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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Our bodies don’t always react the way we want them to. For instance, imagine you’re sitting in class or a meeting at work when you suddenly experience a panic attack. That tightness in your chest, the racing, negative thoughts, and the feeling of being in danger—these feelings flood you, even though you aren’t in any real danger.
Chronically feeling this stress can really wear you down over time, leading to poor physical and mental health.
It’s helpful to have a few strategies available to calm yourself down when you’re feeling anxious. Having these in your back pocket can go a long way towards improving your overall health, wellness, and quality of life.
Fortunately, researchers have been studying what causes anxiety and how to tame it for a long time. Here’s a look at how to calm down and feel less anxious, according to science.
What is anxiety?
When your brain thinks you might be in danger (whether that’s a real danger or danger as perceived by the brain), it activates processes in your nervous system that get you ready to run or fight. This is called the fight-or-flight response. Anxiety is one of these processes. While anxiety may just seem like a nuisance, it stems from a process meant to prepare you for potentially threatening events (Chand, 2021).
Everyone experiences anxiety occasionally. It’s a normal part of life. In the past, it helped our ancestors avoid predators, like saber-toothed tigers. In the present, it can give you a boost of energy or help you focus on complex tasks at work or school.
Some people experience it much more often for reasons we don’t totally understand. Their brains overestimate the danger around them and trigger anxiety when it isn’t needed or helpful. Too much anxiety can interfere with your well-being and have negative health effects (Chand, 2021).
What happens when you become anxious?
The first step in calming down anxiety is to recognize it. Each person’s anxiety symptoms are unique, but researchers have found many commonalities. These symptoms can be changes in how you think, feel, or act (Chand, 2021).
If you have anxiety, you may experience some of the following symptoms (Chand, 2020):
- Trouble concentrating
- Poor memory
- Excessive worry
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Heart palpitations
- Feeling sweaty
- Feeling shaky or numb
- Feeling restless or agitated
- Trouble speaking
- Feeling like you want to run away or avoid a situation
- Feeling tense or jumpy
- Feeling overly impatient or frustrated
Once you recognize how you’re feeling, you can choose self-care techniques that can help you to relax and control your stress responses.
Do I have anxiety? Types of anxiety and how to treat it
How to calm down, according to science
If you have anxiety symptoms that are getting in the way of living your life, there are ways to get relief. Here are 10 different ways to calm down that are backed by scientific research.
1. Practice progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique used to teach your muscles to relax. It involves contracting and releasing various muscle groups in the body. A small clinical trial found PMR potentially effective for improving feelings of tension, anxiety, and anger (de Lorent, 2016).
2. Try meditation
Mindfulness-based meditation involves learning to calm the mind with the goal of “detached observation” of the world around you. It is moderately effective in reducing anxiety symptoms and improving mood. Meditation can be helpful on its own or combined with other relaxation strategies (Saeed, 2019).
3. Breathe deeply
Breathing techniques, such as slow and deep breathing, pursed lips breathing, relaxation therapy, inspiratory muscle training, and diaphragmatic breathing, have been shown to help you calm down. A small study looking at people hospitalized with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) found that controlled breathing exercises significantly improved their anxiety (Valenza, 2014).
4. Exercise regularly
Regular physical activity has long been known to be essential for healthy living. A group of researchers set out to look at how exercise affects the mental health of recreational athletes. They found that people who met recommended activity levels (moderate-intensity activity for 150 min/week) reported fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. So get outside, get some fresh air, and get those endorphins flowing (Siefken, 2019).
5. Try aromatherapy
The next time you’re feeling a little anxious, try a dab of lavender essential oil. A review of aromatherapy in people with cardiovascular disease found that using lavender oil (known for its stress-relieving effects) resulted in lower blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety levels. You can try it in massage oils, pour some in your hot bath, or just try smelling it (Lopes, 2020).
Essential oils for reducing anxiety
6. Chew some gum
Did you know there’s been extensive scientific research done on the effects of chewing gum on your behavior? While much of it has been for alertness and increasing attention, it has also been studied for reducing stress levels. Several studies suggest that chewing gum is associated with lower self-reported anxiety levels in stressful situations (Smith, 2016).
7. Listen to music
Music is one of the best-known ways to calm down. It’s simple, affordable, and non-invasive. Researchers looked at using music to reduce pre-surgery anxiety. They found that people who listened to their favorite calming music before a surgical procedure had less anxiety, better blood pressure and heart rate values, and reported feeling more satisfied after surgery than those who didn’t listen to music (Kavak Akelma, 2020).
8. Take a bath
Having a good, hot soak in the tub can help reduce anxiety. A small Japanese study found that while participants in both showering and bathing groups reported health improvements, the bathing group reported more significant improvements. They found that the people who had a habit of bathing in hot water reported having good self-reported health, sufficient sleep, low stress levels, and high self-reported happiness (Goto, 2018).
9. Do yoga
Yoga is a form of mind-body fitness that involves physical activity, mindfulness, and breathing exercises. Several studies have reported its benefits for physical and emotional health. Regular yoga practice enhances strength and flexibility, improves heart and lung function, reduces stress and anxiety, and enhances overall well-being and quality of life (Woodyard, 2011).
10. Try acupuncture
While more coordinated research is needed, studies have shown that acupuncture can help treat anxiety. Evidence shows it’s about as effective as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a common type of talk therapy used for anxiety disorders (Errington-Evans, 2012).
Additional resources for calming anxiety
If the above suggestions aren’t working for you, or you find yourself needing to use them all the time, consider reaching out for some extra help. Your healthcare provider can help you rule out any medical problems that might be causing your symptoms. They can also help you get a referral to talk with a therapist or social worker in your area.
You can also call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national helpline. This is a free, confidential service that provides information and referrals for treatment and community support.
- Chand SP, Marwaha R. (2021). Anxiety. [Updated 2021 May 1]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470361/
de Lorent, L., Agorastos, A., Yassouridis, A., Kellner, M., & Muhtz, C. (2016). Auricular acupuncture versus progressive muscle relaxation in patients with anxiety disorders or major depressive disorder: A prospective parallel group clinical trial. Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies, 9(4), 191–199. doi: 10.1016/j.jams.2016.03.008. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27555224/
Errington-Evans N. (2012). Acupuncture for anxiety. CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 18(4), 277–284. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-5949.2011.00254.x. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6493505/
Goto, Y., Hayasaka, S., Kurihara, S., & Nakamura, Y. (2018). Physical and mental effects of bathing: A randomized intervention study. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2018, Article ID 9521086, 5 pages. doi: 10.1155/2018/9521086. Retrieved from https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2018/9521086/
Kavak Akelma, F., Altınsoy, S., Arslan, M. T., & Ergil, J. (2020). Effect of favorite music on postoperative anxiety and pain. Wirkung von Lieblingsmusik auf postoperative Angst und Schmerz. Der Anaesthesist, 69(3), 198–204. doi: 10.1007/s00101-020-00731-8. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32047952/
Lopes, L. S., Bündchen, D., Modesto, F. C., Quintão, M., Chermont, S., Cavalcanti, A. C. D., et al. (2020). Aromatherapy in patients with cardiovascular diseases: A systematic review. International Journal of Cardiovascular Sciences, 34(1), 74-80. Retrieved from http://ijcscardiol.org/article/aromatherapy-in-patients-with-cardiovascular-diseases-a-systematic-review/
Saeed, S. A., Cunningham, K., & Bloch, R. M. (2019). Depression and anxiety disorders: benefits of exercise, yoga, and meditation. American Family Physician, 99(10): 620-627. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/afp/2019/0515/p620.html
Siefken, K., Junge, A., Lämmle, L. (2019). How does sport affect mental health? An investigation into the relationship of leisure-time physical activity with depression and anxiety. Human Movement, 20: 62-74. doi: 10.5114/hm.2019.78539. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/331867128_How_does_sport_affect_mental_health_An_investigation_into_the_relationship_of_leisure-time_physical_activity_with_depression_and_anxiety
Smith A. P. (2016). Chewing gum and stress reduction. Journal of Clinical and Translational Research, 2(2), 52–54. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6410656/
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2021). Anxiety. MedlinePlus. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/anxiety.html
Valenza, M. C., Valenza-Peña, G., Torres-Sánchez, I., González-Jiménez, E., Conde-Valero, A., & Valenza-Demet, G. (2014). Effectiveness of controlled breathing techniques on anxiety and depression in hospitalized patients with COPD: a randomized clinical trial. Respiratory Care, 59(2), 209–215. doi: 10.4187/respcare.02565. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23882107/
Woodyard C. (2011). Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. International Journal of Yoga, 4(2), 49–54. doi: 10.4103/0973-6131.85485. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3193654/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.