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How to Manage Anxiety, Beyond Exercise and Meditation

Therapists Share 18 Unique Ways of Managing Anxiety, Beyond Exercise and Meditation

There are a lot of ways to manage anxiety, but it's true that some get recommended over and over again. Exercise. Meditate. Talk to your family. These are strategies that work — therapists wouldn't recommend them if they didn't — but if they're not working for you, it's frustrating to say the least.

We asked therapists and mental health professionals what unique, sustainable anxiety tips they had that you maybe haven't heard multiple times before, that aren't meditation, exercise, or calling a friend. We narrowed it down to 18 simple, accessible strategies that you can try today, tomorrow, or whenever you need something new to refresh your mental health routine. Check out all the possibilities ahead.

1. Check In With Your Body

If you're caught up in anxious thoughts in the moment, force yourself to stop and notice what's happening in your body, said therapist ShaQuan Read, LMHC. See if you're feeling tension anywhere. "Sometimes we don't have control over our thoughts, but we can tell that we feel tightness in our chest, a headache, or tension in our stomach," Read explained. Stop, notice what's happening, and "let the body know that it is actually safe and there is no threat present." Calming down your fight or flight response is the first step toward addressing your anxiety.

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2. Allow Yourself to Feel Your Anxiety

If you're in an anxiety-provoking situation, don't avoid the emotion, said psychologist Alissa Jerud, PhD. For example, "rather than tell yourself that it's unlikely that your friend will reject you (which is just another form of avoidance), acknowledge the possibility of your feared outcomes," she explained. "You might say, 'Yes, she might not want to talk with me and might even be annoyed that I'm calling,' and then just acknowledge that this could happen whenever this thought pops up, whether before, during, or after making the call." Accepting the possibility of an outcome — even if it's scary — gives you proof that you can tolerate these anxious thoughts and you don't need to let them slow you down.

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3. Take Some Deep Breaths

"Deep breathing is a great way to calm yourself when anxious," said Dian Grier, LCSW. She suggested breathing in through your nose for a count of four, holding for a count of two, then exhaling through your mouth for a count of four. Focus on the exhalation in particular and "repeat this as long as it takes to calm your body," Grier said.

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4. Give Yourself a Hug

Yes, this simple and sweet trick can really work, said Tara Haidinger, MS, LPC, CCTSF, because creating a "gentle pressure" around your body can soothe your nervous system. "Take a throw blanket and wrap it around your shoulders, then grab the opposite sides of the blanket and pull until it is snug," she said. "Stay this way until your nervous system calms itself."

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5. Find a Comfort Object

Grab an object that's special to you, like a small piece of jewelry or a unique stone. Make this your comfort item, something you can hold when you feel anxious, suggested Shari Botwin, LCSW. "Holding onto that at times of stress will keep you grounded," she explained. "It manages the anxiety and it will help you feel less alone."

6. Leave the Room and Change Settings

"If you're dealing with a stressful situation, remove yourself from that room for a moment," said licensed counselor Kasia Ciszewski, MsEd, LPC. This creates a healthy distraction from your current situation. Try to go to a place that's quiet and peaceful, then take a few breaths or just let your mind rest for a few minutes as you calm down.

Veroshk Williams, PsyD, recommended choosing the most relaxing area of your home and spending 10 or 15 minutes there. "You can just stay there in silence, listen to music, or be goofy," Dr. Williams said. "Remember that being centered and connecting with joy is a great way to manage anxiety."

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7. Set Aside "Worry Time"

"Worry time" is 15-minute period of your day "where you are allowed to worry," explained clinical psychologist Sari Chait, PhD. "It frees up the rest of your day to do other things. During the day, when you notice yourself worrying, remind yourself to save it for worry time."

Then, during that designated time, write out all your worries from the day and address them, either by making a to-do list or by gently acknowledging the things you can't control. "At the end of worry time, put the journal — and worries — away and move on to something else," Dr. Chait said. "This is very hard to do, but with regular commitment, most people report a significant decrease in their worries after one to two weeks."

8. Write a Story

Many therapists recommend journaling to deal with anxiety (and you can definitely do that if it helps!) but Pruden recommended this unique take as well. "Find a quiet place and write a story about a child (the child can be you) who is anxious and what they do to handle their anxiety," she explained. You'll feel catharsis and an emotional release as you tap into your creativity, plus you'll be forced to focus on creating the story, rather than dwelling on your anxious thoughts.

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9. Label or Name Your Anxiety

Putting a label on your anxiety separates you from your anxious thoughts, said therapist Tess Brigham, LMFT. "If you've been struggling with anxiety for a long time, it's easy to think that there is no separation between you and your anxiety," she said. Naming it or labeling it forces you to see your anxiety for what it is: just a feeling, one that "tells you things about yourself and the world around you that aren't true."

You can choose a specific name for your anxiety (Brigham said some people choose Richard, "because anxiety can be a d*ck"), or go with something more general, like "the monster." If you can pick out certain thought patterns, Dr. Chait suggested something like "The Not Good Enough Story" or "End of the World Thought." Then, when you start to have those recurring thoughts, notice and label them. "It won't eliminate the anxiety," Dr. Chait said, "but it can be enough to unhook those thoughts from your brain and give you a little space from them, which decreases their intensity."

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10. Dance

Anxiety, said Keischa Pruden, LCMHCS, is a kind of nervous energy: your nervous system is picking up on your anxious thoughts and its reaction is to go into fight or flight mode. "Dancing distracts us from our anxious thoughts," Pruden said, "and the physical activity releases our "feel good" internal chemicals (dopamine)."

11. Have Sex, With or Without a Partner

While anxiety pulls us out of the moment and into an imaginary future or painful past, sex and masturbation "allow us to sink into the present moment and fully occupy our own bodies in a positive, pleasurable way," said Leah Rockwell, LCPC. You'll also flood your body with calming hormones rather than cortisol, the stress hormone, she said.

12. Laugh It Out

"Laughter is a great way to manage anxiety," said psychologist Marsha Brown, PhD. Look up a funny video, watch a comedy routine, or put on your favorite Netflix comedy — anything that will get your smiling and laughing. "This method is effective because laughter decreases stress and reduces heart rate," Dr. Brown said. "It's also a great way to take your mind off of whatever is troubling you."

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13. Ask a Friend to Assess Your Anxiety

Call or text a friend and ask them to "rate the severity of your fear" on a scale of one to 10, said Nicholas Hardy, LCSW. If you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts with them, you're giving them "an opportunity to add a different, and potentially healthier, perspective to your own thoughts," he explained.

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14. Practice Self-Compassion

"Very often when we feel anxious, we respond with self-criticism," said clinical psychologist Adia Gooden, PhD. Instead, soothe yourself with self-compassion. This means "noticing the physical sensations associated with what we are feeling, allowing the anxiety to be present without judgment or trying to push it away, remembering that anxiety is a normal human emotion, and offering ourselves love and comfort for the anxiety we are feeling," she explained.

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15. Do a Jigsaw Puzzle

Creativity can help lift you out of an anxious spiral, and one simple and inexpensive way to do it is by getting into a jigsaw puzzle, said Amy Field, LMFT. "Jigsaw puzzles require focus, which takes our minds away from anxiety," she explained. "It also has a rewarding factor once the puzzle has been completed."

16. Practice Gratitude

Practicing gratitude can be tough when you're feeling anxious, but that's actually when its most effective, said licensed clinical psychologist Holly Schiff, PsyD. "The effects of practicing gratitude can help you feel more at ease and able to cope," she explained. "Take a few moments to notice things that are going well in your life, people whom you are thankful to have around you, and things you are grateful to have to look forward to." While it's tempting to focus on negatives, that's exactly what feeds our anxiety, Dr. Schiff said. "Practicing gratitude is a fantastic way to shift your mindset to the positive things in life."

17. Do a Calming, Mindless Activity

Find a motor activity that requires very little thought, said Dr. Williams, like baking or coloring. This is a great way to calm your mind when you're having anxious thoughts, she explained. Bonus: if you're baking up a storm, offering your treats to friends and neighbors "can serve as a way to connect," Dr. Williams added.

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18. Talk to a Therapist

If you're having a hard time managing your anxiety on your own, or if it's interfering with your life, seek out a therapist, Dr. Chait said. They can help you work out a personalized plan with strategies that work for you. You can start with this guide.

Image Source: Getty / FilippoBacci

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