The past few months have been challenging, to say the least. No matter what your situation, we’re all facing new circumstances and stressors. If your usual techniques to help ease anxiety haven’t helped, that’s normal.
“Coping strategies that people may have used in the past to successfully navigate stressful experiences may not work the same way now,” says Shevaun D. Neupert, PhD, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University. “People need to match their coping strategy with the demands of the situation. And because we are all living in new situations that are unique to us and different from what other people may be experiencing, there is no ‘one size fits all’ coping solution. Everyone should be encouraged to try various coping techniques.”
Consider these six practices below and see what helps you better manage stress and anxiety. Keep in mind that one thing may work today and another may better suit your needs tomorrow.
Be proactive and mindful. In a recent study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, researchers gave 233 adults a survey to determine how often they engage in something called proactive coping. This is taking any action to reduce the likelihood of experiencing future stressors, such as making plans or allocating resources. Then, for eight days, the participants filled out questionnaires about stress, mood, and mindfulness, which has been linked to reduced anxiety and distress.
Not surprisingly, those who engaged in proactive coping experienced less day-to-day stress. However, the people with the best response to daily pressures like arguments, work conflicts, and your kids misbehaving were also able to stay mindful in the present moment. “This is admittedly a challenging balance and highlights the real tension that humans experience in balancing plans for the future with living in the moment,” says Neupert, lead author of the study.
Right now it may be harder than ever to plan a month out, so Neupert suggests planning a day at a time or even part of the day at a time. Then, consider trying more mindfulness practices such as meditation and mindful eating. You’ll find a balance between planning ahead and mindfully being in the moment that’s best for you.
Get deep sleep. Sleep and stress can form a vicious cycle. Just one night of sleep deprivation can boost anxiety by 30 percent, UC Berkeley researchers found. “Sleep loss targets the same brain regions that make us susceptible to anxiety,” explains neuroscientist and sleep researcher Eti Ben Simon, PhD, of the Center for Human Sleep Science in UC Berkeley. “When these regions are taken offline, as is the case with a lack of sleep, our deep emotional centers are left uncontrolled and anxiety ensues.” And, as many of us know, increased anxiety makes getting adequate ZZZ’s even harder.
But deep sleep—a non-REM sleep stage when your brain activity slows and it’s very hard to be woken—may actually help reduce anxiety. This kind of sleep restores activity in the brain regions that keep us calm, Ben Simon explains. She suggests finding your optimal bedtime—the time when you easily fall asleep—and then maintaining a regular sleep schedule.
Talk to yourself in the third person. Many people may find it odd to refer to yourself by your first name rather than “I”. But speaking silently to yourself in this manner has been shown to help control emotions and reduce stress. It’s like when a friend comes to you with a problem. “It’s easier to be objective and coach them because we have distance from the problem, and that distance can promote rational thinking,” explains Ethan Kross, PhD, director of the Self-Control and Emotion Laboratory and professor of psychology at University of Michigan. When you use the same parts of speech you would use to refer to others (they, she, he) for yourself, you get that same distance.
In studies, when Kross asked people to work through a past or potential future challenging event, those who did so by using the third-person experienced less stress and anxiety based on self-reports and cardiovascular reactivity measures such as blood pressure. The next time you try to work through your feelings, adopt a third-person narrative, and you may find that your language shifts to more of a challenge mindset (“In past situations like this, they/she/he did X to cope. That could work now”) rather than a threat mindset (“How will I ever deal with this?”), Kross adds.
Play a game. In a study published last July, researchers followed 20 adults. For five days, once they arrived home from work, the participants either played a jigsaw-like game called Block! Hexa Puzzle or used a mindfulness app for 10 minutes. As the days went by, those playing the game reported feeling more relaxed, while those using the mindfulness app reported feeling less relaxed.
“Games have four aspects that help us recover from work,” says study co-author Anna Cox, PhD, professor of human-computer interaction at University College London. “They help us put work aside and not think about it; they help us relax; they give us the opportunity to experience mastery over challenges; and they give us the opportunity to feel in control over the environment.” This all adds up to less tension and anxiety. Any game you like would have similar effects, Cox adds. Just set a timer, because few of us need more screen time.
Take a mindful walk. You may have heard that spending time in nature may help reduce stress and anxiety. And all it takes is 10 minutes, according to a Cornell University review published in February. To maximize the benefits, it may help to make your movement mindful. Penn State researchers gave college students an app that randomly prompted them to record their activity and state of mind throughout the day for two weeks. They found that students had the greatest reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression when they were both moving and mindful.
In a follow-up study, older adults who participated in an outdoor mindful walking program also reported the same positive mood shift. So rather than thinking about your to-do list or ruminating about the argument you had with your dad last night, use your walk time to mindfully focus on your breath and surroundings.
Try half-smiling and willing hands. This technique used in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is kind of a “fake it til you make it.” The idea is that when you put your body into a physical position associated with feelings of calmness, it triggers your brain into relaxing and reduces anxiety. To half-smile, begin by relaxing all the muscles in your face—your forehead, eyes, ears, tongue, jaw, everything. Then simply begin to form the first hints of a smile with your lips.
For willing hands, fully relax your shoulders, arms, and hands, perhaps shaking them out to relieve any tension. Then, whether you are seated, standing, or lying down, turn your palms up (or whatever direction feels natural if you are standing) and let your fingers fall open. You can practice this daily (like a meditation) or in-the-moment.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.