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DIY Techniques for Reducing Anxiety

DIY Techniques for Reducing Anxiety

Cinical 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. However, anxiety is not always a disorder or a symptom of a mental health condition; it is 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.


What sets clinical anxiety apart from everyday anxiety is its intensity. Normal anxiety comes and goes, while clinical anxiety is more constant. Anxiety disorders interfere with a person's ability to function and take care of the things they need to do to be happy and healthy. People with anxiety disorders often need mental health treatment, whether medication or therapy (or both), to recover. Everyday anxiety rarely causes lingering effects and people usually recover from it on their own in a relatively short period of time.


Whatever kind or level of anxiety you have, there are things you can do to feel better. Do-it-yourself anxiety management techniques are important self-care tools that you can practice any time you feel anxious. While these DIY techniques will not cure anxiety or completely keep anxious feelings at bay, they can help you get through stressful situations and can enhance the effects of formal anxiety treatment.


Practice Breathing Techniques 

When you're feeling anxious, you're also thinking anxious thoughts. To reduce your anxiety level, you need to take your mind off of what you're thinking, which you can do by shifting your focus to your physical experience. One of the most accessible and natural ways to do this 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. You can also do this on the go as a breathing technique. Focus on a place in your body where you can feel your breaths rise and fall, such as your belly or 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.


It can be helpful to lightly modulate your breath. Make sure you're breathing deeply enough for your abdomen to rise and fall. Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth and doing different things to alter the rhythm of your breathing. You can use counting to lengthen your breaths, such as by counting to 5 on each inhale and each exhale (and on the pause between inhalations and exhalations).


Try Other Grounding Techniques

One of the simplest grounding techniques is also one of the most powerful. The room scan is a DIY grounding technique that is frequently recommended to people who need to manage severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) like flashbacks and intrusive memories. It can alleviate the symptoms of many types of anxiety.


In this exercise, instead of focusing on your breath, you turn your attention to what's around you and take an inventory of your immediate personal environment. One way to do this 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 calm yourself using physical sensation is to do gentle forms of 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.


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 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.


In addition to helping you focus, yoga and stretching release muscle tension, which reduces psychological tension. Gentle exercise releases feel-good chemicals in your brain, including many of the same ones released by higher-impact exercise.


Do Vigorous Exercise

Vigorous exercises like running, participating in group fitness classes, swimming, or playing tennis can also alleviate anxiety. Intense exercise has powerful psychological effects, including changes to brain chemistry, that are immediate. During and after intense exercise, your brain releases natural chemicals that boost your mood and soothe discomfort. These chemicals have similar effects as opioid drugs without the negative side effects.


Exercise has long-term effects on mental health as well. Research shows that exercise 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 frontal brain regions that help you manage anxiety. These adaptations make it possible for you to bounce back from stress faster and to get less stressed out in the first place.


Learn Meditation and Mindfulness Practices 

You don't have to think of meditation as something fancy. While there are dozens of meditative techniques across a range of spiritual and secular traditions, meditation at its heart is a simple, universal activity. You can think of it as an enhanced breathing technique. Breath is often the point of focus in meditation, though some techniques use visualization or rhythmic movements to help the mind concentrate. Stillness is the defining characteristic of meditation; even in moving meditation, the object is to use physical movement to help still the mind.


It's easy to feel intimidated or frustrated by meditation, but you don't need to be. It's like exercise; the more you do it, the better you'll get at it. It also helps to know 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, but that you learn how to let them come and go without getting caught up in them.


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. 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. Natural settings engage and focus the senses in a way that makes us feel more connected to the world around us, while the stress and noise of urban environments often trigger us to defensively withdraw and shut 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. 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 levels by lowering levels of cortisol and increasing 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 affecting our physical health, these foods always leave us in a post-dopamine lurch.


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. Research also shows that l-theanine, a chemical in tea, reduces the physical and psychological effects of stress.


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 and nutrients will keep your mind healthy, too.


Read a Book or Listen to an Audio-book

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. If you've been in a reading slump because you've been too anxious or stressed out to read, consider listening to an audio-book. 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 audio-books 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. 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. 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. 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 can even make you feel euphoric!


You can get similar benefits from writing in ways that might not feel as creative, such as journaling or doing "Morning Pages." 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 human ways to heal 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 also help you brainstorm and figure out ways to address the stressors in your life.


It's not always great to talk to friends and family when you're feeling anxious, though. 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 you find that 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.


If you think you need or would benefit from seeking therapy for your anxiety, you can use the search tools on OpenCounseling to find a local therapist or 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.

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Stephanie Hairston, MSW
Posted on 07/06/2020 by Stephanie Hairston, MSW

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 masters-level clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments. She has also worked as a technical writer for a medical software company and as an editor for a company that appeals denials of insurance coverage for behavioral health treatment. As a writer, she is motivated by the same desire to help others that brought her into the field of social work and believes that knowledge is one of the most essential recovery tools. She strongly believes in the mission of OpenCounseling and in making therapy accessible for everyone.