The 14 Best Strategies for Coping With Anxiety
realsimple.com Anxiety is a natural and common mental state, and there are ways to beat it. Here’s how to find the best way to reduce anxiety for you, based on expert- and science-backed methods.
You’ve been in bed for an hour now and still can’t fall asleep. You’re anxious thinking about your job or your 401(k); some problem with your kids that's setting you on edge; the unsettling state of the world or the unstoppable inertia of time.
Whatever the issue, you can’t get it out of your head, but replaying the problem and trying to cope with the anxiety then and there doesn’t work. Then you start fretting about not being able to sleep. “I’ll be a wreck tomorrow,” you tell yourself. “I’ve got to sleep now.” But that doesn’t reduce your anxiety one bit.
While some people experience anxiety more severely and/or more frequently than others, we all experience anxiety in our lives. It’s a natural and common response to stress and uncertainty over things that are either about to happen or that might happen, but haven’t (and probably won’t).
Those with persistent, uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety should always consult a doctor, as a prescription may be the best course of action for quelling crippling or chronic anxiety. However, plenty of other scientifically proven and prescription-free ways to reduce anxiety—ways that are far more effective than the typical (and unhelpful) advice to “be positive,” “don’t worry so much,” or just “stop thinking about it.”
According to Robert L. Leahy, PhD, the director of The American Institute for Cognitive Therapy NYC, a lot of research on anxiety also suggests more innovative, unexpected, and even counterintuitive ways to cope with anxiety successfully. “I’ve seen these [techniques] work for hundreds of patients,” he says. “In fact, I’ve found that most people can get a grip on things if they take a few minutes to develop a different relationship with their thoughts and feelings.”
Here are the most impactful anxiety-reducing activities, techniques, and approaches to try, based on years of research and expert recommendations.
1. Repeat your worry until you’re sick of it.
If you had a fear of elevators, you’d get rid of it if you rode in one a thousand times in a row. At first, you'd be very anxious, then less so, and eventually it would have no effect (except to make you sick of riding in an elevator). So take the troublesome thought that’s nagging at you and say it over and over, silently, slowly, for 20 minutes. It’s hard to keep your mind on a worry if you repeat it that many times. Leahy calls this the “boredom cure” for obvious reasons.
2. Don’t judge yourself for random or "crazy" thoughts.
You may occasionally have thoughts that lead you to think you’ll do something terrible or that you’re going insane. Remember―our minds are creative. Little synapses are firing away at random, and every now and then a “crazy” thought jumps out. Everyone has them. Instead of judging yours, describe it to yourself like it’s a curious object on a shelf and move on.
3. Recognize false alarms.
That fear of your house burning down because you left the iron on has never come true. That rapid heart beat doesn’t mean you’re having a heart attack; it’s your body’s natural response to arousal. Many thoughts and sensations that we interpret as cues for concern―even panic―are just background noise. Think of each of them as a fire engine going to another place. You’ve noticed them; now let them pass by.
4. Disconnect from your anxieties.
You can let go of a worry by disconnecting yourself from it. Leahy tells his patients to imagine their anxious thoughts as a show you're watching from afar—while you sit in the audience, eating popcorn, a calm observer.
5. Set aside worry time.
Our worries surface, unannounced, all day, like mental texts and pings, and we stop everything to address them―even if we should be doing something else. But what if you didn't respond to them right away? Try setting aside 20 minutes every day―let’s say at 4:30 p.m.―just for your worries. If you're fretting at 10 a.m., jot down the reason and resolve to think it through later. By the time it's 4:30, many of your troubles won’t even matter anymore. And you'll have spent almost an entire day anxiety-free.
6. Stop trying to be in control all the time.
You constantly check the weather before a big outdoor event. You replay a clumsy comment you made, or get enraged at the airport when a flight's delayed. When you desperately try to take command of things that can’t be controlled, you’re like the swimmer who panics and slaps at the water, panicking—this gets you nowhere. Instead, imagine that you're floating along on the water with your arms spread out, looking up to the sky. It’s a paradox, but when you surrender to the moment, you actually feel far more in control, Leahy says.
7. Smile through it, even if you don’t want to.
According to a 2012 study from the University of Kansas, the old adage is rooted in truth: Smiling during stressful situations can help ease anxiety, even if you don’t feel happy.
However, this technique may help you cope with less severe, temporary anxiety, like over a stressful work presentation or uncomfortable social situation. It’s likely and understandable that someone suffering from more serious, chronic depression will require more guidance than simply to “grin and bear it.” That said, it’s still a handy reminder to have in your back pocket if panic starts to set in.
8. Focus on a proper breathing technique.
Simple breathing exercises twice a day can alleviate feelings of panic associated with anxiety, suggests a 2010 study from Southern Methodist University. You may notice that when your body is tense, you hold your breath. Leahy says focusing on breathing is a common but effective technique for calming the nerves. Where is your breath now, and where is your mind? Bring them together. Listen to the movement of your breath. Does your mind wander somewhere else? Call it back. Concentrate only on breathing in and out, beginning and ending, breath to breath, moment to moment. And contrary to popular belief, deep breaths can sometimes worsen hyperventilation. Instead, try breathing slower and more shallowly.
9. Engage in talk therapy.
If anxiety reaches a point where it’s negatively impacting your life, work, relationships, and peace of mind, investing in yourself by investing in therapy is a fantastic idea. There are several types of therapy out there, but a few common options that help target anxiety are acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
It’s tempting to rely on prescription medication to cope with anxiety symptoms (like uneasiness, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, sweating, and more). But in some cases, this merely masks the issue without getting to the root of anxiety. Research published in The Lancet Psychiatry suggests that talk therapy can actually be a more successful form of treatment than prescription drugs—and have longer lasting effects. That’s good news for the more than 40 million people who suffer from anxiety disorders each year.
10. Reduce your sugar intake.
When anxious, it’s common to turn to sugary comfort foods, like candy, processed snacks, and simple carbohydrates, to temporarily cope with symptoms. But research from the Western Human Nutrition Research Center warns against it. Indulging may provide short-term respite, but satisfying sugar cravings by feeding those cravings will likely increase anxiety in the long run.
11. Avoid large amounts of caffeine, or caffeine altogether.
Highly caffeinated drinks—like coffee—can brew panic in people who are predisposed to anxiety, according to a study from the University of Michigan, among other scientific surveys and research on different age groups and global demographics.
12. Meditate—even if you’ve never tried it before.
Setting aside time—even 5 to 10 minutes a day—for mindful meditation has positive effects on your psyche, suggests in-depth research from Johns Hopkins University published in 2014. And another survey from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health showed similar findings, with 85 percent of respondents reporting meditation and prayer helped them manage stress. See how to meditate without anyone even knowing what you’re doing.
A regular meditation practice, which can be as simple as sitting in a comfortable chair at home and focusing on your breath, can both help you cope with anxiety in the moment, and also give you the mental focus and fortitude to manage worrisome thoughts more easily in the future.
13. Force yourself to move, in big ways and small.
It may be hard to find the energy to work up a sweat when you’re feeling blue or like you have something more pressing to take care of—but that’s often the anxiety talking. Extensive research on the correlation between exercise and mental health shows that regular exercise is associated with lower neuroticism, anxiety, and depression. This refers to designated gym or home workouts, but it also includes simply getting up and moving frequently around to avoid a sedentary lifestyle.
Getting regular exercise, even if it's just going for a good walk, is also known to improve sleep onset and quality—another major influence on anxiety and mood.
14. Be disciplined about getting enough sleep.
A 2013 study published in The Journal of Neuroscience supports the idea that sleep deprivation can have serious health consequences, including ratcheting up anxiety levels. Sleep expert Matthew Walker, PhD, explains in his 2017 book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, that “[t]here is no major psychiatric condition in which sleep is normal. This is true of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder…”
But while sleep disruption is known to trigger or exacerbate conditions like anxiety, and vice versa, Walker points to reassuring research by University of California, Berkeley psychologist Allison Harvey, PhD: “By improving sleep quantity, quality, and regularity, Harvey and her team have systematically demonstrated the healing abilities of sleep for the minds of numerous psychiatric populations.”
While there’s no one-size-fits-all number when it comes to sleep, the average person should aim to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep every single night. For those suffering from anxiety, many of the above coping techniques, such as avoiding caffeine, practicing breathing or meditation techniques, and seeing a therapist, are also effective ways to improve sleep—as sleep trouble and anxiety often go hand in hand. Here are 11 healthy habits to adopt to promote a better night’s sleep, based on scientific research.