Living with anxiety — whether you're suffering from short-term stress or a long-term disorder — can be challenging, but there are ways you can help yourself.
Starting with a small behaviour change, like adding in an afternoon walk, can make a noticeable difference in the way you feel. There are also plenty of smaller habits you can adopt to soothe your feelings when your anxiety levels are high.
To calm your anxiety long term, it's important to commit to making lifestyle changes, and develop a system to hold yourself accountable — such as leaning on friends or family for support and encouragement.
"If you are open to acting differently than how you feel, most of my patients are amazed by how freer their lives become and regret not seeking help sooner," says Jennifer L. Taitz, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Having a toolbox of methods that help boost your mood and take your mind off your stressors can be useful for anyone suffering from anxiety. Here are 17 self-treatment methods that can help mitigate feelings of anxiety, whether you have an anxiety disorder or not.
1. Exercise regularly
"Moderate physical activity such as walking for 60 minutes, 4 days per week, can be nearly as effective as medication for reducing anxiety," says Dawn Jonas, NMD, with the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine.
A 2017 review of six randomised controlled studies concluded that "exercise significantly decreased anxiety symptoms more than control conditions." Another 2017 review found that resistance training — like weight lifting — also had a significant impact on reducing anxiety levels.
In fact, even short, simple exercises like a 20-minute walk have been found to reduce stress.
2. Stick to a sleep schedule
Anxiety can make it difficult to sleep, and not being well-rested can contribute to more anxiety.
Overall, trying to get near the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night can help keep anxiety at bay. "Inadequate sleep increases the production of stress hormones that can exacerbate anxiety," Jonas says.
3. Try mindfulness and relaxation techniques
"When we practice mindfulness or relaxation techniques, we learn how to calm down feelings of anxiety or not let them get in the way of our lives," says Alisa Kamis-Brinda, a psychotherapist at Serenity Solutions.
In fact, a 2019 scientific review of 10 studies found that mindfulness-based interventions were more effective than cognitive-behavioural therapy for reducing distress associated with anxiety.
4. Practice biofeedback
Biofeedback is the process of monitoring your body's physical reactions to anxiety in order to better regulate them.
For example, you might notice that your heart is racing when you're feeling anxious. Then, you can monitor your heart rate while taking deep breaths, and watch as your heart lowers during that relaxation technique."Biofeedback can help us regulate our breath, reduce muscle tension, and increase heart rate variability, which are all correlated with decreased levels of anxiety," says Jonas. A 2015 study of nursing students found that practicing biofeedback reduced their reported anxiety levels over a period of four weeks. Jonas recommends apps like Resility Personal Biofeedback or Elite HRV to help you get started.
5. Eat healthy and avoid substances
What you put in your body affects how you feel, for better or for worse. Here's what to eat and what to avoid to improve your mood:
- Avoid fat, sugar, and carbs: Research has found that a diet high in fat, sugar, and refined carbohydrates may increase the risk of anxiety.
- Eat whole foods: On the other hand, eating a diet rich in natural, wholesome foods like fruits, vegetables, and legumes, while avoiding sugary snacks, can help control anxiety and boost your mood.
- Try fermented foods: Eating fermented foods may also have benefits for people with anxiety. A 2015 study found that people with high neuroticism — a tendency to experience negative emotions — who ate more fermented foods had fewer symptoms of social anxiety
- Add omega-3s to your diet: Another study found that omega-3 fatty acids, commonly found in fish like salmon and sardines, reduced anxiety in medical students.
- Avoid alcohol: Many people with anxiety get temporary relief from symptoms when they drink, but experience increased symptoms when they stop drinking. That leads some people with anxiety to drink even more. For example, social anxiety disorder is closely linked to alcohol use disorder, according to a 2019 twin study.
6. Try supplements like magnesium
Magnesium is a mineral supplement that has been shown to decrease anxiety. For example, a 2017 review of 18 studies found that people who took magnesium supplements reported decreased feelings of anxiety. "Magnesium has muscle-relaxing effects on the body and anxiolytic [anxiety reducing] effects on the brain," Jonas says. According to Jonas, magnesium is relatively safe and well-tolerated by most people — she recommends starting with a dose of 500 to 800 milligrams, taken at bedtime.
7. Reduce caffeine
Caffeine elevates the heart rate and blood pressure, which can make you feel more alert and focused. However, if you experience anxiety, these same side effects can also trigger alarm signals in your body that may elevate your anxiety, says Moe Gelbart, PhD, director of behavioural health at Torrance Memorial Medical Center.That's why anxiety is a recognised side effect of caffeine. But how much is too much? About 400 mg of caffeine a day can increase your anxiety. That's about the amount found in four 8-ounce cups of brewed coffee.
8. Breathe slowly and deeply
Taking slow, deep breaths is associated with a sense of calm and reduced anxiety. Breathing in a slow, deep, controlled manner helps the body relax, which is critical for fighting the physical tension that comes up in response to anxiety, Gelbart says. Taking slow deep breaths activates the body's parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation and calm. That can help quell anxiety, Gelbart says. Gelbart recommends using an app to guide your breathwork in order to reduce anxiety.Belly breathing is one type of slow, deep breathing that can help interrupt anxiety. To try it, sit or lie in a comfortable position, with one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. Breath in through your nose, watching the hand on your belly rise. The hand on your chest shouldn't move.After you've pushed the belly hand out as far as you can, slowly exhale through your mouth with your lips pursed, watching the belly hand fall. Repeat that 3-10 times, or until you feel calmer.
9. Try yoga
Study after study has found that yoga can reduce anxiety. That's because yoga combines two important anxiety-busting tools: physical exercise and breathwork that leads to relaxation. Both of these have independently been linked to reductions in anxiety levels; together, they're even more powerful. Yoga challenges participants to exercise, while also slowing their breathing, which can activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Yoga can improve mood and anxiety more than walking at a pace that burns a similar amount of calories, one small 2010 study found. Participants in the study were assigned to either walk or do a yoga routine for 60 minutes, three times a week. Those who did yoga had fewer symptoms of anxiety, the researchers found.
10. Get outside
Spending time outdoors can help calm anxiety in many ways, Gelbart says. First, there's a good chance that while you're outside, you're exercising, which studies have linked to calming anxiety.
In addition to getting your body moving, being outside can calm your mind, but connecting you on the spiritual or emotional level to something larger than yourself – mother nature, Gelbart says.
"Being out in nature, which is calming and relaxing, allows one to alter their perceptions and priorities of things," he says. This can make your worries seem less significant.
One study found that people who grow up with limited access to green spaces have up to a 55% increased risk for developing mental health conditions like anxiety disorders. If you can't get to green space, even mimicking one can help: Research has shown that listening to nature sounds can reduce anxiety in hospital patients.
Keeping a journal every day can help interrupt the cycle of anxiety in two different ways, Gelbart says.
One great practice is to keep a gratitude journal, where you list a few things that you are grateful for every day. A 2021 study found that practicing gratitude can have a "modest" impact on reducing feelings of anxiety.
"It's not directly related to anxiety, but feeling good and happy begins to reduce anxiety over time," Gelbart says.
Another approach to journaling is to write down your fears or worries. This can help you recognise your thought patterns in order to challenge or interrupt them, Gelbart says.
A 2018 study found that people who journaled about their emotions for 15 minutes 3 days per week for 12 weeks had improved wellness and less anxiety compared to a control group.
It might be hard to laugh when you're feeling anxious, and that's just the point — laughter and humour interrupt the cycle of anxiety.
Even if the relief is only momentary, research has shown that laughter can boost psychological well-being. The key is that you have to be genuinely laughing — self-induced laughter doesn't have the same impact as spontaneous laughter. So, if you feel anxiety creeping in, pull up your favourite comedic videos and let your laughter loose.
13. Try aromatherapy
When you're feeling anxious, it may be helpful to add a few drops of your favourite essential oil to a diffuser. Though the research is still controversial and the results are mixed, some studies and analyses have found that essential oils may reduce anxiety, at least temporarily. Some essential oils that may provide relief include:
According to a 2017 review, lavender essential oil may be able to help calm your anxiety. However, a 2019 review points out that many of the studies looking at lavender's effect on anxiety are low quality. Regardless, if you like its scent and find that it increases your well-being, you may want to keep it in your anti-anxiety toolbox.
Peppermint oil is known for its ability to soothe tension headaches. But it may also be able to reduce anxiety. In one small 2022 study of hospital patients with acute coronary syndrome, inhaling peppermint oil was associated with decreased anxiety. Another small 2017 study found that inhaling peppermint oil also soothed anxiety in patients who were about to undergo colonoscopies.
Citrus oils including sweet orange, bergamot, and orange essence could have mood-boosting effects. According to a 2020 review, several small human studies have found that inhaling sweet orange oil helps lower levels of anxiety and increase feelings of relaxation and calmness. The same review cited several small studies that found similar results from bergamot essential oil, including one small 2015 study where it decreased levels of salivary cortisol (the stress hormone) in healthy women.Other essential oils that may help anxiety include clary sage, chamomile, lemon, and geranium. Try adding a few drops to an essential oil diffuser, or something absorbent like a cotton ball, and placing it nearby.
14. Repeat a positive affirmation
When you notice yourself feeling anxious, try repeating a mantra or affirmation such as "I am safe" or "I am calm."
Mantra repetition is a staple of transcendental meditation, which is associated with a reduction in stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. While transcendental meditation is centered around a specific mantra assigned to you by an instructor, you can still gain benefits from coming up with your own mantra or positive affirmation.
Here's what the research says:
- In one small 2015 study, repeating a one-word mantra reduced activity in the brain, which, for people who suffer from racing thoughts or ruminations, could be useful for calming anxiety.
- According to a 2022 review, various forms of mantra meditation were associated with a "small-to-moderate" reduction in anxiety, stress, and depression.
- In a small 2016 study of female heart disease patients, using positive affirmations caused a significant decrease in stress, anxiety, and depression.
Some examples of positive affirmations that you can try include:
- "I trust myself"
- "I am relaxed and at peace"
- "My life is a gift"
- "I have faith in my abilities"
15. Take a social media break
Social media has both positive and negative effects on mental health.
While it can help foster a sense of community and acceptance with people online, it can also cause you to engage in detrimental habits like doomscrolling, a word that describes an obsession with scrolling through social media and news sites. This exposure to the 24-hour news cycle can be mentally taxing and damaging to your mental health.
If you think social media is contributing to your anxiety, it can be beneficial to log out, even for a short amount of time.
In fact, a 2022 study found that a one-week break from social media was enough to improve well-being and reduce depression and anxiety.
16. Spend time with loved ones
Combat loneliness and boost your mood by spending time with a loved one, whether they're a human or an animal. Spending time with a pet comes with many benefits. For example, having a dog can help combat loneliness, help PTSD symptoms, and help you be more mindful. When you're feeling anxious, try gazing into your dog's eyes. A 2009 study found that doing so increased oxytocin levels. This hormone is associated with relationship building, physical affection, and a sense of safety.
Nurturing your human relationships can also prove beneficial in improving your mental health. Friendships are associated with reduced loneliness and improved happiness and self-esteem. When you're feeling anxious, it can help to talk to a friend or family member who can offer a different perspective or talk about a similar experience.
17. Brew some tea
Taking a quiet moment during the day to brew a cup of tea can be a beneficial mindfulness practice. But what's in the cup may also help induce calm, relaxed feelings.Here are some of the best teas to drink to ease anxiety:
- Lavender: In a small 2020 study focusing on elderly individuals, drinking lavender tea twice a day reduced feelings of depression and anxiety among participants.
- Green: Though it might seem counterintuitive to drink caffeine when you're feeling anxious, green tea could prove itself an exception. It contains an amino acid called L-theanine, which counteracts the increased blood pressure and general jitteriness associated with caffeine. It also has relaxation and anti-anxiety effects, according to a 2022 review. If you suffer from morning anxiety, try replacing coffee with a cup of green tea.
- Chamomile: Chamomile tea contains a flavonoid called apigenin, which has similar effects in the brain as benzodiazepines, a type of anti-anxiety drug. Sipping on chamomile tea can promote relaxation, sleep, and a sense of calm.
Calming anxiety is part of navigating the human experience, Gelbart says. "Everyone has anxious moments," he said. Oftentimes, those moments can be managed by addressing the physical and mental symptoms of anxiety. Deep breaths might slow your heart rate (interrupting physical symptoms), while laughter can distract you (interrupting mental symptoms like spiraling thoughts).However, if your anxiety begins interfering with your ability to go about your daily activities, it's time to seek professional treatment, which might involve counseling, medication, or both. "There is a difference between anxiety, which we all feel, and anxiety disorders, which become dysfunctional and make life difficult," Gelbart says. If you think you might have an anxiety disorder, "it's important to make an intervention so you can live life."