© 2020 AMG/Parade. All rights reserved.
We all know the feeling: Something triggers you, and before you know it, you’re trapped in an anxious loop, consumed by worry and panic. Your mind and heart start to race, and you feel powerless to stop it.
According to a recent survey conducted by Parade and the Cleveland Clinic, Americans are more likely to feel stressed, anxious and/or depressed during the pandemic now compared to fall 2020 (60% in 2021 vs. 50% in 2020). For more than half (56%) of Americans, as COVID-19 cases rise, so does their anxiety, depression, or stress.
While calming yourself down seems impossible—especially in the moment—there are many simple yet powerful techniques to quiet your mind and get centered.
“By practicing sensory awareness, the direct focus on one of the senses, we’re able to become grounded and connect our brains to present experiences to help regulate our mood,” says Alex Greenwald (MHC-LP) of Empower Your Mind Therapy.
Here are five tips you can try today:
Related: 5 Fast Relaxation Techniques
This exercise actively tenses and relaxes your muscles, with the goal of letting go of the tension in your body. Greenwald explains how this technique works:
As you breathe in, clench the muscles in your body tightly. Feel how tense you are all over as you inhale. When you’re ready to exhale, visualize your entire body relaxing as you breathe out and release the tension from your muscles. You can even say the word “relax”, in your mind or out loud. It might be tricky to practice muscle relaxation with your whole body right away, so experiment practicing with different parts of your body.
By changing our physical state, we can change our mental state.
“These postures can be cues to your brain to help figure out how to respond to the situation you are in,” Greenwald states. Here are the steps:
To practice Half Smiling, first, relax your entire face. You can visualize moving from the top of your head down to your chin, relaxing each part of your face as you pass over it. You can also tense up all your facial muscles and then relax them. Once your face is relaxed, gently turn up the corners of your mouth.
Greenwald also recommends this posture. Here’s how to do it:
“To practice the willing hand’s posture, relax the muscles in your hands. Once your hands are relaxed, turn your hands palms up, and allow your fingers to relax as well. If you are seated, you can rest your hands on your lap. If you’re standing, turn your palms forward and relax from your shoulders down.”
For many, the idea of people-pleasing is easier than holding your ground, but it comes with intense anxiety.
“Remember that you do not have to sacrifice your boundaries for someone else’s comfort. As an example with post-Covid life, if you want to keep your mask on, you do not have to take it off. If you need to keep your plans brief, make your preferences known. You are more than allowed to decline plans or plan social events with whoever you want. Everyone’s boundaries and needs should be honored,” Greenwald explains.
It can be a big task or something small, like making your bed.
“Mastering something on a to-do list is key to keeping ourselves feeling confident and reducing anxiety with day-to-day responsibilities,” says Greenwald.
Take a break from social media for at least one hour every day.
“This helps to connect to the present moment, being physically present and aware of the world around them without the pressures of what is pushed in front of us on social media,” Greenwald explains.
Don’t forget the importance of “me” time!
“Although some structure to daily life is important, there should be flexibility to focus on hobbies and interests to reduce stress and feeling overwhelmed,” Greenwald states.
Greenwald recommends these tips:
Having a cluttered home or workplace can escalate your stress.
“While we all live busy lives, if you can set aside even five minutes a day to clear up some clutter, you’ll really start to see the difference and you’ll feel it in your mood! Then when you’ve sorted through all the clutter, keep the habit of cleaning up for 5 minutes a day to keep your space organized,” says Greenwald.
It can be as simple as parking a little further away, taking a walk on your lunch break or starting your day with some stretches.
“Exercise is good for reducing anxiety and improving your mood,” Greenwald explains. “That doesn’t mean you have to go out and join a gym–but look for ways you can add a little movement to your life!”
When it comes to managing anxiety, reducing screen time is essential.
“Unfortunately, in this day and age, lots of jobs require us to be plugged in the majority of the time. But one place we can stop staring at screens is our beds! Make your bed a screen-free zone. Go back to a good old-fashioned alarm clock if you use your phone to wake you up, and force yourself to stop taking your screens into bed with you,” Greenwald states.
How much sleep do you usually get? Getting enough sleep is crucial for physical and mental health.
“Like most people, you’re probably not getting enough sleep,” says Greenwald. “Start slowly going to bed earlier, little by little. First maybe ten minutes earlier than you normally do. Then twenty. Then half an hour. Then 45 minutes. Keep going until you find the time that gets you to bed early enough that you’re fully rested by the time you get up.”
Starting your day off on a positive note can make a major difference.
“Set your alarm so that you have a few extra minutes to take for deep breathing before you get your day started. That way you can immediately get yourself into the right headspace when your day starts,” Greenwald explains.
Even a small reduction can help!
“Caffeine can really exacerbate the feeling of anxiety,” says Greenwald. “But, lots of us are already in the habit of starting our day with coffee or jolting ourselves in the afternoon with soda. So swap out one cup of coffee or one soda with something lower in caffeine like tea.”
Bring your mind and body into balance with body scanning
“Practice grounding yourself using a body scanning technique – breathe in and visualize tension leaving the body and being replaced with calm or relaxation, starting with the feet and working up towards the top of the head,” Kara Kushnir, MSW, LCSW,
Psychotherapist and Founder of A Work of Heart Counseling, explains.
This is a simple trick to quickly reframe your perspective.
“This can help remind you that just because you think it, doesn’t mean it’s true!” Kushnir explains.
When we’re in the midst of anxious feelings, it can be hard to see the big picture. “Often anxiety has us focus on one perspective, and considering others can help reduce the validity of the one causing us distress,” Kushnir states.
“Acknowledge what you are feeling, and remind yourself that the feeling is simply visiting for right now,” says Kushnir. “All feelings are temporary.”
This is one of the fastest ways to relax.“Breathe slowly, purposefully, and deeply. This tricks your nervous system and can begin to help ease anxiety somatically,” Kushnir explains.
Related: 10 Breathing Exercises for Anxiety That Work
A visualization technique can be helpful. “Place your thumb and forefinger together, close your eyes, and imagine you are in a place that brings you a sense of ease; using a physical anchor can allow you to return whenever you need to,” says Kushnir.
Taking time each day to connect to nature can work wonders for your mental health.
“Fresh air, sunshine and just changing the environment can help you create some distance from your thoughts, increasing clarity and ease,” Kushnir states.
Talk about what is making you anxious.
“Sometimes just processing it out loud (even to yourself) can help you realize that perhaps it isn’t that important after all,” Kushnir explains.
There are many situations in life you have no control over. Don’t dwell on what you can’t change.
“Radically accept that maybe what you are worried about cannot be changed, but you can decide how you respond to it,” says Kushnir. “For example, ‘Oh no, it’s raining, we were supposed to have the party outside!’ can become, ‘It’s raining. Okay, let’s figure out a plan.’”
Try becoming more mindful on a daily basis. There are many ways to accomplish this in your everyday tasks.
“Use mindfulness to be present in your body rather than trapped in your mind. For example, use your 5 senses to notice what you can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste in the room and be fully present there rather than in what is to come or what already happened,” Kushnir explains.
“Hold an object in your hand that allows you to channel your nervous energy elsewhere – a fidget or a small item that comforts you,” says Kushnir.
It’s your body’s way of protecting you from a real or perceived threat. It’s up to you to take a step back and remember that feelings are not facts.
“Consider how your anxiety is the alarm system in your brain trying to protect you, but perhaps it’s overactive or malfunctioning,” Kushnir states. “Thinking about it this way can offer you gratitude towards worry, as it is simply there to keep you safe but sometimes not needed.”
Putting your thoughts on paper can provide clarity. “Do a ‘mental dump’ and jot down everything that is bothering you, create a to-do list, or simply get everything on paper so it is no longer clouding your mind,” says Kushnir.
Give yourself permission to feel what you need to feel. “Avoidance breeds more anxiety! The more you face a fear, or practice doing the thing that scares or overwhelms you, the less power it will have over you,” Kushnir explains.
Reaching out for support isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. “So many people think walking around anxious is acceptable because of how fast-paced our society is, but it takes its toll, so reach out to a therapist if you aren’t seeing one for a place to process your thoughts and emotions regularly,” Kushnir states.
A mantra is a short and empowering statement.
“Sometimes repeating a phrase to yourself can help reduce anxiety by calming, comforting, redirecting, or providing you with confidence,” says Carly Claney, PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist.
Here are some examples:
This is particularly helpful if you’re giving a presentation or are in a social setting.
“A friendly or familiar face can help serve as a security blanket as it helps to release oxytocin, a stress hormone that plays a role in the bonding process,” Jonathan Alpert, psychotherapist, author and performance coach, explains.
Doing so will help you to relax your entire body. “So often when people are tense they tighten their jaw and/or facial muscles and fixate their gaze,” says Alpert. “Allow your bottom lip to pout to loosen up your facial muscles, blink gently, and remember: A relaxed face is a relaxed body.”
Imagine a place in your world that is relaxing.
“Perhaps it is a favorite park or beach, or maybe your bed. Be specific and in your mind’s eye, go there,” Alpert states. “What does it feel like? What do you see and hear? Relax there for a few minutes.”
“Participate in new activities where your mind focuses on what you have and don’t give space to the thoughts that generate anxiety,” says Aura Priscel De Los Santos, a clinical psychologist.
When anxiety strikes, connect to the here and now.
“Thinking about the past is a way to stay tied to it,” Priscel De Los Santos explains. “Be grateful for the things you have today.”
Recognize the thinking you have. “If you constantly think negatively, it is good to do exercises that involve replacing a negative thought with a positive one,” Priscel De Los Santos states.
“Let your body shake, move, jump, or dance for 1-3 minutes,” says Rev. Connie L. Habash, licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, yoga and meditation teacher, and author of Awakening from Anxiety: A Spiritual Guide to Living a More Calm, Confident, and Courageous Life. “Imagine shaking all the anxiety out!”
When you apply pressure to specific places on your body it will trigger a relaxation response.
“Massage your temples and the hinge of your jaw. These areas will release tension in the body and bring you back into the moment,” Habash explains.
“Pat your body gently with the pads of your fingers. Start from the top of your head and move slowly down to your feet. This will restore energy and shift you out of ruminating,” says Habash.
Apps for guided meditation can help manage stressful emotions or conditions.
“The meditation apps can help you focus on your breathing and bring your mind’s attention to the present,” Dr. Sanam Hafeez, New York-based neuropsychologist and Director of Comprehend the Mind, explains. “Concentrating on your breathing prevents you from thinking about past or future concerns and can help ease anxiety.”
Tap into your inner child! “Adult coloring books have been known to calm the nerves by relaxing the brain and taking attention away from ourselves,” Dr. Hafeez states. “Taking attention away from ourselves temporarily takes our focus away from our worries and anxieties.”
When your mind goes into planning mode, this will help you feel more in control.
“Instead of allowing yourself to dread what can go wrong, plan on how to correct a situation,” says Dr. Hafeez. “A plan helps you focus on possible solutions and guides you through the problem-solving process, which will give you a sense of control and thus reduce anxiety.”
“It’s important to learn that just because you interpret something a certain way, it doesn’t mean that that’s exactly how it was meant to be received,” Dr. Hafeez explains. Don’t allow yourself to make assumptions that can cause you to overthink. Instead, combat those feelings in a healthy way like asking questions instead of suppressing them.
There are certain essential oils proven to help relax the mind and body.
“Lavender oil has been proven to have healing properties that naturally reduce anxiety and other nervous conditions. You can add lavender oil to your bathwater, burn some in an essential oil diffuser and even rub some on your temples when you have a headache,” says Dr. Hafeez.
Related: 10 Essential Oils That Might Actually Help You Get Some Sleep Tonight
Music is the ultimate mood booster. “Create a playlist with all the songs that make you feel like you’re on top of the world,” Dr. Hafeez states. “Whenever you feel anxious, you can play your favorite song to brighten up your mood instantly.”
Make sure your physical needs are met.“If you haven’t eaten or drank enough, this can cause a drop in blood sugar levels that can heighten anxiety. A decrease in blood sugar levels can cause shakiness, irregular or fast heartbeat, sweating, and feeling nervous, all of which are symptoms of anxiety,” Dr. Hafeez explains.
This is an instant way to get out of your mind and into your body.“Taking a cold plunge could shock your system and distract your thoughts,” says Dr. Hafeez.
No one knows and understands you better than yourself! “Don’t be afraid to experiment with what works best for you and helps reduce anxious feelings,” Dr. Hafeez states.
Dr. Jennifer R. Wolkin, PhD, Licensed Psychologist and Clinical Neuropsychologist recommends this technique. Here’s how to do it:
“Put a sucking candy in your mouth or hydrate so that your mouth is less dry and there’s more saliva,” Dr. Wolkin states.
Remember that avoiding anxiety will only make matters worse. Making time to feel those uncomfortable feelings (but briefly!) is important.
“Give yourself a time-frame during which you ‘allow yourself to be anxious’ and then after that time is up, remind yourself you have allotted space for anxiety and you need to leave the anxiety for those specific times,” says Dr. Wolkin.
Drinking tea has many proven health benefits, and calming the mind is at the top of the list.
“Mindfully make and drink a soothing cup of tea (non-caffeinated), for example, chamomile,” Dr. Wolkin explains. “Keeping yourself busy, using your hands, and then mindfully drinking it can soothe the nervous system.”
Practice the 54321 method of grounding.
“To do this, locate and say five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell, one thing you can taste,” says Dr. Wolkin.
While a cold shower jolts your system (see number 48), a hot shower can help loosen muscles that clench from anxiety, Dr. Wolkin explains.
“If someone else is available see if you can sync up your breath rates and breath simultaneously,” says Dr. Wolkin. “You can also put your hand on each other’s heart center as you do this.”
Plant your feet firmly on the ground.
“As you do this, try to align your skeleton and bring it back to a neutral place. Take this to the next level and root barefoot on the grass or soil,” Dr. Wolkin states.
This will help create distance between you and the anxiety.
“Start to write the words “I am safe” over and over again in a journal/on a post-it/piece of paper,” says Dr. Wolkin.
“The biggest bang for the buck is if we exhale for double the time or the inhale,” Dr. Wolkin explains. “This way we are invoking the vagus nerve, the queen of the parasympathetic nervous system.”
“If intrusive distressing thoughts come up, try not to resist them, instead, lean into them since what we resist persists. Remind yourself this is part of anxiety and nothing is wrong with you, intrinsically,” says Dr. Wolkin.
Here’s how to do it: Conjure an image of the thought entering a bubble, and watch it float away. Thoughts will return-if you have to repeat this process 25 times a minute that’s okay. It becomes easier.
“This helps to focus our thoughts on something other than whatever is making us anxious. Engaging with other people can be a great form of distraction,” Michele Goldman, Psychologist and Hope for Depression Research Foundation Media Advisor, explains.
Find a Qigong breathing practice on YouTube or any mediation app, lay on the floor, and follow along. “Reset your nervous system with a guided breathing exercise,” says Amber Trueblood, LMFT. “This breathing practice oxygenates your cells and often helps you feel like you just hit your personal reset button.”
Take a five-minute walk outside without your phone.
“During this walk, look around and notice the tiniest leaf, the smallest insect, the subtlest cloud in the sky. Tuning into nature in a deep and all-encompassing way will naturally relax your body and give that churning mind a much-needed break,” Trueblood states.
Close your eyes and take a few moments to observe the feelings and sensations in your body (without judgment).
“Notice how your clothing feels on your skin, your hair feels on your left ear, and your tongue feels in your mouth,” Trueblood explains. “Centering your attention on passive observation instead of judgment, action, reaction, or movement, can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.”
Trueblood provides a visualization technique that can help reduce stress:
Close your eyes and imagine yourself holding a bunch of brightly colored helium balloons. Each balloon represents a different stressor in your life. One at a time, imagine yourself letting go of the balloons. Watch them fly up, up, up into the air until they’re so tiny, they disappear completely.
Gratitude is a fantastic way to reduce anxiety levels.
“Anxiety is a deeply internal process, mentally and emotionally. Purposefully take a moment to say aloud or write down three things you feel deeply grateful for and you will shift your focus from fear to happiness. The key here is to describe it in so much detail that you actually FEEL the gratitude as you do it,” says Trueblood.
“For a quick fix, try two minutes of high-intensity exercise like a sprint down the street, burpees, or jumping rope,” Trueblood explains. “You may find that whatever was driving you crazy before doesn’t seem quite so upsetting after a 2-minute HIIT.”
The next time you’re feeling anxious, chew on some gum.“We’ve all heard of flight, fight or freeze reactions to stress or trauma. When your body thinks you’re in jeopardy, blood flows to your extremities, your blood pressure increases, your heart rate increases, and adrenalin and cortisol jump on board to prepare you for escape or prepare you for battle, Trueblood states. “But the body can also send messages back to the brain, telling your brain that you are, in fact, safe. Chewing gum sends just such a message to your nervous system: You’re “eating,” so you must not be being chased by a bear.”
“Often our emotional state is confused or exacerbated by our physical state. Too often we are dehydrated and don’t even realize how much it’s affecting our emotional wellness. Keeping well-hydrated throughout your day can help with your mental clarity, your metabolism, your immune function, and your patience levels,” Trueblood explains.
An easy way to alleviate anxiety is to pet an animal or a furry blanket/pillow, says Amber Weiss, MA, NCC, LMHC, Licensed Psychotherapist and founder of Transformative Mindset.
Carry around a small notepad with motivational and inspirational quotes. “In times of true fear, reading one of these quotes can reassure you that it will be okay,” Weiss explains.
“Think about what you would tell a friend if they were feeling anxious,” Weiss states.
Ask yourself if you took care of yourself today.
“Try the SEED acronym. Did I Sleep, Eat well, Exercise, Drink enough water? Sometimes doing those things can help you feel calmer,” says Weiss.
“The pressure against your body will relax your muscles and relieve tension,” Weiss explains.
That’s right, let it out!
“Sometimes when you let it out, you can feel a sense of relief and it releases happy chemicals called endorphins which make you feel good,” says Weiss.
Next, read about 8 things you should never say to someone with anxiety—and what to say instead.
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