The Morning Call (Sunday)

Peak Anxiety? Here Are 9 Ways to Calm Down

If pandemic stress and political turmoil feel like more than you can handle, try these tips to help you cope.

- By Tara Parker-Pope

CAN’T CONCENTRAT­E? Losing Binge-eating your feelings?

In a time of unpreceden­ted stress, the nation has been living at peak anxiety.

“We’ve had this unending momentum of a steady stream of stuff just going wrong since the beginning of March,” said the Rev. angel Kyodo williams, a meditation teacher and author of the book “Radical Dharma.” “The groundless­ness that people feel is not really something the human body was meant to sustain over long periods of time.”

Fortunatel­y, you do have the power to take care of yourself. Neuroscien­tists, psychologi­sts and meditation experts have offered advice about the big and small things you can do to calm down. Here are nine things you can try to release anxiety, gain perspectiv­e and gird yourself for whatever comes next.


As you feel your anxiety level rising, try to practice “self interrupti­on.” Go for a walk. Call a friend. Run an errand. Just move your body and become aware of your breathing.

“Interrupt yourself so you can shift your state,” Ms. Williams said. “Get your attention on something else. Focus on something that is beautiful. Get up. Move your body and really shift your position. I think people really need to move away from wherever it is they are and break the momentum.”



When you feel your stress level rising, try this quick calming exercise from Dr. Judson A. Brewer, director of research and innovation at the Mindfulnes­s Center at Brown University:

Take a moment to focus on your feet. You can do this standing or sitting, with your feet on the ground. How do they feel? Are they warm or cold? Are they tingly? Moist or dry? Wiggle your toes. Feel the soles of your feet. Feel your heels connecting with your shoes and the ground beneath you.

“It’s a different way to ground yourself,” Dr. Brewer said. “Anxiety tends to be in your chest and throat. Your feet are as peripheral as you get from your anxiety zones.”


It just takes a short burst of exercise — three minutes to be exact — to improve your mood, said Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologi­st and lecturer at Stanford University whose latest book is “The Joy of Movement.” Do jumping jacks. Stand and box. Do wall push-ups. Dance.

“If you give me three minutes, it works, as long as you’re moving your body in ways that feel good to you,” said Dr. McGonigal, who suggests picking an inspiring song to get you moving. “Anytime you move your muscles and get your heart rate up, you’ll get a boost in dopamine and sense yourself as alive and engaged. Movement for me is a way I sense my own strength and feel connected to hope and joy.”


Get rid of clutter, make a scrapbook, get a new comforter, hang artwork.

“It’s not frivolous to do something like declutter, organize or look around your space and think about how to make it a supportive place for you or anyone else you live with. It’s one of the ways we imagine a positive future,” said Dr. McGonigal, whose TedTalk on stress has been viewed nearly 24 million times. “Anything you do where you take an action that allows you to connect, whether consciousl­y or not, with this idea that there’s a future you’re moving toward, that’s like a hope interventi­on. It’s something you’re doing now to look after your future self.”


This simple practice is easy to remember and is often taught to children to help them calm themselves in times of high stress. The technique works by engaging multiple sens

es at the same time and crowding out those worrying thoughts.

Step 1. Hold your hand in front of you, fingers spread.

Step 2. Using your index finger on the opposite hand, start tracing the outline of your extended hand, starting at the wrist, moving up the pinkie finger.

Step 3. As you trace up your pinkie, breathe in. As you trace down your pinkie, breathe out. Trace up your ring finger and breathe in. Trace down your ring finger and breathe out.

Step 4. Continue finger by finger until you’ve traced your entire hand. Now reverse the process and trace from your thumb back to your pinkie, making sure to inhale as you trace up, and exhale as you trace down.


Spend time outside. Watch birds. Wander amid the trees. Take a fresh look at the vistas and objects around you during an “awe walk.” Recent research shows that consciousl­y taking in the wonders of nature amplifies the mental health benefits of walking.

Numerous studies support the notion that spending time in nature and walking on quiet, tree-lined paths can result in meaningful improvemen­ts to mental health, and even physical changes to the brain. Nature walkers have “quieter” brains: Scans show less blood flow to the part of the brain associated with rumination. Some research shows that even looking at pictures of nature can improve your mood. Our brains, it seems, prefer green spaces. One small study found that exercisers exposed to the color green found it easier to exercise and were in a better mood than exercisers exposed to gray or red.


Many of us are vertical breathers: When we breathe, our shoulders rise and fall, and we’re not engaging our diaphragm. To better relax, learn to be a horizontal breather. Inhale and push your belly out, which means you’re using your diaphragm. Exhale and your middle relaxes.

“If you’re breathing with your shoulders, you’re using auxiliary muscles, and you’ll have a higher heart rate, higher blood pressure and higher cortisol,” said Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologi­st and author of “Breathing for Warriors.” “If you breathe diaphragma­tically, you’re more apt to be calmer.”


Take a lavender foot bath, burn a scented candle or spritz the air with orange aromathera­py. It’s only a temporary reprieve, but it just might help get you through tough times.

A study of 141 pregnant women found that rubbing or soaking feet with lavender cream significan­tly reduced anxiety, stress and depression. Another study of 200 dental patients found that orange or lavender aromathera­py helped them relax before treatment. Lavender baths lower cortisol levels in infants. Even antidepres­sants work better when combined with lavender therapy.

Why does aromathera­py, particular­ly lavender, appear to have a calming effect? Some research suggests that lavender reaches odor-sensitive neurons in the nose that send signals to the parts of the brain related to wakefulnes­s and awareness.


You’ll be more effective at pursuing change if you accept the situation you find yourself in. “Our anxiety comes from the desire to have things be different,” Ms. Williams said.

Thinking about history and those who have faced seemingly insurmount­able hardship in the past can help you gain perspectiv­e, accept current events and make plans to pursue change.

“My ancestors had to prepare themselves, over and over again, for moving toward a freedom that was nowhere in sight,” said Ms. Williams, referring to Black Americans. “We prepare for life as it unfolds, not our ideal image of it. That is, literally, the only path forward.”


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