Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety to some degree. Anxiety is part of a built-in stress response that helps us protect ourselves in the face of danger. But for some people, anxiety lingers in the background, building up gradually into an overwhelming and persistent feeling.
If this sounds like you, you might have an anxiety disorder. This shouldn’t be cause for alarm though – anxiety disorders are the most common illness in the US, affecting about 18 percent of the adult population. They’re also highly treatable and can be managed with psychotherapy, medication, and healthy routines.
There are also small coping strategies that you can use to calm anxiety and reduce stress in your day-to-day life. While these methods won’t substitute for a treatment plan laid out by a doctor, they can help you cope in a stressful time.
These three coping strategies should help you calm your mind and lower your stress levels.
When faced with an immediate threat, our brains release stress hormones called adrenaline. This signals the body to pump blood and oxygen into our muscles, priming them for action. This is called the fight-or-flight response, and it’s what causes us to experience all the horrible symptoms of a panic attack, from palpitations to muscle tension, to feeling like you’re having a heart attack.
But did you know that there is such a thing as a relaxation response? This happens when our bodies learn that it’s time to stop sending out adrenaline, bringing us back to a calmer state. Initiating the relaxation response is actually quite easy – just take slow, deep breaths. When you take deep breaths, you stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which leads to a drop in blood pressure, lower heart rate, and relaxed muscles.
There are many different deep breathing techniques you can try, but the simplest one involves belly breathing, or breathing from your diaphragm. To do this, put your hand on your belly and inhale through your nose, feeling your diaphragm expand as you breathe in. Hold your breath to a comfortable number, then exhale slowly, feeling your diaphragm contract. Do this several more times until you feel yourself becoming more relaxed.
Mindfulness is a practice rooted in Eastern meditation practices, and involves being in touch with the present moment. Through mindfulness, you can train your mind to react to stress with an awareness of the present, rather than letting it wander to the past or the future. In doing so, you can identify and process your emotions rather than acting on instinct – allowing yourself to practice more compassion towards yourself and others.
For example, you get into an argument with a friend and they say something hurtful. Rather than taking their comment to heart, you can take a pause and think about what may have caused them to snap. Perhaps they’re going through something stressful. Or perhaps you might have said something to hurt them as well. Whatever the case, with mindfulness, you can move on without allowing that moment to escalate or linger in your mind.
So how can you practice mindfulness? Here are a few options:
Sometimes, a good distraction is all it takes to stop negative thoughts in their tracks. As you distract yourself from stressful thoughts, you can slowly regain a sense of control and safety.
Of course, make sure your distractions are healthy. This can include doing chores, listening to a funny podcast, rewatching your favorite TV show, drawing, painting, or exercising.
Health and wellness also play a key role in our mental health. Anxiety and depression will not immediately go away with just a few lifestyle changes, but they can help lower our stress levels to the point where we can reign in our thoughts.
What is actually making you anxious right now? Is it stress from work? Complications in your relationship? Or perhaps a medical issue? By identifying what is causing you fear and anxiety, you can then pinpoint what kinds of situations, places, or people you should step back from once you start feeling anxiety symptoms again. In doing so, you give yourself time to calm down, destress, and breathe.
Studies have found that exercise doesn’t just make you physically fit, it also contributes to your mental well being. For one, exercising releases certain brain chemicals like serotonin, GABA, and endocannabinoids, which can all boost one’s mood. Exercise also helps decrease some of the muscle tension you feel in your neck, shoulders and back. And if you’re able to workout in nature, like say, go for a hike or ride your bike up a mountain, you surround yourself with green space, which has been proven to lower stress and calm anxiety.
While caffeine can be a mood booster, too much of it can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety, from heart palpitations to gastrointestinal problems to nausea and clamminess.
Alcohol, on the other hand, can be harmful in the hands of someone with an anxiety disorder. Many people suffering from chronic anxiety turn to drugs and alcohol for their sedative effect. Drinking alcohol isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be dangerous when a person takes it specifically to experience anxiety relief, as they may develop a dependency.
Research has shown that sleep deprivation can contribute to anxiety. Lack of sleep doesn’t just affect your mood and productivity, it can also bring a spate of health problems which can further worsen symptoms of anxiety.
Humans don’t do well with uncertainty. In fact, a lot of anxiety disorders have something to do with the fear of losing control. Thus, routines can help reduce the risk of an anxiety attack. By setting clear expectations about how your day is going to be, whether it be with a simple morning routine or a detailed to-do list, you lessen the amount of uncertainty to look forward to.
Anxiety is something that we all have to deal with at some point in our lives. But we don’t have to let it get to a point where we are consumed by our worries. Hopefully, with the aforementioned tips on ways to calm down, you can learn to better manage your stress and anxiety.
If you or someone you know is struggling to cope with anxiety, depression, or substance abuse problems, know that you’re not alone. While coping strategies help to some degree, mental health professionals can help you get to the root of your problems. At Transformations at Mending Fences, we provide a range of treatment options to help you regain control of your life. Contact us to learn more.