often the point of focus in meditation, though some techniques use visualization, sound, or rhythmic movements to concentrate the mind.)
What all forms of meditation have in common is that they shift the relationship you have with your thoughts by using your brain’s natural ability to concentrate on something else.
What Meditation Is—and Isn't
Stillness is the defining characteristic of meditation. Even in moving meditation, the object is to use physical movement to quiet your thoughts and calm your mind.
But it’s important to understand that the stillness of meditation is not necessarily the absence of thought. You never have to get your mind completely quiet to benefit from meditation. The important thing isn’t whether you have no, few, or many thoughts; it’s learning how to let them come and go without getting caught up in them.
Meditation is like exercise; the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. But even in the beginning, it doesn’t have to be frustrating. Your mind will naturally wander when you sit down and meditate. This is part of the process; it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.
The main instruction in meditation is to gently bring your attention back to the object of meditation every time you get drawn away from it and into your thoughts.
Think of your thoughts as clouds and your mind as the sky; just let your thoughts drift across the sky of your mind. The more you do this, the more you’ll be able to see your anxious thoughts as thoughts and let them pass without engaging them. Over time, this can significantly reduce your anxiety levels.
Spend Time in Nature or with Animals
You might be surprised just how much you can change your mind and your mood by spending time in nature.
Natural settings engage and focus the senses in a way that makes us feel more connected to the world around us. On the other hand, the stress and noise of urban environments often trigger us to defensively withdraw and shut down.
Research shows that walking in nature reduces anxiety even more than walking does in general. Within 15 minutes of entering a forest or another pristine natural environment, your stress level, heart rate, and blood pressure all go down.
Even if you can’t get to a park, wilderness, or other natural setting, you can get some of the same benefits by watching birds outside your window or listening to nature sounds.
Give Your Pet a Pet
Another way to connect to the healing power of nature is to interact with pets or other animals. Research shows that having a pet can reduce stress by lowering levels of cortisol, the brain chemical responsible for increasing stress (and inflammation). Interacting with a pet also increases oxytocin, also known as “the cuddle chemical,” which makes you feel loved and safe.
Soothe Your Gut First
One of our first instincts when we’re stressed is to reach for food. Unfortunately, we often use food to comfort ourselves in unhealthy ways. We choose foods that give us a quick hit of dopamine, like pizza or candy, which make us feel bad right after they make us feel good. In addition to having negative effects on our physical health, these foods always leave us in a post-dopamine lurch.
But you can harness the power of food to comfort yourself more effectively by choosing foods that have longer-lasting psychological benefits. Research continues to support the link between gut health and mental health and shows that probiotic foods like yogurt and kombucha reduce levels of stress and anxiety.
Have a Cup of Tea
Research also shows that l-theanine, a chemical in tea, reduces the physical and psychological effects of stress and anxiety. Drinking tea is a wonderful way to calm the body and mind.
Many other foods have a positive effect on mental health, including fruit, nuts, vegetables, and fish. In general, hydrating and eating a healthy diet with adequate levels of fiber, protein, and natural vitamins and minerals will keep your mind healthy, too.
Read a Book or Listen to an Audiobook
It’s tempting to flip on the television when you’re feeling stressed, and it’s not always a bad idea. Stories can heal, and even shows that are the TV equivalent of junk food are sometimes just the distraction you need.
That said, if you’re not feeling too anxious to pick up a book, that may be the better choice. Reading engages the mind in a different way that seems to have a more lasting effect on anxiety. Research shows that reading can reduce your stress level by up to 66 percent.
One reason you might choose TV over a book even if you love books is that reading is cognitively demanding in a way that watching TV isn’t. In other words, while reading can reduce anxiety, sometimes you might feel too anxious or exhausted to read a book.
So, if you’ve been in a reading slump because you’ve been too anxious or stressed out to read, consider listening to an audiobook. When you listen to a book, you don’t have to work as hard to focus, but you get a lot of the same positive effects as when you read. It can also be a great option when you’re pressed for time; you can listen to audiobooks while you’re driving, doing chores, or drifting off to sleep.
Get into the Creative Flow
Expressing yourself creatively is great for your mental health. By drawing, painting, dancing, or doing other creative activities, you can express and release your emotions, make sense of them, and find meaning in them all at the same time.
When you hone a skill or produce something you’re proud of, you boost your self-esteem. Creativity allows you to channel and express your feelings in ways that can affect and help others, which is empowering.
When you create, you might even enter a state of deep absorption called a “flow state” in which all other thoughts, including all of the anxious ones, drop away. Flow states not only reduce anxiety—they can even make you feel euphoric!
Write It Down
Doing any kind of writing, including creative writing, journaling, or “Morning Pages,” can boost your mental health.Writing can be expressive and creative, and it can also be an excellent tool for problem-solving. It can help you think through an issue and re-interpret the issue or the thoughts you’re having about it. Organizing your thoughts in a journal can help you gain perspective and feel more capable of addressing whatever is making you feel anxious.
Talk to a Loved One (Or a Professional)
One of the most natural ways to heal anxiety is to talk to other people about what you’re going through. Simply knowing you’re not alone and that someone else cares enough to listen can go a long way.
Like writing in a journal, talking to a friend can help you brainstorm and figure out ways to address the stressors in your life—but the most important thing is feeling connected to another person and knowing someone cares.
It’s not always great to talk to friends and family when you’re feeling anxious. Sometimes they mean well but don’t understand, and at other times they can get worried or defensive and say or do things that make your anxiety worse.
If your anxiety is recurrent, severe, or not improving with DIY techniques, it’s a good idea to seek professional help. A therapist can help you get to the root of your anxiety and may be able to help you achieve long-term recovery. They are also less likely to judge you or misunderstand what you’re going through.
If you think you could benefit from therapy for anxiety, you can use the search tools on OpenCounseling to find a local therapist, or you can try affordable online counseling with our sponsor, BetterHelp. You don’t have to keep struggling with anxiety on your own— the help you need may be only a call or click away.
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.