Keeping Up with Your Anxiety

Anxiety is uncomfortable: Even if you don’t deal with full-blown panic disorder, your nerves have probably crept up on you at some point—and it’s a pain to deal with. Your palms may get sweaty, your breathing becomes shallow, and your heart starts racing. If these feelings become overwhelming and difficult to manage, you might have an actual anxiety disorder—which is effectively treated by therapy, medication, or a combination of both.

But if you struggle to keep your nerves in check from time to time—say, worrying before you go on a first date or struggling to fall sleep before a big presentation at work—you don’t have to pop a pill to overcome your anxiousness. There are plenty of ways to cope when all you can think to do is freak out: Here are 16 science-backed tricks that will help you calm down.

Get off your butt.

Studies have shown time and time again that exercise is one of the best ways to ease anxiety. In fact, after University of Georgia researchers studied nearly 3,000 people with a variety of medical conditions, they found that patients who exercised regularly (from walking to weight lifting) reported a 20% decrease in anxiety symptoms—like excessive worrying and nervousness—than those who didn’t get up and move. Exercise seems to help people who aren’t even all that anxious to start with, the researchers note.

Aerobic workouts, like jogging, swimming, cycling, or walking, are your best bet, according to the National Institutes of Health. Scientists believe exercise acts like a natural mood-booster because increased blood circulation can help improve your brain’s stress response.

Take a deep breath.

It sounds cliché, but taking the time to inhale and exhale can alleviate your anxiety. Abdominal breathing—characterized by slow, deep, even breaths—for just 20 to 30 minutes day floods your brain with oxygen, which stimulates your nervous system and relaxes your body, according to the American Institute of Stress.

Warm up.

Research suggests that feelings of warmth are naturally comforting. Think about it: Have you ever left the beach or hot tub feeling anxious? There’s a reason for that: Warm sensations may alter brain circuits that directly involve serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate your mood, according to a review published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
Try soaking in the heat when you need to unwind: One Japanese study found that people saw a significant decrease in anxiety after bathing in a sauna. You’ll relieve some tension and reap other health benefits, too.

Go for a hike.

Use this as motivation to leave your desk and take a walk outside during lunch: Surrounding yourself with nature can help reduce anxiety, according to a Stanford University study. Researchers surveyed 60 people about their mood before and after they took a 50-minute walk in either a natural or urban environment in California. They found that people who took a nature walk felt less anxious than those who took a stroll through the city.

Not only that, but a similar study suggests that hanging out in a green space reduces activity in a part of your brain that’s associated with a greater risk for depression and other mental illnesses. The researchers believe spending time in nature helps tame the negative overthinking that often accompanies bad mood states.

Find your zen.

Mellow out with meditation: Just 30 minutes of Zen time a day can lower your anxiety and depression levels up to 38%, which is about the same amount as an antidepressant, according to a review from John Hopkins University. (Check out what happened when this writer tried meditating every day for a month.)

The researchers believe the discipline required for meditation—which includes concentrating on your breathing, bodily sensations, thoughts, and surroundings without forming opinions—may help you tune out the effects of negative emotions, like excessive worrying.

Calm down with chamomile.

Feeling jittery? Chamomile is known for its sedative effects. That’s because it contains apigenin, a flavonoid that binds to the same brain receptors as Xanax and Valium, two common anti-anxiety meds. While more research needs to be done, some studies suggest that higher doses of chamomile can soothe anxiety over time. When University of Pennsylvania researchers gave nearly 60 people a concentrated chamomile capsule or a chamomile-scented placebo, the chamomile group had significantly lower anxiety scores than the placebo group after 8 weeks.

While researchers still need to determine whether or not there’s enough of chamomile’s soothing compounds in one or two tea bags, relaxing with a hot cup of tea might be just what you need to help you unwind in the moment. Not into chamomile? Research suggests green tea may also produce calming effects.