If you struggle with anxiety, a number of lifestyle changes can help get your symptoms under control — including eating a healthy diet, exercising, quitting smoking and drinking too much alcohol, and getting enough quality sleep.
There are also mind-body exercises you can do at home when anxiety hits to reduce your body's physiological response. For example, by lowering your heart and breathing rates, you can think more clearly.
Here are five methods to help lower anxiety symptoms, also known as your body's "fight or flight response" when you're feeling very stressed:
Deep breathing exercises, including diaphragmatic breathing, are highly recommended for people who deal with stress and anxiety.
Diaphragmatic breathing (or DB), also called deep belly breathing, is a type of breathing in which you use your stomach, abdominal muscles, and diaphragm to take deep, controlled breaths. This is basically the opposite of taking rushed, shallower "chest breaths," which is what we tend to do when we're feeling stressed.
Your diaphragm is a major muscle that helps control respiration (breathing) that is located below your lungs. It contracts and flattens as you breathe, filling up and deflating almost like a balloon.
Research shows that deep belly breathing helps counteract anxiety because it relaxes the vagus nerve, which is a major nerve running down the center of your body from your brain to your gut. Your vagus nerve is a key part of your parasympathetic nervous system (also called your "rest and digest" system), and by activating it you naturally decrease symptoms caused by anxiety like a racing heart, stomach pains, etc.
Here's how to practice deep belly/diaphragmatic breathing (try to do these exercises about twice daily for at least four weeks to see improvements):
- Sit down, so you're comfortable. Relax your body and place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen just below the rib cage.
- Take a deep, slow breath in while imaging filling your belly while keeping your chest motionless. The goal is to keep the hand on the chest almost still while the hand on the abdomen rises and falls with the diaphragmatic breath.
- Breath out slowly and let your belly relax, and "deflate." Repeat at least 10 to 20 times, or ideally for about five minutes.
Body Scan (Progressive Muscle Relaxation)
Body scan exercises, including body scan meditations and muscle relaxation practices, can be used to increase self-awareness of sensations happening in the body and to lower responses to stress.
A body scan is a great way to unwind physically, plus it allows for insight into how your thoughts and emotions change your physiology (for example, you might have neck pain or a stomach ache when dealing with negative emotions).
You can do a body scan any time of day when you're feeling angry, tense, overwhelmed, or uncomfortable. Here's how to do it:
- Find somewhere quiet and relaxed in your home where you won't be distracted.
- Lay down on the floor using props to make yourself comfortable, such as a pillow and blankets to support your back and head.
- Now, you're going to "scan" over different parts of your body, beginning at the top of your head. Scanning means you'll be focusing on one muscle group at a time as you breathe and explore sensations.
- While you're scanning your body, you might notice feelings like tension, heaviness, butterflies, tingling, pain, etc.
- Try to imagine softening the body part that you're focusing on and "breathing into it" so it releases stress.
- Practice a body scan for about 10 to 60 minutes several times per week, such as before bed, to help you sleep more soundly.
Research shows that meditation is one of the best ways to reduce racing, anxious thoughts and to increase positive emotions and relaxation. It also increases mind-body awareness and helps to slow down rapid breathing.
Various types of meditation practices— including "mindfulness meditation," which involves sitting quietly and focusing your attention on your breath — reduce "fight or flight" activity. Meditation can also stimulate the vagus nerve and even help reduce sensations of pain.
Here are instructions for doing a basic mindfulness meditation exercise:
- Choose a posture that feels most comfortable, such as sitting crossed-legged or laying down.
- Keep your body relaxed, eyes either closed or slightly open but soft.
- Bring your attention to your breath, focusing on the sounds, feelings in your body, or anything else that grabs your attention while you breathe.
- When your mind wanders, which is expected, return your attention to your breath. The whole point of the meditation is to practice observing your thoughts without needing to react to them by bringing your attention back to your breath.
- To build a meditation habit, try practicing for five or 10 minutes per day to start, then up to 20+ minutes daily for even more benefits.
There are many different types of yoga depending on your goals, with restorative yoga (also called "yin yoga" or "yoga Nidra") being one of the best for calming your body, controlling your breath, and improving your mood.
Yoga is all about learning how to move your body and breathe more mindfully and deeply in a way that can mitigate the negative effects of stress. This type of yoga is slow, gentle, and focused on improving mind-body awareness; in other words, it helps you learn how your body is reacting to stress so you can focus on reducing tension and tightness in those areas.
The best way to practice restorative yoga is either by attending a class in person, following along a Youtube video, or listening to an audio recording. You'll move through a series of stretches and postures that are designed to release the stress that's stored up in your muscles and joints. While you either hold a posture for an extended period or move from one pose to another, remember to keep breathing steadily.
Visualization can take your meditation practice, and breathing exercises, to the next level. For example, you can try visualizing ice melting as your muscles relax, you floating in water calmly, or other calming images such as you sitting in the sun on the beach or hugging someone you love.
When you imagine yourself doing soothing things, such as being somewhere serene or surrounded by supportive people, your body naturally produces "happy hormones" including serotonin and oxytocin, which make you feel less anxious.
While practicing visualization, you might also want to incorporate singing, humming, chanting mantras, or words of affirmation, which all activate nerves in your throat that are connected to your vagus nerve, leading to enhanced feelings of calmness.