For many of us, the state of the world today ramps up our anxiety. Worrisome questions start to form in our minds: Is it just a matter of time before I contract COVID-19? Will the right politicians be elected to office? Will our economy and my job survive the current global economic crisis? We are battered with these anxious thoughts and many others day in and day out, possibly more so than any other time in our history.
The U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics claims that currently one in three Americans is dealing with symptoms of stress or anxiety. Among young adults ages 18 to 24, over 60 percent reported feeling anxious or depressed, according to a recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), three times higher than the same time in 2019. Researchers suggest fear of illness and radical changes made to lifestyle as the cause.
With so many variables being thrown at us daily in these very uncertain times, how can we quell or calm down the anxiety that flares up inside us? Here are five strategies that you can use to help you cope with higher levels of anxiety and possibly prevent debilitating anxiety attacks:
Practice Deep Breathing Techniques
Deep breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, is a way to use breath control to reduce anxiety. Deep breathing helps you avoid the “fight-or-flight” response to stressful situations. By consciously becoming aware of your breathing and regulating its depth and rate, your chances for falling into a full-blown anxiety attack are greatly reduced. Since deep breathing is a physical relaxation technique, please check with your doctor prior to beginning any type of relaxation exercise should you have an ongoing medical condition.
Here are some steps you can take to practice diaphragmatic (deep) breathing:
- Find a quiet place free of distractions. Rest your hands in your lap or on the arms of the chair.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your stomach. Inhale, taking a deep breath from your abdomen as you count to three. As you inhale you should feel your stomach rise up. The hand on your chest should not move.
- After a short pause, slowly exhale while counting to three. Your stomach should fall back down as you exhale. If you wish, you can say a phrase as you exhale such as “peace.”
Continue this pattern of rhythmic breathing for five to ten minutes until you feel relaxed.
If you suffer from severe anxiety or PTSD, be sure to check out a new app for wearables called BreatheWell Wear, designed to help a user perform deep breathing.
Practice Visualization Techniques
Visualization is a powerful technique in positive psychology that can help you unwind and relieve anxiety. Visualization involves the use of mental imagery to achieve a more relaxed state of mind by engaging your imagination – similar to daydreaming. Through visualization, you learn to focus your mind on more calming and serene images, allowing you to expand your ability to relax.
Prior to starting visualization exercises, make sure you have five to 15 minutes of distraction-free time set aside. Find a quiet place where you will be undisturbed and slow down your breathing using deep breathing techniques.
Beach scenes are one of the more popular visualizations due to the sense of tranquility and calm they impart. Here is an example by Katharina Star, PhD of a beach scene visualization that you can practice to reduce anxiety:
Imagine that you are resting on a white sandy beach. You feel safe, calm and relaxed. Think about the following:
- Turquoise water and a clear, blue sky
- The sound of soft waves as the tide gently rolls in
- The weight of your body sinking into your beach chair
- The warmth of the sand on your feet
- A large umbrella keeping you slightly shaded, creating just the right temperature
Relax your face and let go of any tension in your forehead, between your eyebrows, your neck, and your throat. Soften your eyes and rest. Allow your breath to slow down and match the rolling waves of the water. There is no effort to be here; spend time just taking it all in.
Once this relaxation feels complete, imagine that you get up and slowly walk away from the beach. Remember that this beautiful place is here for you whenever you need to come back. Take your time and slowly open your eyes.
If the beach scene is not a good fit for you, try to come up with your own visualization, be it a mountain view, or a meadow filled with wildflowers. Think of engaging all of your senses and how your body feels in your scene. When you have reached a desired level of relaxation, slowly imagine leaving the scene and returning to the present. You should practice visualization several times a day, starting when you are not experiencing high anxiety. Once you have mastered the technique, visualization will come more easily when you are in a moment of high anxiety.
Engage in Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation involves bringing your mind’s attention to the present-focused awareness or moment without drifting into concerns about the past or the future. According to Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, mindfulness meditation makes perfect sense for reducing anxiety. Mindfulness meditation teaches you how to recognize problem-solving thoughts from unproductive worries.
You can calm anxiety using these three steps in mindfulness meditation:
- Focus your attention on the present moment without choosing, selecting, or evaluating
- Focus on your breathing and the parts of your body involved with the breath itself
- Focus on your body and its present sensations and wholeness
Incorporating mindfulness practices into your self-care routine will allow you to bring kind awareness and acknowledgment to any stressed or anxious feelings in your body and mind, simply allowing them to be.
Use Positive Forms of Humor
Humor can be a great way to deal with stress. Positive jokes and witty conversation can make you feel closer to those near you. Plus, jokes can force you to look at the same situation in different ways.
Several studies since 2001 have shown that the overall use of humor tends to decrease stress. Telling jokes and using them to make people feel better about themselves decreases stress. However, self-defeating humor (jokes made at your own expense) tend to increase stress.
Laughter is still the best medicine. It can relax your muscles and shed tension. According to a study by Dr. Robin Dunbar and colleagues at Oxford University, laughter is associated with an elevated pain threshold, most likely caused by an increase in endorphins. The researchers found that laugh-out-loud movies (as opposed to “feel good” movies) are a great stress reducer.
One way to reduce anxiety and stress is to host a “Netflix party”, using technology to connect with friends and family, watch the movie and video chat. Being social and laughing with others during the movie is key to using humor to cope with fears and worries.
Create an Anti-Anxiety Action Plan
Often, worry comes from repeatedly considering a problem without fully addressing possible solutions and implementing a plan to resolve the problem. Worry and rumination can significantly increase levels of anxiety, so getting in touch with all the worries circling about in your thoughts can bring awareness and allow you to address them with an action plan. The goal is to have a game plan in place to reduce your anxiety levels. Here is a three-step formula to create your own action plan:
- Start by moving all of the worries from your head onto a piece of paper or a computer screen. Write down a numbered list of all the specific anxious thoughts that come to mind.
- Approach each item on the list and determine what additional information you might need to address each concern. Consider where you might find such information. Then, devise a plan of action for each specific concern.
- Next, move into action. For each concern, implement the action plan on a one-by-one basis. By moving forward with action, you are doing something constructive to resolve the issue through problem solving and you should find that your worrisome thoughts, and therefore your anxiety, should subside.
These five strategies are just some of the many strategies available to help reduce anxiety in your life. These strategies are meant to be guidelines to help you but do not replace direct medical advice or help from a qualified therapist.
Freedom from debilitating anxiety is possible if you have the right tools in your toolbox. Connect with a therapist to learn more ways to quell worry and anxiety in your life.