7 anxiety hacks: How to manage stress and worry in the moment
Many people already know that activities like yoga, exercise, meditation and talk therapy can help reduce anxiety. But what do you do when you’re trying to keep it together in an empty waiting room, driving alone to an appointment in rush-hour traffic, or trying to hold still on an MRI table?
We spoke with licensed clinical social worker Carmella Wygant. Here are seven strategies she uses to help manage anxiety in the moment — and why they work to relieve stress.
1. Diaphragmatic breathing
What it is: Consciously controlling an automatic process
How to do it: Close your eyes and pull as much air as you can into your lungs. Try to take in enough so that your belly actually pokes out. Hold your breath for a couple of beats, then let it out as slowly as possible. Try to breathe out as much air as you can by tightening your abdominal muscles.
Why it works: “The slower you exhale, the more you’ll engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming the body down after it’s had a bad fright or shock,” says Wygant. “You can’t be both scared and calm all at once, so focus on lengthening your exhale to get the most out of it. The long exhale is what tells your body everything is OK.”
2. Simple stretches
What they are: Releasing tension with movements you can do almost anywhere
How to do them: Gently press the tip of your tongue to the roof of mouth, and your jaw will often fall open and relax on its own. Tilt your head forward and roll it around slowly on your neck clockwise, then counterclockwise. Raise your eyebrows up and down a few times to loosen your facial muscles. Shrug your shoulders as if saying, “I don’t know,” then leave them up high for a few seconds before letting them fall.
Why they work: “People carry so much tension in their jaw, neck and shoulders and don’t even realize it,” notes Wygant. “But as psychologist Dr. Therese Rando once said, ‘If you can relax your body, you can relax your mind.’”
3. Use your words
What it is: Describing strong feelings verbally
How to do it: Ask yourself questions that force the analytical parts of your brain to engage. “What emotion am I feeling right now? Is it anger? Fear? Rage? Why am I feeling this way? Is it because of something that’s already happened or something that I’m only afraid might happen?”
Why it works: “Post-traumatic stress disorder studies show that some people take longer than usual to perceive a threat has diminished,” notes Wygant. “But when they’re asked to label or describe their emotions, it engages the prefrontal cortex in their brain and helps calm them down. Then, they can recognize, ‘Oh, that’s just a stick, not a snake.’”
4. Guided imagery
What it is: Using your imagination to induce feelings of well-being and safety
How to do it: Think of a person, place or thing that brings you joy or comfort, and picture it in your mind in as much detail as possible. If it’s the ocean, for instance, smell the salt water, watch the seagulls flying overhead, feel the warmth of the sand beneath your toes, and hear the waves crashing on the beach. If it’s the symphony, admire the beautiful grain of varnished wood on a violin, feel the smooth velvet of a seat cushion, and hear the bright, cheerful blasts of a trumpet. Then take five slow, cleansing breaths, and with each one, imagine yourself inhaling love, peace, and comfort, and exhaling fear, worry, and tension.
Why it works: “Studies show that people’s bodies can respond in the same way from seeing or envisioning an activity as they would from performing it themselves,” explains Wygant. “Triathletes, for instance, showed increased brain activity and heart rates while just watching videos of other triathletes competing.”
5. Change your language
What it is: Using a second language to redirect the brain
How to do it: If you speak more than one language — including American Sign Language — contact someone you know who also speaks one of your secondary languages and make small talk with them. Or, watch a TV show, listen to a radio broadcast, or read a book or news website in your non-native tongue.
Why it works: “When you switch languages, a different part of the brain has to take over,” explains Wygant. “That shifts your focus away from emotions.”
6. Lose yourself in music
What it is: Using music as a distraction
How to do it: “Changing the language” also applies to music, because making music activates a different part of your brain. So, if you have an instrument available and know how to use it, take a few minutes to practice a song or two. Or, if you’re not in a place where you can do that, imagine yourself playing one of your favorite pieces instead, and really savor the experience.
Why it works: “Playing music just gives your brain a reprieve,” explains Wygant. “During finals in school, I remember students lining up for the chance to play the piano in one of our lobbies. Because when you’re making music, you’re not thinking about anatomy or organic chemistry. And afterward, you can just think much more clearly and solve problems a whole lot better.”
7. Make a new playlist
What it is: Creating a new music collection on a smartphone, tablet or computer
How to do it: Start with three of your favorite songs right now. Then add three more songs you liked last year, or back in college or during high school or as a kid. Keep going as long as you wish, or until you have a collection that feels complete.
Why it works: “Music relaxes people,” says Wygant. “It’s as simple as that. And when the memories and feelings elicited by certain songs are very happy, they completely distract you. The mind cannot focus on two different things at once. So, change the channel and get yourself off the worry station.”