Does it feel like you’ve been walking around with a constant pit in your stomach for the past, um, two years? Us too. Between the seemingly never-ending pandemic and a whole host of other unrelated—yet unrelenting—bad news, it’s no wonder we’re living in a state of collective anxiety. But good news is, we don’t have to suffer through those uncomfortable feelings. We talked to a bunch of mental health experts, and it turns out there are actually a lot of things we can do (from the comfort of our own homes, no less) that will help to put our minds at ease. Here are 16 expert-recommended ways to calm anxiety in these uncertain times.
How to Calm Anxiety: 16 Things to Try the Next Time You Need Some Zen
1. Focus on Your Breath
“I recommend sitting quietly, upright and focusing on your breath to feel present in the moment,” says Irina Firstein, LCSW, a licensed individual and couple’s therapist. “As soon as thoughts come in, focus on the breath again,” she says. This is a form of mindfulness meditation, and Firstein recommends doing it for at least ten minutes to truly feel the benefits. Science also supports this approach; researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that mindful meditation can help ease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Not super keen on sitting in silence? You can also use a guided meditation app like Headspace or search YouTube for guided meditation tracks to get started.
2. Distract Yourself
Start a new show on Netflix, listen to some music, try that new recipe you’ve had flagged for weeks—whatever sounds appealing that will take your mind off of current events. “I think it is very important to distract ourselves right now,” explains Firstein. She also points out that it’s a great time to tackle a project around the house that you’ve been meaning to get done. Who’s ready to reorganize the basement?
3. Maintain Your Healthy Habits
While it may be tempting to use working from home as an excuse to stay in your pajamas all day, or let the kids eat ice cream for lunch while they’re out of school, it might not help those anxious feelings. It’s best to stick to your routine, says John Torous, M.D., director of the digital psychiatry division, in the Department of Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Pamela Peck, Psy.D., assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who collaborated on their answers. “As much as possible maintain your healthy habits: eat well, sleep, exercise and keep washing your hands to avoid the spread of the illness,” they explain. During unpredictable times, they note, it can feel comforting to do something familiar.
4. That Said, Be Open to Trying New Things
According to Torous and Peck, this is also a good time to be open to trying something different. “Broaden your exercise regimen. Even if the gym is closed, there is still [a lot] you can do,” they advise, from signing up for a workout app to finding a class you love on YouTube. Rather than feeling anxious about the disruption from your everyday routine, get creative about how you can still do the things that make you feel good. Whether it’s cooking dinner every night, practicing and nailing a headstand or simply doing a cat-eye every morning before opening your laptop, enjoy the feeling of getting a little out of your comfort zone.
5. Practice the 4-7-8 Breathing Method
A lot of times, we forget to breathe properly as we go about our day. But the right technique matters, especially at night, since deep, slow, self-aware breathing is one of the best methods for releasing stress and tension during this time. That’s when Oprah’s go-to sleep guru, Dr. Michael Breus recommends 4-7-8 Method. Here’s how it works: First, inhale for four seconds, then hold your breath for seven seconds, then exhale slowly for eight seconds. When you’re lying in bed trying to fall asleep (or if you wake up with anxiety in the middle of the night), put this technique into action. It will not only help kick off a series of physiological changes that aid relaxation, it might reduce stressful thinking, too.
6. Spend Some Time in Your Garden
Gardening has long been linked to the reduction of stress, anxiety and depression. Ever heard of horticultural therapy? It’s basically just using planting and gardening to improve mental and physical health, and it’s been studied since the 19th century (and was popularized in the 1940s and ‘50s when gardening was used to rehabilitate hospitalized war veterans). According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, “Today, horticultural therapy is accepted as a beneficial and effective therapeutic modality. It is widely used within a broad range of rehabilitative, vocational and community settings.”
7. Describe Your Surroundings in Your Head
If you feel sudden panic strike, try to observe your surroundings and start describing things—in your head—in increasing detail. For example: There’s a chair. It has four legs. The legs are wooden. The cushion is embroidered. The embroidery is blue and white. It has white stitching. Whether it’s a chair or a book cover or a cute puppy, the idea is that the more you focus on describing something, the less you focus on freaking out. The more of your brain you’re using to think of words to describe a golden retriever, the less of your brain you’re using to think about any negative thoughts swirling around your head.
8. Stay Connected to Your Friends and Family
Keep in touch with your loved ones while maintaining social distancing, suggest Torous and Peck. “Texting and video chat options can reinforce ‘we are not in this alone,’” they say. And the conversations definitely don’t have to be centered around how you’re doing (although that can be helpful). Torous and Peck recommend discussing a book you both just read, or a show you’ve recently finished—yes, another excuse to talk about Love Is Blind. This will help establish a sense of normalcy.
9. Limit Your Social Media and News Intake
It's important to stay up to date, but if you find yourself compulsively checking the news or scrolling through social media for new info, it’s time to set some boundaries. “Check the news over coffee in the morning, midday and early evening. Or just twice a day. Park your phone for periods of time, too,” say Torous and Peck. Firstein agrees that it's important to limit exposure to the media and social media “it only stokes panic,” she explains. Create concrete rules and stick to them—have a family member hold you accountable, if you need to.
10. Write a Quick Gratitude List
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology asked participants to jot down a few sentences each week, focusing on specific topics. One group wrote about the things that they were grateful for that week, a second group wrote about the things that had displeased them and a third group wrote about things that had happened (neither positive or negative). After ten weeks, researchers found that those who had written about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives than the other two groups. Not only that, but they had also exercised more and had fewer visits to the doctor. So grab a notebook and try to jot down a few things that you’re thankful for each week. Hey, even no traffic on your daily commute is a win in our book.
11. Pull on a Weighted Blanket
This is the first anti-anxiety tool that comes to mind for Molly Giorgio, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in West Hartford, Connecticut. “Any kind of weighted blanket will really help you calm down,” she explains. “They give you that sense of being held, of almost being hugged,” adds Gin Love Thompson, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and relationship expert. Here are ten weighted blankets we recommend.
12. Adopt a Calming Mantra
“Loving mantras like ‘I am safe and loved’ that can be repeated over and over can drown out fears,” advises Satya Doyle Byock, MA, LPC, founder of Quarterlife. Pick one that feels reassuring to you like ‘all is well’ or ‘inhale calm, exhale worry’ and repeat it to yourself when you start to feel anxious. You can also write it down and hang it somewhere you’ll see it regularly for a little reminder.
13. Try to Meditate
Here’s some fascinating science: According to a Harvard University study, meditation may actually change the structure of your brain (in a good way). Researchers found that people who meditate had a decrease in brain cell volume in the amygdala, the area of that brain that is responsible for fear, anxiety and stress. Whoa. Want to try it but not sure where to start? Here are five great meditation tips for beginners.
14. Try Diaphragmatic Breathing
“A panic attack throws you into physiological distress because your brain believes you are in need of protection (aka in fight or flight mode),” psychologist Dr. Danielle Forshee says. “So one of the most effective strategies is to engage in diaphragmatic breathing.” That’s because when you’re experiencing a panic attack, your body tenses up and you tend to hyperventilate, taking short, quick breaths from your chest. “This type of breathing sends a signal to your brain that you are in distress, perpetuating the physiological escalation and by proxy, the panic attack.” Breathing through your diaphragm, on the other hand, sends a signal to your brain that you are safe and relaxed, which calms your physiology down and lets your body know that it no longer needs to be in hyper drive. Learn how to breathe from the diaphragm here.
15. Reframe Your Circumstances
Byock has been encouraging her clients to view social distancing as an opportunity to read the books they’ve been meaning to read (like Win Me Something), pick up the hobbies they’ve always wanted to start, journal more, sleep more—all the things they’ve been putting off. “We have space now to collectively engage in all sorts of play, creativity, and rest that we’ve always found excuses to put off,” she explains. And doing those things you’ve been meaning to get around to will probably make you feel better, she adds.
16. Listen to a Calming Podcast
There are a number of mental health-focused podcasts. One we love for those who deal with anxiety is “Not Another Anxiety Show.” On this podcast for everyone from “the always anxious to the occasionally overwhelmed to the painfully panicked,” host Kelli Walker, registered nurse, certified health and wellness coach and former agoraphobe, talks about what anxiety really is, why the best of us can get caught in its web and how to move past its sticky grip. Expect practical tips, resources and guidance while gaining a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.