“Keep calm and carry on.” So goes the now-viral meme which was once the British government’s motivational message to civilians during World War II. It’s catchy because it resonates— who hasn’t anxiously repeated versions of the same mantra in a panicky situation?
In addition to being uncomfortable, anxiety can often feel unmanageable. 40 million Americans over the age of 18, or 18 percent of the U.S. population, have a diagnosable anxiety disorder in any given year, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports. Meanwhile, only a fraction of those who suffer from anxiety gets treatment. (Learn how treatments for anxiety at FHE Health are helping people achieve better health and quality of life.)
How to Manage the Anxious Ruminating
But unmanageable anxiety can happen to anyone: It doesn’t necessarily mean you have an anxiety disorder (although if anxiety is heavily affecting your quality of life it never hurts to consult a mental health professional). If the anxious, ruminating thoughts are hard to banish and your stress and anxiety levels are high, consider trying these 11 natural ways to calm an anxious mind….
1. Get outside.
Nature can be healing. Get out and take a walk; soak up some sun; go sit on the beach or in a park. Think about the beauty and majesty of nature. Notice the peacefulness of the outdoors.
When you’re out in the sun, your eyes synthesize Vitamin D. Vitamin D is helpful in the production of serotonin, the mind’s “happy” neurochemical. Try at least 15 minutes outside and use nature to get a break and do something good for the brain and the body.
The body releases neurochemicals like adrenaline when it is in a state of anxiety or stress. These chemicals are what help you summon up the energy that you need to face a difficult problem or physical challenge.
Much of the time, anxiety and stress is a mental issue. The mind is constantly thinking about negative things and worst-case scenarios, and all of that anxious ruminating can cause a physical stress response. All those chemicals start to build up in the body and, without a release, intensify that anxiousness.
Cardiovascular exercise—it does not have to be a lot—provides this release. Many report a “clearer” head and calmer state after exercise. And it is doing something positive, which also feels good. Some of the best ways to exercise, burn off those stress chemicals, and feel better are to get out and walk, jog, bike, or hike.
3. Distract yourself.
A lot of anxiety comes from overthinking, planning what to do next, waiting for the “next shoe to drop,” or getting worked up about something, someone, or some situation. Rather than reinforce that endless loop of thoughts and worries, why not take a break from it instead? Find something else to do. Some of the countless ways to distract oneself: Watch a funny show; do some art or doodling in an adult coloring book; read a good book (lighter reading not something heavy); work in the garden; clean the house— anything to not focus on worries and troubles, especially those that cannot really be solved right now anyway.
The brain and body work together. When there is danger (in the brain or in the physical environment) breathing will become shallow and fast, a sign to the body that there is danger. The body releases chemicals, called the “fight or flight” response, in order to escape the perceived danger.
Just as shallow breath can signal when you are in danger, slow, deep breaths mean peace and calm, so practicing some deep breathing and muscle relaxation exercises can really help relieve anxiety. The internet has all sorts of free and easy tools to learn anxiety-reducing breathing exercises. This is an easy, and if done consistently, effective way to shut off the danger response and develop a less anxious brain and body.
5. Make a plan.
In life there are some practical things we can do to deal with a situation or issue that needs attention. Sometimes it is better to focus on the steps that can be taken rather than the problem being 100% solved.
It is often said that people would be happy if they had no worries, but in reality, that would be boring. Nothing to do is its own anxiety. But if something is on the mind that needs to be addressed, take some small, practical steps and then let it go (at least for now).
If it’s a job search that is causing anxious thoughts, do some searches, get the resume up to date, call a friend or someone to network, submit an application, and then enough. Come back to it later. Most of the time worrying, obsessing, or ruminating make people less focused and less able to complete a task, anyway. Even work is just eight hours a day. Every moment cannot be a crisis or else it takes a toll on body and mind. Try to pace yourself and do what can be done— then let it go and come back to it when necessary.
6. Get enough sleep.
A healthy sleep routine is restorative and allows the body to be at its best. People are also more stress-resilient with a regular, healthy sleep schedule. A regular routine of sleep means going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time every day (even on weekends), avoiding naps (which can screw up your sleep schedule), and ensuring a minimum of seven hours of sleep nightly. Getting enough sleep regularly can make a difference in how stress and anxiety affect the body during the day.
7. Improve yourself.
Doing something to grow, learn, improve, and commit to a self-improvement goal feels good. A sense of purpose, a feeling of moving forward, improving the current life situation, and investing in personal growth can be very satisfying and something that gives a sense of accomplishment.
When you’re feeling accomplished and proud about doing something good, anxiety cannot occupy the same space (mentally or physically). Taking time to make self-improvement a part of the day makes us hopeful and forward-thinking (in a positive way), and that helps to reduce overall worry and anxiety.
If you stand in a room and scream a long time, it will get louder. Being in “our heads” means that negative thoughts increase and seem more overwhelming over time. But no one has ever worried themselves into a better marriage; no one has ever beaten themselves down to feel happier.
Get out of self-centered thinking and do something for others. Studies have shown that volunteering can reduce depressive symptoms in many, and it also works for anxiety. Feeling a part of a good deed, act, or activity is positive and affirming. It will also help with distracting and increasing self-worth, which is always good for combating anxiety.
9. Be social.
Again, get out of the habit of overthinking and only focusing on the negative. Being around others who are supportive and positive, being social in some way, getting out of ourselves and being with others increases positive neurochemistry and makes us feel good.
People are social creatures. The worst punishment in prison is solitary confinement; however, many suffer in silence alone at their own choosing. Making a date to get out, be with someone else, not dwell on the issues, and enjoy the company of others can be positive, affirming, and even fun to the point where anxiety takes a break.
10. Cultivate your spiritual side.
Trusting and believing in something bigger than oneself fosters joy, hope, and comfort. These feelings are the opposite of anxiety. Not having to be in control, thinking more optimistically, finding deeper comfort, centeredness, and peace in times of trial— these are some of the benefits of spirituality.
Try to take time to meditate, pray, attend a religious service, sing old hymns from childhood, or think about the bigger picture. Positive thinking, religious participation, and a sense of a Higher Power are a source of life meaning and hope for many. Try something and make it a point to give a moment to something spiritual and good.
11. Appreciate yourself.
At the end of the day, what we think about ourselves will affect our self-confidence. Anxiety often occurs when a problem seems bigger than what we can handle. In this case, it’s never bad or a sign of weakness to ask for help. Others can be an invaluable source of strength and support.
However, the person who means the most is the person facing the anxiety, namely you. Expressing gratitude for good things in your life can help. Seeing times when you were able to overcome a challenge is helpful. Taking the next right step to tackle a problem is good. Being supportive to yourself—just like you’d be to someone else who might be scared or nervous—makes a real difference.
This article was provided by Dr. Beau A. Nelson, DBH, LCSW, who is Chief Clinical Officer at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health.