Tips on how to calm down during anxiety or stress
Pounding heart, sweaty palms, extreme worry: we all experience the unpleasant symptoms of anxiety from time to time. It’s a normal part of the human experience. The good news is, even when you’re in the thick of a high-stress moment, there are plenty of relaxation techniques you can use to soothe your negative thoughts and calm down.
The techniques in this article are all science-backed ways to help regulate the symptoms of anxiety, regardless of its cause, and get you back to feeling better. But if you find yourself living with constant, debilitating anxiety, it may be time to seek professional help.
Why does anxiety feel so unpleasant?
Anxiety can trigger a range of mental and physical symptoms, including rapid heart rate, sweating, digestive upset, repetitive thoughts, irritability, inability to sleep, and feelings of impending panic or doom. These unpleasant symptoms are actually a normal part of the body’s “fight or flight” response.
Biologically, your body is programmed to turn on its sympathetic nervous system when you feel threatened—it’s the reason your heart rate and blood pressure increase, digestion slows down, and you feel a surge of energy when facing a stressful situation. During this stress response, stress hormones like cortisol are released into the body, which sends you into survival mode.
The fight or flight response can be quite helpful for, say... fighting off a wild boar that is attacking your house. But it’s less helpful for handling everyday stressors like an annoying email from your boss, an uncomfortable social situation, or getting into an argument with your spouse.
Luckily, there are techniques you can do to help ease or “shut off” your sympathetic nervous system response so that you can feel calm, even in the face of stress.
How can you calm down when feeling anxious or stressed?
Whether your anxiety is caused by an everyday trigger or an underlying anxiety disorder, everyone can benefit from some immediate techniques to soothe anxiety. These approaches have all been demonstrated to help you ease your body out of “fight or flight” mode into a calmer, more relaxed state.
Paying attention to how you’re breathing can make a huge difference in your stress levels. Anxiety tends to force quicker, shallower breaths (ever hyperventilated when you felt nervous?), but by overriding that automatic behavior with deep breathing exercises, we can actually influence our overall mental state.
Controlling your breath can actually snap you out of a “fight or flight” state by turning on your parasympathetic nervous system—the network of nerves that relaxes your body after a period of stress—and giving you a calming effect.
The next time you find yourself feeling anxious, try out one of the following breathing techniques to help calm your body. These techniques are best practiced seated, especially if you’ve never tried them before. If you find yourself getting lightheaded at any point, be sure to take a break.
It sounds like a fancy term, but it really just means breathing from your belly rather than your chest. Belly breathing can help you take deeper, fuller breaths, supporting your wellness and helping you find stress relief.
- Sit in a chair or lay down and put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose, focusing on filling up your belly with air.
- The hand on your chest should stay still, while the one on your stomach should rise.
- Exhale through your mouth, feeling the hand on your stomach return to its original position.
- Repeat for several minutes.
This breathing technique is widely used in therapeutic settings, but has its roots in pranayama, a breath-focused yogic technique.
- Breathe in through your nose while slowly counting to 4 in your head.
- Hold your breath while slowly counting to 7 in your head.
- Exhale through your mouth while slowly counting to 8 in your head.
- Repeat these steps three more times.
Pursed lip breathing
This is one of the most effective ways to combat shortness of breath due to anxiety.
- Inhale through your nose with your mouth closed while slowly counting to 2 in your head.
- Purse or pucker your lips as though you’re about to whistle.
- Exhale through your pursed lips while slowly counting to 4 in your head.
- Repeat for several minutes.
- Always exhale for longer than you inhale.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR, is a technique that can reduce feelings of anxiety by easing each of your muscle groups into a relaxed state, one by one.
Anxiety can cause your muscles to tense—often, you’re not even aware of the tension you’re holding until you start a PMR practice.
- Find a quiet place where you can focus for about 15 minutes; it’s best to be lying down or sitting in a chair.
- Breathing slowly and evenly, focus on the muscles in your forehead. For 5-15 seconds, squeeze those muscles as hard as you can, being sure to keep the rest of your muscles relaxed. Then, slowly release the tension. Notice how your muscles feel now that they’re completely relaxed.
- Next, focus on the muscles in your jaw. Squeeze those muscles for 5-15 seconds, then slowly release them. Focus on the new feeling of relaxation.
- Repeat with the muscles in your neck and shoulders, arms and hands, buttocks and legs, and, finally, feet. Always keep your focus on the feeling of relaxing your muscles after tightening them.
You should never feel sharp or shooting pain while tensing your muscles. If you have any history of pulled muscles or broken bones, be sure to consult with your provider before trying this technique.
Mindfulness is a time-tested calming technique that aims to settle racing thoughts with two basic steps: attention and acceptance. The idea is to distance yourself from your actual anxiety, creating a buffer that allows you to observe it and examine it in a nonjudgemental way. In doing so, you can reduce the heightened feelings of anxiety and create a calmer state.
There are several ways to practice mindfulness meditation, but the most straightforward is focused on the way you observe your thoughts.
- Focus your attention on the present moment. Notice any emotions you’re feeling, as well as any physical sensations. Don't pass judgment on these observations (i.e. “I can’t believe I’m shaking again! This is so embarrassing!”) Simply observe.
- If you find your mind wandering or fixating on future worry, try to center your observations on your breath. Notice each inhale and exhale.
- You can try widening your focus out to your entire body again, noticing how your feelings and emotions change from moment to moment.
You can also try guided meditation by following video prompts online. With guided meditation, you’ll be instructed throughout the process rather than working to reframe your thoughts on your own.
Some people also enjoy applying mindfulness to walking or gentle forms of physical activity, like yoga. Gentle exercise is an effective stress management technique that releases endorphins, also known as “feel-good chemicals.”
To apply mindfulness during exercise, focus your attention on your surroundings as well as how your mind and body feel while moving. Notice the way you’re carrying yourself, the feelings in your legs, feet, hands, arms, and torso, as well as the environment around you. If you find yourself distracted by other thoughts, gently encourage your attention back to the present moment. For even more relaxation, try practicing mindfulness outside in the fresh air or pairing it with your favorite essential oils for aromatherapy.
Anxiety vs. worry: When should you talk to a professional?
All of these stress reduction techniques can be helpful for anyone suffering from anxiety, regardless of the cause. However, these techniques may not always be enough. If your anxiety is causing symptoms severe enough to disrupt your quality of life and general well-being, it may be time to get additional help.
“Worry” is a normal response to feeling overwhelmed. It normally has an identifiable cause—say, an upcoming job interview or an upsetting medical diagnosis—and usually resolves over time or after the trigger or cause has passed.
An anxiety disorder is a mental health condition that must be diagnosed by a qualified healthcare professional, like a psychiatrist. There are a range of different types of anxiety disorders. Some have clear-cut triggers—specific phobias to things like public speaking, flying, or blood—while others are categorized by their symptoms.
Panic disorder, for example, is an anxiety disorder where a person suffers episodes of extreme fear or terror alongside physical symptoms like shortness of breath and heart palpitations, known as “panic attacks.”
Seeking treatment for anxiety
The first step to treating an anxiety disorder is getting a clinical diagnosis from a qualified mental healthcare professional, like a psychiatrist. Treatment can make a huge difference in your symptoms and overall quality of life.
Both psychiatrists and therapists are trained to help people suffering from anxiety. If you’re living with an anxiety disorder, extra support—with medication, talk therapy, or both—may be necessary to control your symptoms. While therapists use talk therapy to help you overcome your symptoms, psychiatrists can prescribe you medications to manage your condition. Most people with anxiety disorders will benefit from a combination of medication and supportive therapy.
With Talkiatry, you can see a psychiatrist from the comfort of your home, and you can schedule your first appointment in a matter of days. To get started, take our free online assessment, to see if Talkiatry is right for you and get matched with a psychiatrist.
Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care. Co-founded by a patient and a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, Talkiatry has over 300 doctors, 60 insurance partners, and first visits available in days. We treat patients with anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, and more. Get started with a short online assessment.
The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.
Dr. Nidhi Sharoha is a double board certified psychiatrist in Psychiatry and Consultation Liaison Psychiatry. She completed her undergraduate training at Stony Brook University followed by medical school at New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine. She has completed both a Residency in Psychiatry and Fellowship in Consultation Liaison Psychiatry at Nassau University Medical Center.
Dr. Sharoha has held academic appointment at Stony Brook University Hospital, practicing as a consultant psychiatrist as well as the Associate Director of Consultation Liaison Psychiatry Fellowship Program. She has been deeply involved in teaching throughout her years
She has a genuine interest in treating a vast array of psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, post traumatic stress disorders and obsessive compulsive and related disorders. She also has experience in treating patients with medical comorbidities and has training in issues related to women’s health.
Patients looking for a psychiatric provider will find that Dr. Sharoha has a gentle approach to diagnosis and management of her patients. She believes in the principle that body and mind are interconnected which allows her to provide comprehensive care to all of her patients.