I’m halfway out the door in the morning with a heavy bag in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other. Then I wonder: Where did I put my keys? And so begins the 20-minute panicked reconnaissance mission for the keys I swore were on the coffee table. I start to feel flustered and irritable as I frantically search. My memory gets foggy as my heart starts to pound and my palms sweat. It’s another anxious morning.
Anxiety Alert—The Need-to-Know
Technically, anxiety is apprehension over an upcoming event. We anticipate the future with sometimes scary predictions that don’t necessarily have any basis in truth. In everyday life, anxiety’s physical and emotional symptoms can mean an increased heart rate, poor concentration at work and school, sleeping problems, and just being a total Crankasaurus Rex to family, friends, and co-workers.
Anxiety and stress are physical and emotional responses to perceived dangers (that aren’t always real). And since most of us aren’t running from tigers or hunting and gathering in the woods, it’s often the little things that put us over the edge: an over-loaded email inbox, morning rush hour, or losing those keys before running out the door. Luckily, it’s easy to beat this kind of stress with just a few easy changes added throughout the day.
Note: If you feel like you might be dealing with a serious anxiety disorder, please talk to a medical professional about treatment. There are lots of options available to manage your symptoms. But if you’re looking to reduce daily anxiety, these 15 tips will get you on your way to being calm and collected in no time.
Cool as a Cucumber—Your Action Plan
1. Get enough sleep. Inconsistent sleep can have some serious consequences. Not only does it affect our physical health, but lack of sleep can also contribute to overall anxiety and stress. And sometimes it turns into a vicious cycle, since anxiety often leads to disruptions in sleep Sleep and anxiety disorders. Mellman, T.A. Department of Psychiatry, Howard University Mental Health Clinic. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America 2006 Dec;29(4):1047-58. . Especially when feeling anxious, try to schedule a full seven to nine hours of snooze time and see what a few nights of sweet slumber do for those anxiety levels throughout the day.
2. Smile. When work has got us down, it’s a good idea to take a quick break to get some giggles on. Research suggests that laughter can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, so consider checking out a funny YouTube clip to calm those jittery nerves Effects of humor and laughter on psychological functioning, quality of life, health status,and pulmonary functioning among patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a preliminary investigation. Lebowitz, K.R., Suh, S., Diaz, P.T., et al. Department of Psychiatry, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. Heart & Lung 2011 Jul-Aug;40(4):310-9. .
3. De-clutter the brain. Physical clutter = mental clutter. A messy workspace can make it more difficult to relax and make it seem like our work is never-ending. So take 15 minutes or so to tidy up the living space or work area, and then make a habit of keeping things clean and anxiety-free. It’ll help us think rationally, and there won’t be as much room for anxiety.
4. Express gratitude. Studies have found expressing gratitude helps reduce anxiety, especially when we’re well-rested The Differential Effects of Gratitude and Sleep on Psychological Distress in Patients with Chronic Pain. Ng, M.Y., Wong, W.S. City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong. Journal of Health Psychology 2012 Mar 12. [Epub ahead of print]. . Start a gratitude journal to get in the mindset of appreciation, and out of the mindset of being overwhelmed.
5. Eat right. Anxiety can throw our bodies totally out of whack: Our appetite might change, or we might crave certain foods. But to give the body the support it needs, try eating more of foods that contain nutrients such as vitamin B and omega-3s, plus some healthy whole-grain carbohydrates. Studies have linked vitamin B with good mental health, and omega-3s may help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety Association between folate, vitamin B(6) and vitamin B(12) intake and depression in the SUN cohort study. Sánchez-Villegas, A., Doreste, J., Schlatter, J., et al.School of Health Sciences, Department of Clinical Sciences, University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Las Palmas, Spain. Journal of human nutrition and dietetics 2009 Apr;22(2):122-33. . Whole-grain carbs help regulate levels of serotonin, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter that helps us remain calm. And even though our cravings might be telling us otherwise, research suggests that eating sugary and processed foods can increase symptoms of anxiety Chronic stress and obesity: a new view of "comfort food." Dallman, M.F., Pecoraro, N., Akana, S.F., et al. Department of Physiology and Neuroscience Program, University of California, San Francisco, CA. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 2003 Sep 30;100(20):11696-701. .
6. Learn to breathe. A useful tool to prevent panic attacks, the breath is also a great marker of where your anxiety level is at throughout the day. Short, shallow breaths signify stress and anxiety in the brain and body. On the flip side, consciously breathing, plus lengthening and strengthening the breath helps send signals to the brain that it’s okay to relax Respiratory and Cognitive Mediators of Treatment Change in Panic Disorder: Evidence for Intervention Specificity. Meuret, A.E., Rosenfield, D., Seidel, A., et al. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 2010 Oct;78(5):691-704. .
7. Meditate. By now most of us have heard that meditation is relaxing, but what scientists are also discovering is that meditation actually increases the amount of grey matter in the brain, essentially rewiring the body to stress less. A number of recent studies highlight the positive effects of meditation on anxiety, mood, and stress symptoms Complementary medicine, exercise, meditation, diet, and lifestyle modification for anxiety disorders: a review of current evidence. Sarris, J., Moylan, S., Camfield, D.A., et al. Department of Psychiatry, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia. Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine 2012;2012:809653. Mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and Zen meditation for depression, anxiety, pain, and psychological distress. Marchand, W.R. George E. Wahlen VAMC and University of Utah, Salt Lake City. Journal of Psychiatric Practice 2012 Jul;18(4):233-52. . Meditation is also a way to observe the brain, letting us figure out how our mind generates anxiety-provoking thoughts. And understanding the brain’s thought patterns can help create distance from those thoughts.
8. Create a vision board. If the future seems big and scary, try changing the thoughts about what lies ahead. Sometimes the mere act of setting concrete goals can take the edge off anxiety about future unknowns. Take an hour to produce a vision board that creates excitement about projects and possibilities to come. And for those who aren’t the crafty type, try making an e-vision board using Pinterest for some Pinspiration. While making the board, try using the T.H.I.N.K. tool: Is my thought true, helpful, inspirational, necessary and kind? If not, dump the thought.
9. Play around. Kids and animals seem to have an innate ability to play, without stressing about their overflowing inboxes. Until business offices give us recess breaks, we’ll have to take responsibility for our own playtime. Offer to take a friend’s dog out for a walk, or babysit for an afternoon to get out of your head and let the careless creatures lead by example.
10. Be silent. Plan for a time when you can completely disconnect. Start with increments of time that seem sustainable and doable for you, even if it’s just five minutes. That means phone off, no emails, no TV, no news, nothing. Let other people know they won’t be able to reach you so you can veg worry free. There’s some evidence that too much noise can boost our stress levels, so schedule some sacred silent time among all the ruckus of daily life.
11. Worry. Yes, we can cause ourselves to freak out, but only for a certain amount of time. When something weighs heavily on your mind, or you believe something terrible is most definitely going to occur, commit to only creating that worry for 20 minutes. Think of all the possible outcomes of the scenario, figure out some game plans, and then quit thinking about it after 20 minutes go by. Have a friend call after the allotted time has passed to avoid the temptation of going over the time limit. Or schedule some of that playtime right afterward.
12. Plan ahead. Fight anxious thoughts in advance by preparing for the day ahead. Try making a schedule or a to-do list and develop habits that increase productivity. So instead of spending 10 extra minutes every morning frantically looking for those keys, make a habit of always putting them in the same place when you come home. Lay out clothes the night before, pack a gym bag and leave it by the door, or make lunch ahead of time. Focus on how to “un-think” the anxiety-producing beliefs by prepping before they pop up.
13. Visualize anything positive. When confronted with anxious thoughts, take a moment to visualize yourself handling the situation with calm, ease, and clarity. Try not to pay attention to the current mental state; just focus on the feeling of smooth-sailing through the storm. The technique is called “guided imagery” or “guided visualization” and can help reduce feelings of stress Guided visualization interventions on perceived stress, dyadic satisfaction and psychological symptoms in highly stressed couples. Rogers, K.R., Hertlein, K., Rogers, D., et al. Department of Marriage and Family Therapy, University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Complementary therapies in clinical practice 2012 May;18(2):106-13. .
14. Smell something relaxing. Try sniffing some calming oils. Basil, anise, and chamomile are great choices; they reduce tension in the body and help increase mental clarity.
15. Hang out. People who have lots of social support tend to react less negatively to stress than those who fly solo. That’s probably because socializing stimulates the production of the hormone oxytocin, which has an anxiety-reducing effect Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Heinrichs, M., Baumgartner, T., Kirschbaum, C., et al. Department of Clinical Psychology, University of Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland. Biological Psychiatry 2003 Dec 15;54(12):1389-98. . So the next time a freak-out appears on the horizon, grab some pals and go for a walk or just have a quick chat.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t come up with thoughts that produce stress or anxiety. But we’re human and inevitably worry about things. So when we do start to freak, there are lots of little steps we can take to change our thoughts, calm the brain, relax the body, and get back in the game. And, as always, be sure to check with a psychotherapist if these tips don’t cut it and you need a little extra help tackling a more significant anxiety issue!