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7 helpful ways to manage anxiety

Woman with anxiety playing with her dog to ease stress

Managing anxiety can feel overwhelming. Try these tips to help better cope with thoughts and feelings getting in the way of your day-to-day.

Anxiety can sometimes feel like it comes out of nowhere. One minute you’re fine. The next minute you’re on edge. Your heart may race. You may even sweat, feel weak or tired, and breathe heavier. And you can’t take your mind off your worries and fears.1

It’s normal to feel stressed and worried sometimes. Maybe you have to give a presentation at work. Or you need to get to the airport on time.

But if these feelings happen often or get in the way of your daily life, it may be time to seek help. It's possible you have an anxiety disorder.2 Anxiety can interfere with your daily routines and emotional health. You may feel physical side effects, like an increased heart rate, headaches and nausea. Some people may lose their appetite or have trouble focusing or sleeping.

"We become anxious when our brain thinks there's a threat. It doesn't matter whether it's real or not. That's our brain's way of staying safe," says Luana Marques, PhD. She's an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School in Boston. 

Anxiety disorders are common. They happen to almost 3 out of 10 adults at some point.And even with help, it takes time to feel better.

But some good news: You can learn to better manage your anxiety, so that it doesn’t take over your life. Here are seven things you can do to help yourself feel better.

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1. Talk to a professional

Talk therapy is one of the most common ways to treat anxiety.2 That’s when you speak with a mental health professional about your worries. They’ll help work through what’s causing your anxiety and help you take steps to manage it.

There are a range of professionals who can help you cope with anxiety, with different educational backgrounds. Here are a few examples:3

  • Behavioral health specialists need a master’s degree to practice.
  • Psychiatrists get a medical degree and can prescribe medicine. They normally don’t do talk therapy.
  • Psychologists get a doctoral degree. They usually specialize in talk therapy.

Learn more about mental health resources on our Until It’s Fixed podcast.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy. It helps you think and react in new ways. Studies suggest that CBT can help lessen symptoms of anxiety.4

Exposure therapy can also help ease anxiety symptoms.1 It’s a CBT method that helps you face your fears instead of hiding from them. It may be used with relaxation exercises.

Depending on your unique needs, part of your care plan could include medication. Medicines like anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs can help reduce your symptoms.

But medication and talking through feelings aren’t the only solutions. Your therapist may also suggest some of the following self-help techniques. They may help better manage stress, relax and get back to daily activities you may have been avoiding.

2. Get moving

Exercise can help improve your sleep and energy levels.5 Another reason to get moving? When you work out, your brain releases chemicals that can lower anxiety.

A 2019 study showed that exercising for 150 minutes or more a week lowered the odds of having anxiety symptoms by 24%.5 And the more you move, the better. For those people who exercised 300 minutes or more a week, the risk of having anxiety symptoms was 36% lower.6

3. Practice mindfulness

Managing anxiety may be helped by easing stress in small moments throughout your day. Mindfulness is a great way to de-stress. That’s when you’re fully focused on what’s happening right now. It helps you stay in the moment.7

One small study compared the effects of mindfulness practices and anxiety medication on patients with anxiety. Researchers found that practicing mindfulness could be just as effective as medication in easing anxiety symptoms for some of the study’s participants.8 In fact, anxiety levels dropped by more than 30% for both groups.

Interested in trying? Here are a few ways to practice mindfulness on your own:7

  • Mind-body practices like yoga and tai chi
  • Progressive muscle relaxation (when you slowly tense and relax each muscle)
  • Meditation

And if you’re wondering, they really work. For example, a 2020 study looked at people who did yoga for three months. More than half of them said they had major improvement in their anxiety symptoms.9

4. Do breathing exercises

Breathing slowly and deeply can tell your brain to calm the rest of your body. Just five minutes of deep breathing can significantly lower anxiety.10

There are lots of different breathing exercises. The 4‐7‐8 method is a great one for easing anxiety symptoms. Here’s how to do it:

  • Breathe in for four seconds.
  • Hold your breath for seven seconds.
  • Breathe out for eight seconds.

5. Be nice to yourself

Changing how you talk to yourself may help calm anxiety. Self-talk can have a major impact on our feelings. For example, replacing a stressful thought you have with a more positive one. One small study found that positive self-talk helped athletes. It lowered their anxiety and built their confidence.11

The next time you feel anxious, try this. Instead of being hard on yourself, do the opposite. Ask yourself: What would I say to my best friend in a similar situation?

"By learning to talk to yourself the same way you would your best friend, you are able to challenge negative thoughts," says Marques.

6. Keep a journal

It’s common for people with anxiety to feel like there’s a lot on their mind. It may help to write down your thoughts. You’ll give them a place to live other than in your head. Here are a few ideas:

  • Write on paper or in a diary with a pencil or pen.
  • Write in a file on your computer.
  • Write in a notes app on your smartphone or tablet.

A review of thousands of journal articles found that journaling can have major mental health perks.12 It’s also low cost and low risk. Just write down how you’re feeling, how you spend your days and what you’re grateful for.12

Seeing a list of what you’re grateful for can help you feel less stress. And it can improve your sense of well-being.

7. Join a support group

Spending time with other people who have anxiety can help you feel less alone.1 You and your peers can trade tips about how to deal with symptoms.

Your doctor may be able to help you find local support groups. You can also search for them online. One thing to remember: Advice from a support group is not the same as advice from your doctor.1 Always discuss your situation with your care team.

Managing anxiety doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. Experiment with these ideas. Then figure out which ones work best for you.

Find mental health resources that fit with your life. Talk to a virtual coach or therapist from AbleTo. Find support.

Sources

  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety disorders. Last updated April 2022. Accessed March 27, 2023. 
  2. American Psychiatric Association. What are anxiety disorders? Last updated June 2021. Accessed March 27, 2023.
  3. Psychology.org. Counseling, therapy, and psychology: What’s the difference? Last updated August 17, 2022. Accessed April 4, 2023.
  4. JAMA Psychiatry. Long-term outcomes of cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety-related disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Published March 2020. Accessed March 27, 2023. 
  5. American Psychiatric Association. More benefits of exercise: Preventing and treating anxiety. Published July 29, 2019. Accessed March 27, 2023. 
  6. General Hospital Psychiatry. Associations of physical activity with anxiety symptoms and disorders: Findings from the Swedish National March Cohort. Published March 10, 2019. Accessed March 31, 2023.
  7. American Psychological Association. Mindfulness meditation: A research-proven way to reduce stress. Published October 30, 2019. Accessed March 27, 2023. 
  8. JAMA Psychiatry. Mindfulness-based stress reduction vs. escitalopram for the treatment of adults with anxiety disorders. A randomized clinical trial. Published November 9, 2022. Accessed March 27, 2023.
  9. JAMA Psychiatry. Efficacy of yoga vs. cognitive behavioral therapy vs. stress education for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder: A randomized clinical trial. Published August 12, 2020. Accessed March 31, 2023. 
  10. Scientific Reports. Benefits from one session of deep and slow breathing on vagal tone and anxiety in young and older adults. Published September 29, 2021. Accessed March 31, 2023. 
  11. Sports (Basel). Effects of self-talk training on competitive anxiety, self-efficacy, volitional skills, and performance: An intervention study with junior sub-elite athletes. Published June 19, 2019. Accessed March 27, 2023.
  12. Family Medicine and Community Health. Efficacy of journaling in the management of mental illness: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Published November 9, 2022. Accessed March 27, 2023.

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If you or someone you know is in crisis— seek safety and get help right away. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911 or go to the closest emergency room.

To reach a trained crisis counselor, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). You may also text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. The lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support.

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