© Michal Bednarek | Dreamstime.com
Probably the No. 1 thing you can do to relieve stress and deal with anxiety symptoms is to learn breathing exercises. When you’re anxious, you naturally take quick, shallow breaths. This actually worsens your anxiety and creates a vicious cycle that can lead to panic attack symptoms.
Even if you think you’re experiencing a social anxiety disorder, you can counteract by consciously breathing deeply and slowly.
Here’s a look at other proven techniques to try when you experience anxiety symptoms and stress.
You can ramp up the relaxation response by combining calm breathing with guided imagery exercises. To try guided imagery, find a quiet place and visualize a relaxing setting, such as sitting quietly by a calming river or relaxing on the beach with the sun on your face, while breathing slowly and deeply.
Guided imagery usually works best if the guide—the person who describes the scene—is someone other than yourself, especially when you first try it. A therapist can act as a guide, but if you don’t have one, there are several guided imagery audio recordings available online, and many of them are free. Once you practice a few times with the help of a guide, you’ll likely find that you can bring yourself into a relaxed state on your own.
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Similar to guided imagery, deep relaxation involves following along with a guide who talks you through relaxing your whole body, moving from one body part to another. It is often combined with guided imagery in that after your body is relaxed, you may imagine yourself in a calm and soothing setting.
As with guided imagery, deep relaxation audio programs are frequently available online free of charge. Both of these techniques work best if you practice them regularly, not just when you’re feeling anxious. That way, your body learns how to relax and you can call up the memory of that relaxation when you need it—like when someone cuts you off in traffic.
Experiencing Anxiety Symptoms? Try Meditation
Another technique that incorporates deep breathing to help you relax is meditation. Meditation refers to any of many contemplative exercises that teach you to rest your mind. There are many meditation techniques available, but probably the most studied for the purpose of improving mental health is mindfulness meditation. Based partly on Buddhist teachings, mindfulness meditation involves sitting quietly and acknowledging your thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment.
Yoga and Tai Chi
While all exercise is helpful for controlling stress and anxiety, you may find yoga and tai chi particularly beneficial because they also incorporate deep breathing and meditation. While yoga practices vary widely, it is essentially an ancient Indian practice involving stretching and holding certain poses while breathing deeply.
Similarly, tai chi is an ancient Chinese practice that involves coordinating deep breathing with slow movements. Look for local, inexpensive yoga and tai chi classes. Many community recreation centers offer them. You can also check online for instructional videos, but it’s usually best to start out with a live teacher, who can make sure you are practicing correctly and not in danger of hurting yourself.
Controlling Negative Thought Patterns
When anxiety symptoms and stress start to get the better of you, it’s easy to fall into a negative spiral of fear in which you associate certain places or situations with anxiety and worry constantly about your health, safety, and success. On the road to recovery, it’s important to recognize and break these patterns. You may need the help of a professional therapist to do this but it’s worth trying to work on this on our own as well.
The first step is to recognize negative thoughts when they occur. Any thought that creates a negative body reaction—feelings of tension or fear—is a negative thought. These include thoughts like I’m going to die, I’m not good enough, or I can’t do this. You can recognize these thoughts by the effect they have on your body, making you tense up, increase your heart rate, or make you sweat or feel nauseous. That’s when you try to break the cycle.
First, realize that these are your thoughts and you have control over them. Allow yourself to release the negative energy and replace the thought with something positive, like I’ve been through this before and survived, I’m as good and valuable as anyone else, or I can try, and it’s ok to fail sometimes. Feel the difference in your body as you replace the negative with positive—and watch the anxiety symptoms disappear.
Originally published in 2016 and updated.