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Please note: This article is not intended to diagnosis or prescribe a treatment for any mental or physical health issues. If you feel you may have an anxiety disorder or a physical health problem causing you anxiety, please see a qualified therapist and/or physician. If you have any health problems, which you believe may be aggravated by any of these exercises, please consult a physician before beginning these exercises.
Deep Breathing Exercises
Deep breathing exercises help to relieve symptoms of anxiety in three main ways. The first way is that it slows your heart rate. When we exhale, our heart rates naturally drop. The second way it helps is to combat hyperventilating, which is a common symptom of panic attacks associated with anxiety. The third ways that it helps is, quite simply, it distracts you and forces you to focus on the here and now.
Taking deep breaths isn’t all there is to deep breathing exercises, however. There are several different techniques, but I’m a fan of the 4-7-8 technique. To start, either lay flat or sit up straight with your arms relaxed at your sides. Clear your lungs of air by exhaling through your mouth. Once that is done, close your mouth and breathe in slowly through your nose to the count of four. You want to breathe from your diaphragm so that your stomach expands as opposed to having your chest expand and your shoulders shift.
Hold the breath to the count of seven. You may notice a light-headed feeling, this is normal, and your body will adjust to the breathing exercise. If the light-headed feeling bothers you, you may prefer to do the exercise lying down until you’ve gotten the hang of it.
Finally, open your mouth and exhale to the count of eight. Some people suggest rounding your lips as if whistling and letting your breath make a wooshing sound. Repeat this breathing technique a few times until you feel calm.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercises
Progressive muscle relaxation exercises are fantastic to use in conjunction with deep breathing exercises, but they are effective as a standalone, too. The premise behind progressive muscle relaxation is that if your body is relaxed, your mind will follow suit. Again, and as with most techniques to combat anxiety, another way that this helps is simply by distracting you from your anxious thoughts and forcing you to focus on what is currently happening.
To begin, find some place where you won’t be disturbed for at least 15 minutes. You can do this standing or sitting as well, but I find it easier to do lying down. Just be sure you don’t fall asleep! Take a few deep breaths and then make a fist with your left hand. Make it as tight as you can without hurting yourself, though you may experience shaking. Hold it for five seconds, and while you’re holding it, really focus on what that tension feels like.
After five seconds has lapsed, relax your fist as you exhale. Spend 15 seconds or so focusing on that feeling of relaxation before repeating these steps with your right fist. Moving through your entire body, one group of muscles at a time (i.e. left hand, right hand, left forearm, right forearm, left bicep, right bicep), go through the steps of tightening those muscles and holding them for five seconds while paying attention to the sensations. Always release the tension on your exhale, and be sure to spend about 15 seconds just paying attention to the relaxed state before moving on to the next group.
Once all muscles have been used in this manner, spend some time just being there in your relaxed state before resuming normal activity. Ideally, you want to perform this exercise regularly twice a day, even when you aren’t feeling particularly anxious until you’re able to move through the exercises with ease. Doing so will train you to recognize the levels of tension in your muscles as well as train your muscles to relax with less effort.
Over time, you will be able to get your muscles to relax faster and easier. Practicing this technique while calm will help you to remember to use it when anxious as well.
Grounding exercises are designed to help root you in the here and now. In fact, the previous two exercises are sometimes considered to be grounding exercises, but many people consider them separate because they provide other benefits as well (progressive muscle relaxation can help with tension headaches and deep breathing can also help with strengthening your diaphragm and increasing lung capacity). By being mindful of your surroundings, you will decrease anxiety and the detached feeling that can sometimes accompany anxiety. These are also really good exercises to help combat flashbacks in individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
A common grounding exercise is often referred to as the 5-4-3-2-1 game. The idea is to take in your environment using your five senses, and in this way, become present in the moment. Look around you and identify five things that you can see, and then say them out loud, such as, “I see a dresser. I see a bed. I see a window. I see a chair. I see a book.” Next, identify and name out loud four things that you can feel. Follow this pattern naming three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. If you are unable to find things to fit these categories in your environment, supplement your list with your favorites instead, such as, “I like the smell of apple pie baking.”
Another really good grounding exercise, especially for trauma survivors, is to identify yourself in the present day. What is your name? How old are you? Where are you currently at? What is your home address? Where do you work or go to school? What did you eat for breakfast this morning? What do you plan to have for dinner? Where have you gone today?
You don’t have to answer all of these questions, and of course, you can make substitutions. The idea is to focus in on your life as it is currently and on emotionally neutral events.
Snap a rubber band around your wrist.
Sending a brief, mild pain signal to your brain may help to interrupt intrusive, overwhelming thoughts. However, I suggest using this technique with caution and perhaps consulting a licensed therapist or physician before incorporating it into your routine. Wearing a rubber band around your wrist which is too tight may cause a decrease in blood flow to your hand and potential nerve and tissue damage over time. Snapping the rubber band too hard or too frequently may also have physical side effects.
Should you choose to use this technique, it is best to incorporate it with self-directed commands and vocal reinforcements. For instance, if you find yourself prone to mentally beating yourself up, you might snap the rubber band and say, “Stop. I am not stupid.” When you say "stop," say it with conviction. If you really want to get ahead of the game, follow it up by saying something positive about yourself, such as, “I get a lot of praise from my boss, and I’m really good at budgeting my money.”