Your palms are sweaty, your heart is racing, and you can’t think clearly.
Anxiety is an emotional, cognitive, or behavioral response to an uncertain threat (Papenfuss et al., 2021). It can hinder your performance, prevent you from reaching your potential, and cause long-term health problems if left unchecked.
With all of life’s unknowns, anxiety is often common and inevitable. Fortunately, we can learn how to cope, using specific tools. Many of these methods could be used unnoticeably by others. Read on to learn some of the quickest and best relaxation techniques for anxiety.
While we are all aware of the long-term strategies to promote stress resilience, such as a healthy diet, limiting alcohol and caffeine intake, therapy, medication, or counseling, perhaps you need something now and in the moment.
Add the following strategies to your toolbox to ease anxiety as it is occurring. Try them all to find the ones that work best for you.
Guided imagery is used to replace disturbing memories with positive mental imagery.
Through sensory and contextual engagement, individuals use instructions to invoke sensory experiences and behavioral and physiological responses (Toussaint et al., 2021).
Similar to meditation, a specific guided imagery script or ambient sounds can also accompany guided imagery.
Touch can alter how stress is handled and is calming for some individuals (Eckstein et al., 2020).
Providing yourself with deep pressure could help to minimize your physiological and psychological responses to a stressful situation. Try a quick self-massage and bear hug in a pinch.
Long-term ideas include weighted blankets or lap pads, body socks, or beanbag chairs to assist with self-regulation.
Deep pressure provides tactile and proprioceptive input to the body, which can modulate the activity of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems (Chen et al., 2013).
Smells have the potential to alter mood, and aromatherapy has become a complementary alternative medicine.
For example, lavender is associated with improved mood and reduced mental stress and anxiety (Toda & Matsuse, 2020).
Other scents, such as peppermint, lemon, rosemary, and lemongrass, could also minimize feelings of anxiousness. To try this out, you could take a whiff of the real thing or use essential oils.
Not only do certain smells produce a calming effect, food and drinks containing specific herbs help to ease anxiety symptoms (Sikarwar, 2023).
Herbs are effective alternatives to pharmaceutical medications (Sikarwar, 2023). Enjoying a cup of chamomile, jasmine, or peppermint tea could aid in a stressful situation, as both the smell of the tea and herb itself have calming qualities.
Creating art is a helpful way to ease anxiety. Likewise, art therapy is an effective therapy in helping end-of-life caretakers develop emotionally focused coping skills and increase emotional awareness, thus helping them to avoid burnout (Potash et al., 2015).
Doodling can keep an individual engaged, reduce cortisol levels, and have a positive effect on psychological resilience (Hunt-Anderson & Shannon-Baker, 2023). If doodling isn’t your interest, you may want to try coloring a mandala.
Evidence supports that vagal nerve stimulation can decrease anxiety (Noble et al., 2019).
“MEWS” exercises, which consist of movement, externalizing the anxiety, welcoming the anxiety, and square breathing engage the vagus nerve. Vibrating the vagus nerve is also beneficial and can be accomplished by humming, rolling your Rs, and making lion sounds.
This video by Sukie Baxter shares numerous exercises to help stimulate your vagus nerve.
Vagus Nerve Exercises for Anxiety
Somatic therapies are interventions for mind–body healing. These techniques include heel drops, swaying squats, and bamboo sways, which may help to ease dysregulation.
Check out this video for an explanation and demonstration of these exercises.
Quick Relaxation Techniques
Anxiety may be all too common for many of us. We compiled a list of common anxiety-provoking situations and relaxation techniques that can quickly be implemented.
For test anxiety
For some students, an exam may result in emotional refractions that can trigger disinhibition, damaging their performance (Trigueros et al., 2020).
This type of performance anxiety is a hindrance within an educational journey. If you experience this type of anxiety, the following relaxation technique may help you.
Listening to music
Music and emotion are strongly connected concepts (Pyrovolakis et al., 2022).
To change negative thoughts, listen to music that puts you in a good mood, since music has a profound power to alter your mood.
Both listening to and playing music engages brain structures involved in cognitive, sensorimotor, and emotional processing (Koelsch, 2009). Before a test, listen to music to calm your nerves. A slow tempo can relax your muscles and quiet your thoughts while dancing to an up-tempo song could help you release tension.
For panic attacks
A panic attack can be described as a sudden episode of intense fear or discomfort that may be accompanied by bodily symptoms that include palpitations, shortness of breath, numbness, and dizziness (Klevebrant & Frick, 2022).
This condition affects as many as 5% of the population (Klevebrant & Frick, 2022). If you or anyone you know experiences this debilitating condition, you can try the following to thwart an episode.
Going for a walk
Try walking or a quick exercise to get your blood pumping. Physical activity, such as exercise, can reduce anxiety symptoms (Rebar et al., 2015).
Alternatively, get out the weights or punching bag to get a full-on sweat session in. Or maybe a brisk walk to the water fountain is all you need to disrupt the anxiety process.
For sleep anxiety
Going to sleep can cause elevated stress in some individuals, including worries of falling or staying asleep or somniphobia, a sleep phobia.
Liu et al. (2020) enacted a study involving progressive muscle relaxation. They found that this technique was especially beneficial for reducing anxiety and improving sleep quality in patients with COVID-19.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation involves guided instructions for slow-paced breathing and relaxation (Feldman et al., 2010). A variation of this exercise requires you to contract a muscle group and hold for five to 10 seconds while taking a deep breath. When you exhale, fully release that tension.
Anxiety disorders are a significant disease burden and the most common psychiatric disorder (Kenwood et al., 2022).
These disorders cause an individual to respond to a situation with excessive worry or dread. Types of anxiety disorders may include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and various phobia-related disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Try the following relaxation technique to help ease the symptoms of this disorder.
If you start feeling anxious and develop physical symptoms like increased heart palpitations, your cognitive system is activated. Applied relaxation stems from the understanding that anxiety develops from the interaction of multiple systems (Hayes-Skelton et al., 2013; Öst, 1987).
With this strategy, the patient uses progressive relaxation techniques in an applied setting. The patient first has to learn how symptoms of anxiety manifest for them. Then if the patient recognizes their anxiety symptoms, they can use relaxation techniques to deactivate the spread of the anxiety from one system to the other.
You may feel anxious once you become aware of how you are feeling. The aim is to relax muscles quickly in response to a cue. This cue could be as simple as hearing the word “relax.” The full technique is outlined in Öst (1987) for further reading.
4 Calming Relaxation Exercises
Methods intended to develop mindfulness effectively treat anxiety and stress (Kushner & Marnocha, 2008).
Some examples of these techniques include:
In each of these exercises, you will learn how to turn your attention inward, calm your mind by reducing the effect of distracting thoughts, and consequently direct your thoughts constructively.
Yoga focuses on breathing techniques and postures, a practical and spiritual unification of the mind and body (Laban-Sharman et al., 2023).
This deep relaxation can be achieved through numerous poses. You may also wish to use yoga music while practicing these poses. This type of meditation syncs breathing with body movements, developing focus on somatic sensations and reducing stress.
Here are just a few movements you could quickly and less conspicuously try in a demanding situation.
Mindfulness practices for anxiety embody metacognitive training and allow individuals to take control of and balance their bodies’ physiological processes. These physiological processes determine cognition, mood, and wellbeing (Mitsea et al., 2022).
To practice mindfulness meditation, sit quietly, focus on your breath, and if your attention wanders, have it return. Although it sounds simple, it will likely take some practice.
A body scan is an awareness of the physical sensations of body parts. To take part in this practice, an individual concentrates and focuses attention on different parts of the body, as well as sensations like pain or muscle tension in the present moment (La Torre et al., 2020).
Breathing should be second nature, right? Well, sort of. Breathing exercises correct incorrect breathing patterns and reestablish correct breathing methods (Liu et al., 2019). Continue on for a plethora of breathing exercises to employ in a crisis situation.
Breathing Exercises for Anxiety (PDFs)
Perhaps you would like to learn more breathing exercises. PositivePsychology.com has got you covered with various PDFs to help you learn numerous methods of breathing as a form of relaxation.
Breath Awareness is an excellent worksheet to consult as a basic beginning to breathing exercises.
This resource provides six simple steps to make you more aware of your breathing. You may also want to try using this Breath Awareness While Waiting worksheet in conjunction with the above PDF.
Soothing Breath allows you to explore your breath using your hands. Hand placement during breathing helps you to bring awareness to your breath, as does being mindful of the warmth of your hands.
Anchor Breathing is a seven-step boat visualization that will help you calm your mind. The anchor metaphor is a central point on which you focus your awareness.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate Nostril Breathing requires you to slow your breathing, which is a calming technique in and of itself. Breathing through one nostril and alternating to the other is repeated five times for the best results.
Square Breathing is an exercise that involves breathing in for four seconds, holding that breath for four seconds, exhaling for four seconds, and then holding once more for four seconds. You can imagine going around the sides of a square while practicing this exercise. Again, this breath work is also repeated for best results.
Triangle Breathing may also be an excellent practice for children! Similar to square breathing, this exercise invites you to picture an inverted triangle, breathing in for four seconds, holding that breath, and then breathing out for four seconds.
Three Steps to Deep Breathing
Three Steps to Deep Breathing is a PDF that introduces you to deep breathing by teaching each of the three exercises that comprise it: abdominal, thoracic, and clavicular breathing.
As with many of these exercises, you begin by observing the natural flow of your breath for a few cycles.
Yogic Breathing begins by asking you to practice the three steps to deep breathing and then moving that breath into your naval, ribcage, collarbone, and abdomen.
This type of breathing is often encouraged in the practice of yoga.
Deep Breathing for Kids
Deep Breathing For Kids is an excellent resource for teaching children deep, calm breathing techniques. This exercise is different because it does not require the practitioner to hold their breath and involves much more coaching language.
Dragon Fire Breathing
Dragon Fire Breathing is another valuable resource for teaching children calming strategies. This PDF also includes other ideas for personalizing the technique.
Anxiety and stress are associated with psychological wellbeing (Lopes & Nihei, 2021). Some anxiety and stress is beneficial; however, we must monitor and limit these two experiences.
Before beginning any of these exercises, it will be critical to identify anxiety and stress. Knowing the precursors to these negative emotional responses and the triggers that can elicit these phenomena will be paramount. Anxiety and stress manifest differently in individuals.
Here is a list of symptoms one may experience. It is by no means comprehensive.
As you have learned, there are countless relaxation techniques.
The Mayo Clinic (2022) recognizes three main types of relaxation exercises:
Progressive muscle relaxation
These exercises may address physiological or psychological symptoms of anxiety. The physiological manifestations may include shortness of breath, racing heart, stomach issues, nausea, or pain.
Psychological indicators could appear as racing thoughts, feelings of dread, nervousness, uneasiness, panic, or fear, just to name a few. Many of the exercises in this article will address both types of anxiety symptoms.
Meditation & Mindfulness to Manage Anxiety
Although often used interchangeably, meditation and mindfulness have subtle differences. Meditation exists under the broader umbrella of mindfulness (Behan, 2020).
Both are excellent methods to train your mind to handle challenging situations more calmly.
They help you learn to focus your attention and drop negative thoughts as they come into your mind.
PositivePsychology.com offers a plethora of resources you can use in your practice. Here are just a few that scratch the surface.
This informal mindfulness exercise will help clients cultivate an awareness of the present moment that will ultimately help them relax. Clients are encouraged to step out of autopilot, notice their breath, and expand their awareness outward through a series of prompts.
This exercise is designed to be versatile, so clients can practice the three steps throughout the day whenever formal mindfulness practice may not be convenient.
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enjoy the benefits of mindfulness, this collection contains 17 validated mindfulness tools for practitioners. Use them to help others reduce stress and create positive shifts in their mental, physical, and emotional health.
PositivePsychology.com has also created a comprehensive eight-session mindfulness training package to help guide your teaching of others.
In this article, each exercise is meant to be a quick fix used during high stress. Of course, you should ultimately consider more long-term solutions for the best results.
Further, many of these exercises that address a specific need can be used for many other anxiety-driven situations.
Please keep in mind that each relaxation technique may not work for everyone. You will want to determine what works best for you.
After reading this article, you may feel increasingly tempted to analyze yourself. Please resist this urge since the simple presence of a sign or symptom does not equate to an actual anxiety disorder.
However, if you feel overwhelmed with anxious thoughts and feelings and struggle to cope, you may consider consulting an expert who can help. As with all of our articles, this piece is not meant to replace the invaluable guidance and expertise that a clinical psychologist can offer but is an additional tool for combating anxiety.
We hope you enjoyed this piece and gained a few more tools to add to your tool belt. Feel free to share your favorite relaxation techniques for combating anxiety head on.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Author
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About the author
Tiffany Sauber Millacci, Ph.D., is an educator for both university students and elementary-aged students. She is a continuous learner who seeks facts through research and enjoys sharing her learning through her writing.
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