At some point, each of us will experience anxiety and stress.
Recognizing that you are experiencing anxiety is the first healthy step toward learning how to manage and cope with your feelings.
Symptoms of anxiety and stress include:
- Your heart is pounding for no good reason.
- Your mind is noisy, flitting from one thought to the next.
- You feel exhausted.
In this post, we will look at different ways to tackle anxiety, including:
- Cognitive strategies
- Physical strategies
- Emotional support strategies
All these strategies are accessible, easy to implement, and flexible. Some methods are more appropriate for children, others for adults, and can be easily used at home or work. You can try each strategy to see which works best for you.
Before we take a look at how we can tackle anxiety, we thought you might like to download these three Resilience Exercises for free. These engaging, science-based exercises will help you effectively deal with difficult circumstances and give you the tools to improve the resilience of your clients, students, or employees.
This article contains:
- 10 Simple Ways to Deal With Anxiety
- Coping Techniques and Strategies
- 5 Worksheets and Handouts
- Useful Activities and Exercises
- Anxiety Coping for Teens and Students: 3 Games
- Assessing Coping Skills: Two Tests
- 4 Tips for Coping With Social Anxiety
- 2 PositivePsychology.com Tools
- A Take-Home Message
10 Simple Ways to Deal With Anxiety
It’s important to note that these coping strategies are not passive and won’t happen by themselves, without your attention and care.
Think of it like going to the gym; to improve your strength and endurance, you need to work out regularly. But to work out regularly, you need to make the time and monitor how you feel. If you’re feeling tired, you might complete an easier exercise session that day, but you can work harder when you feel mentally strong. Use this same approach when dealing with anxiety.
Strategies to cope with anxiety
When we feel stressed out or anxious, it’s very easy to let our other needs slide to the wayside. In the book, Coping with Anxiety: Ten Simple Ways to Relieve Anxiety, Fear and Worry, authors Bourne and Garano (2016) provide the following 10 strategies, some of which echo the bottom tiers of Maslow’s (1954) hierarchy of needs.
- Relax your body and muscles, and control your breathing. You can do this through exercises such as yoga, guided meditation, mindful meditation, and breathing exercises.
- Use visualizations, music, and meditation to relax and ease your mind.
- Change your thinking so that you consider other alternatives and solutions to the situation that is causing anxiety.
- Consider facing what you are afraid of so that you can learn to recognize that your concerns are fleeting and see that your imagined outcome is not guaranteed.
- Get regular exercise so that you can sharpen your mind, learn to push through pain and exhaustion, get stronger, and have fun.
- Eat mindfully and maintain a healthy, moderate diet.
- Make time for yourself to recharge. This includes getting a good night’s sleep.
- Simplify your life so that you can adapt to stressful situations and avoid unnecessary (and avoidable) causes of stress.
- Do not go down the rabbit hole of worry. If you are aware that you are starting to worry, find a way to stop it.
- Finally, develop a set of strategies to use when you’re feeling anxious at a particular time so that you can cope with it in the moment (e.g., calling your friend immediately, doing some physical exercise, doing a breathing exercise, etc.).
Only familial needs are considered part of the adaptive coping strategies for dealing with anxiety, which are discussed below. However, ensuring that your basic needs are fulfilled will help you feel better prepared to handle anxiety and stress. For example, physical exercise can help with anxiety (Jayakody, Gunadasa, & Hosker, 2014).
List of adaptive coping strategies
Coping strategies are methods for addressing the impact of upsetting, anxiety-provoking, or stressful events (Cooper, Katona, Orrell, & Livingston, 2008). Coping strategies can be further classified into similar clusters of strategy, for example:
- Emotional or emotion-focused strategies (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), also referred to as emotional support and acceptance-based strategies (Li, Cooper, Bradley, Shulman & Livingston, 2012)
- Problem-focused strategies or solution-focused strategies (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984)
- Dysfunctional strategies (Carver, Scheier, & Weintraub, 1989)
In a meta-analysis of coping strategies used by carers of patients with Alzheimer’s disease, Li et al. (2012) found that:
- Dysfunctional coping strategies did not affect anxiety development.
- Emotional support strategies and acceptance-based strategies were associated with lower anxiety.
- Surprisingly, solution-based strategies were associated with more anxiety, but this relationship is based on only one study and should be interpreted with caution.
Anxiety and depression often occur together. In the same meta-analysis, Li et al. (2012) found that dysfunctional coping strategies predicted the development of depression. In contrast, emotional-support strategies and solution-based strategies had a protective nature and were not associated with the development of depression.
Coping Techniques and Strategies
Emotion-focused strategies (including acceptance-based strategies)
These strategies aim to change and deal with how we feel when confronted with a stressor.
- Turning to other people for emotional support and talking about your feelings.
- Looking for ways that you have changed as a person in a good way.
- Changing your viewpoint about the stressor by looking for positive things that have come from it.
- Turning to prayer or other activities (e.g., meditation) for added support and finding comfort in your religion or life philosophy.
These types of strategies aim to change the reason for the source of the stress.
- Active coping strategies, such as trying to take action to change the situation.
- ‘Planful’ problem solving, such as concerted efforts to make necessary changes or designing a ‘plan of action’ to address the situation.
- Logical analysis, which refers to identifying multiple ways to change the situation and other solutions or changes if the first solution falls through.
- Active behavioral changes, which refers to making a plan and following it through. The proposed plan must be accompanied by behavior; for example, taking the time to implement the solution.
Dysfunctional strategies are ineffective strategies that are less likely to help. You should not engage in these strategies.
Examples of dysfunctional strategies include:
- Denial or denying the existence of the event or the way you feel
- Accepting responsibility by criticizing yourself
- Avoidance, such as avoiding other people
- Emotional discharge, such as venting your emotions
5 Worksheets and Handouts
At PositivePsychology.com, there are various worksheets and handouts that help cope with anxiety. Here is a list of the most helpful ones.
Breathing exercise sheets
These two breathing exercises will help teach you how to practice mindful breathing. Mindful breathing can be beneficial when you need to take a break and gather your thoughts. These exercises can be easily implemented in a parked car, home, bath, or any other environment. Keep this exercise as one of your go-to’s for when you need to cope with anxiety immediately.
Cognitive strategy exercise sheets
These exercises are great to use when trying to change your thinking about a particular event that makes you feel stressed out.
An effective coping strategy is to consider alternatives to the stressful event and to reframe it as positive. Often the anxiety we feel about a particular event is unfounded and linked to only one outcome; there may be many positive outcomes possible.
The What If? Bias worksheet is a good starting point to help you change how you think about the particular stressful event causing you anxiety.
The next two worksheets are very similar, but the second sheet is more in-depth than the first. Both will help you consider solutions to the current thing that is causing you anxiety. Forming a plan, listing the obstacles, and possible solutions are effective strategies for coping with anxiety.
In the Coping: Stressors and Resources worksheet, you need to list what you think is causing you anxiety and then consider the coping resources you have to tackle the problem.
To help you foresee possible challenges, you also need to consider the potential obstacles that you might encounter and how to overcome those obstacles. This worksheet can also be easily written up in a journal so that you don’t need to print it out multiple times.
The Decatastrophizing Worksheet can be useful when you feel incredibly anxious about a specific event.
Useful Activities and Exercises
Here is a list of practical activities and exercises to help you cope with anxiety.
First, make time to exercise regularly. Find an exercise that you enjoy. It can be strenuous (e.g., running or cycling) or less strenuous (e.g., walking, hiking, or yoga), performed alone or with someone else. Having a physical activity like this in your toolbox of coping strategies will better buttress you against the effects of anxiety. It can also give you opportunities to recharge, spend time with other people, and be outside in nature.
Other physical exercises that are good to practice include mindful meditation and breathing exercises. Research shows that mindfulness is a useful strategy for dealing with anxiety, which you can read more about in the article 7 Great Benefits of Mindfulness in Positive Psychology. Breathing exercises can also help center you and make you feel calm. You don’t need to wait until you feel anxious to practice these exercises.
There are many cognitive strategies for coping with anxiety. First, practice reframing negative situations as positive events. For example, if you locked yourself outside your house, consider what you could learn and how you could prevent this in the future. Maybe you learned that you were able to handle the unexpected worry very well or that you were able to call your neighbor to help you.
Secondly, take the time to foresee the event cognitively. Consider alternative outcomes other than the worst-case scenario you’re worried about. Think about what can make you feel better and ensure you are prepared for other possible hiccups.
For example, if you are anxious about an upcoming work trip:
- Make a list of all possible outcomes (positive and negative).
- Consider what you need to do to feel less anxious (e.g., arrange a babysitter or make a list of things to pack).
- Consider possible obstacles that might occur and solutions to overcome them (e.g., the babysitter needs a list of emergency phone numbers; pack your bag the night before).
Finally, delegate responsibilities and lean on other people for emotional support. You do not live in a vacuum, and you can turn to your friends and family for support. List your friends and family who you feel comfortable talking to, and let them know if you feel anxious. If your anxiety is linked to your workload or responsibilities, then delegate these to other people. If your anxiety is very severe, consider seeing a professional.
Anxiety Coping for Teens and Students: 3 Games
Here is a list of useful exercises and worksheets that can help children and teenagers cope with anxiety.
The first worksheet, Meditation Grounding Scripts for Children, details a meditation exercise for older and younger children. With regular practice, children will learn how to practice meditation. Initially, this exercise would work better if an adult (e.g., a parent or teacher) goes through the steps and guides the child.
The second worksheet, Noodle Caboodle, teaches children muscle relaxation techniques. This worksheet needs a parent or a teacher to guide the child through the exercises. With time, children can learn to use these techniques without guidance, and it is very powerful when used with the meditation worksheet above.
Cognitive and emotional exercises
The worksheet Inside and Outside helps children articulate the way they feel and how they can change their thinking (e.g., reframing an event or thoughts for positive outcomes). This exercise is currently more suitable for younger children, but it could be easily adapted to suit older children.
Some of the exercises described previously are also appropriate for teenagers and young adults.
Assessing Coping Skills: Two Tests
Various tests can be used to assess coping skills. The tools listed below have been validated using large datasets.
Brief COPE (and COPE)
The original COPE inventory contains 15 scales (Carver et al., 1989); the Brief COPE is a much shorter version (Carver, 1997). It consists of only 28 items that measure 14 scales.
The respondent must indicate how often they have engaged in that particular activity for each item or question. The responses are made on a 4-point scale, ranging from 0 to 3, with 0 meaning ‘I haven’t been doing this at all,’ and 3 meaning ‘I’ve been doing this a lot.’ You can read more about the brief COPE scale in our article dedicated to Coping Scales.
Ways of Coping questionnaire
Richard Lazarus was the first researcher to focus on coping strategies for anxiety and, together with Susan Folkman (1980), created the original Ways of Coping Questions. The questionnaire has gone through multiple revisions since then (in 1985 and 1988). The 1985 version is freely available and has been validated with two different samples (middle-aged adults and college-aged students).
In total, the questionnaire contains 66 questions, each describing a specific behavior, thought, or method that could be used for coping. Respondents must indicate the degree that they engage in each behavior, on a scale from ‘Not used’ to ‘Used a great deal’ (0 to 4).
The questions measure eight different categories of coping strategies, and scores of each category are calculated by summing the responses (from 0 to 4) for the different questions that comprise that category.
4 Tips for Coping with Social Anxiety
Social anxiety is a particular type of anxiety linked to social events and the fear of being judged or scrutinized by other people (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Some researchers and clinicians believe that social anxiety is linked to how we feel and think about a particular event, rather than the nature of the event itself (Beck, Emery, & Greenberg, 2005).
Different types of social anxiety treatments have been proposed, including cognitive behavioral therapy, medications, and exposure therapy (Rodebaugh, Holaway, & Heimberg, 2004).
Many of the techniques already described are also appropriate for social anxiety; for example:
- Consider the positive outcomes of a social setting that you feel anxious about; for example, you will see your friends, enjoy a new restaurant, or learn a new skill.
- Consider other possible outcomes, positive and negative, and think about how you will overcome them. For example, if you believe that you will forget what to say in a presentation, make speaker notes, practice your presentation, or consider topics you are looking forward to talking about with your colleagues.
- Set up a support system. Go to the social event with a friend, tell a friend about the social event, and arrange that you text them before and afterward.
- If you need a short break to calm your emotions, go to a private space such as a bathroom and practice breathing exercises.
2 PositivePsychology.com Tools
PositivePsychology.com offers additional tools for coping with anxiety that may interest you.
The Adaptive and Non-Adaptive Coping Thoughts exercise is easily implemented and only requires 15 minutes. In this exercise, the client is guided through the thoughts they have about an incredibly stressful event. They are asked to write down their thoughts about the event and categorize them as one of four types of adaptive and non-adaptive coping mechanisms.
Together with the practitioner, the client learns how to focus on positive thoughts and reframe non-adaptive thoughts to be more helpful and adaptive.
In the Coping Strategy Wheels, practitioners can learn about different coping styles. In total, there are 41 coping styles listed, but these can be grouped into 12 different families. This tool is very useful when organizing the client’s coping strategies into different types to determine (1) whether the strategies are positive or negative, and (2) to determine which areas need further work.
17 Resilience & Coping Exercises – If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others overcome adversity, this collection contains 17 validated resilience tools for practitioners. Use them to help others recover from personal challenges and turn setbacks into opportunities for growth.
A Take-Home Message
There are many tools you can use with anxiety therapy. Some of these are solution-based strategies; others are emotional-based strategies.
Regardless, it is essential to put other measures in place that are not directly related to solving immediate feelings of anxiety. For example, engaging in regular exercise will help you get regular and good-quality sleep, motivate you to eat healthily, and ensure you make time for yourself.
As you learn to recognize how anxiety manifests in your body, mind, and life, the measures you put in place to help you deal with anxiety will also get better.
Dealing with anxiety is not a panacea; you will not suddenly be free of anxiety. But you will become stronger and better at coping with it. So be kind to yourself, and try not to judge yourself when you feel like you’re not doing as well. You are doing the best that you can with what you have.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Resilience Exercises for free.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.
- Beck, A. T., Emery, G., & Greenberg, R. L. (2005). Anxiety disorders and phobias: A cognitive perspective. Basic Books.
- Bourne, E. J., & Garano, L. (2016). Coping with anxiety: Ten simple ways to relieve anxiety, fear, and worry. New Harbinger Publications.
- Carver, C. S. (1997). You want to measure coping but your protocol is too long: Consider the brief COPE. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 4(1), 92.
- Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Weintraub, J. K. (1989). Assessing coping strategies: A theoretically based approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(2), 267.
- Cooper, C., Katona, C., Orrell, M., & Livingston, G. (2008). Coping strategies, anxiety and depression in caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry: A Journal of the Psychiatry of Late-Life and Allied Sciences, 23(9), 929–936.
- Folkman, S., & Lazarus, R. S. (1980) An analysis of coping in a middle-aged community sample. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 21, 219–239.
- Jayakody, K., Gunadasa, S., & Hosker, C. (2014). Exercise for anxiety disorders: Systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 48(3), 187–196.
- Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. Springer.
- Li, R., Cooper, C., Bradley, J., Shulman, A., & Livingston, G. (2012). Coping strategies and psychological morbidity in family carers of people with dementia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 139(1), 1–11.
- Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper.
- Rodebaugh, T. L., Holaway, R. M., & Heimberg, R. G. (2004). The treatment of social anxiety disorder. Clinical Psychology Review, 24(7), 883–908.