Many recommend meditation as a remedy for anxiety, and rightfully so. But in moments of panic where anxiety already feels like it’s past the point of no return, coping techniques like meditation or even breathing exercises might not be as helpful, especially if those types of exercises are not your thing.
Some people need techniques that are a little more physical or sensory-oriented. Here are some simple physical ways you can calm your anxiety, and get your mind and its racing thoughts back into your body and reality.
Shake it off
When you experience anxiety, your body goes into fight-flight-freeze mode. Chemicals including adrenaline and cortisol are released into your body, causing physical agitation and further fueling the anxiety.
According to Dance and Movement Therapist Melissa Meade, you can literally shake off the anxiety by moving your hands, arms, legs — wherever you’re feeling tension. You can also try stomping, punching a pillow, or yes, dancing.
“Movement inherently releases tension,” she says. “When animals reach the freeze state, the way they get out of it is to shake it off. They literally shake every part of their body.”
Use a fidget toy
While we adults may not have the same carefree fun playing with toys as kids do, we can use them to our advantage to calm anxiety.
Toys that require your focus, but are short of being frustrating, work to distract you from your anxiety. They can also be soothing and grounding, since they’re both tactile and visual.
We recommend using a fidget toy, such as an infinity cube (though there are plenty of other fidget toys on the market). Alternatively, you could use something like Legos or a desktop sand zen garden.
Anti-anxiety toys on Amazon
Bite into something sour
If you’re looking for a different kind of sensory experience to get you out of your panic, one thing you can do is biting straight into a lemon, peel and all.
The textures and the bitterness act as a shock to your system, and will direct your thoughts to the taste instead of the anxious thoughts in your head.
Don’t want to bite directly into a full lemon? You can cut one into wedges and bite into those and suck out the bitter juice. Alternatively, many people like to use sour candies such as Warheads for the same purpose.
Activate the Mammalian Dive Response
Mammals — aka us — experience a calming response when diving into cold water. You can submerge your face in a bowl of cold water, or if that’s too uncomfortable for you, just submerge your forehead. Try to stay under for 30 seconds.
This tells your brain that you are diving underwater and induces the dive response, causing activation of your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Activation of the PNS is associated with relaxation. The response slows down your heart rate, which is particularly helpful if you’re having a panic attack and your heart won’t stop racing.
Disclaimer: If you have a low base heart rate or have heart conditions, consult your doctor before trying this.
Spell and tap your fingers
You can touch the pad of your thumb to the pad of each other finger (as in a pinching motion) while you spell words out loud. Each finger is for a different letter.
You can spell words of things that are comforting to you or things you like, such as your favourite food or fictional character. When engaging in this practice, you focus on the spelling and the finger tapping, which distracts you from spiraling thoughts.
Ground yourself, literally
You’ve heard of grounding, but have you ever tried grounding by way of lying on the floor? You can lie down flat on the floor, preferably a tiled bathroom floor, when you’re having anxiety attacks.
The slight shock of the cold tiles on your skin helps you to relax because it helps you feel like you’re not overheating, while also providing a feeling of comfort and stability.
Try and do this in minimal clothing so more surface area touches the tile, and also because clothes can feel suffocating.
Do some quick and fast cardio
While it might feel counterintuitive to exercise in the moment, health professionals say that by actively doing high intensity exercise that boosts the heart rate, you are able to take control of your physical symptoms.
You don’t even need to go anywhere to do this. Just get up out of your seat and do jumping jacks, running on the spot, fake jump rope, whatever you choose.
This can be especially helpful for people with PTSD. Since they’re not able to control or change the past, being able to regain a sense of control in the moment is key to calming down.
Use bilateral stimulation
Bilateral stimulation, or side-to-side stimulation, is a technique used in EMDR therapy that can help to induce a relaxation response. Many people who live with OCD and anxiety say that they have had success by tapping their hands on opposite shoulders in an alternating pattern. You can tap alternate arms or legs as well.
Find your personal method
The same techniques don’t work for everybody. It might take some experimenting to figure out which of these coping techniques works for you. Alternatively, you might need to use a couple of them to help you calm down. Everyone’s anxiety is different, but there’s one thing that’s universal: Everyone deserves relief and the ability to calm down.
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