In 2014, at age 24, I had my first anxiety attack. My heart started racing, my body was quickly alternating between sweating and being freezing cold, and I had this inexplicable feeling of paralyzing fear, even though I was safely in my apartment relaxing and was in absolutely no danger whatsoever.
I don’t know what started it, exactly. Prior to that evening, I had never struggled with anxiety. I was annoyingly ignorant of it. And then one night I had a panic attack, and my mental health did a 180, and although the last four years of my life have been filled with plenty of incredibly joy-filled moments, they have also been filled with struggle, pain, and the fight to prevent anxiety from having control over my life.
So, among other things (including drinking less caffeine and forcing myself to exercise), I decided to try therapy. Specifically, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a form of therapy that treats problems like anxiety by focusing on and addressing your various emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. This therapy focuses on solutions, and on showing you that you do have some power over your mental health. While it’s not perfect, and it’s not a cure-all, it has significantly helped my happiness and my way of life, particularly by introducing me to exercises and ways of thinking that not only significantly reduce my anxiety, but also show me that there are specific, concrete actions I can carry out and practice in order to help myself.
Here are three exercises I’ve learned in therapy that have significantly relieved my anxiety.
Just so we have all our bases covered, I am not even close to being a doctor (hi, I write for the internet for a living, why are you making me say this) and this is not me providing you with an official treatment program for your mental health. This is just me telling you about some exercises that have helped me get through some of my most anxious moments, including many a panic attack, and I hope that in some small way, they can provide you with some relief, too. So keep an open mind, and hang in there. You’re tougher than you think.
1. Diaphragmatic Breathing
This is a godsend for me. Have you ever felt incredibly anxious and someone told you to “just breathe” and you wanted to punch them in the face? Just be warned, diaphragmatic breathing is pretty much that, but in a way that actually works and makes sense physiologically.
The diaphragm is a muscle located at the base of your lungs, and diaphragmatic breathing is an exercise that teaches you how to actually use your diaphragm to breathe properly. It’s a very simple exercise to perform, and the best part is that you can do it anywhere, including places you might frequently feel anxious or experience a panic attack, like the subway, your office, or on a plane. Simply place one hand lightly on your stomach and the other on your chest, and then breathe in slowly through your nose until you feel your stomach move out against your hand while your chest stays as still as possible. Picture your stomach like a balloon that you’re trying to inflate while your chest remains still. After breathing in for a few seconds (I like to stick with four), tighten your stomach muscles and exhale through your pursed lips for several seconds. It’s normal to feel tired and even a little dizzy while you first start doing this practice, but eventually, diaphragmatic breathing will feel much more natural to you.
Diaphragmatic breathing is great for anxiety for a few reasons: it helps you to use less energy and effort to breathe, it slows your heart rate (this part really is true, I can attest to it), it helps lower your blood pressure, and it can have various other health benefits too, including helping people cope with PTSD and helping to strengthen your core muscles.
2. Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness Meditation is an exercise in which you focus on keeping your mind fully in the present while learning to disregard distracting thoughts or unhelpful and/or negative thinking. It’s been part of spiritual tradition for quite some time, but many are also starting to look at it now as a way to improve attention, become more cognizant of your own thoughts, and even decrease psychological distress.
Practicing mindfulness meditation is great because it’s quick, simple, and free. Just sit in a place that feels peaceful and quiet, and start by setting a time limit on your phone. If you’re feeling adventurous you can try ten minutes, but I’d suggest five minutes for the first meditation (it’s going to feel a lot longer than you expect). Then all you have to do is close your eyes, relax, and notice your body and your breath. This sounds obvious and easy, but that’s the whole point. It’s so easy and natural that it’s difficult, because we never set aside the time to do something so ordinary. Pay attention to how your body feels and listen to the sound of your breath as it flows in and out of your body. The key is to be aware that your thoughts will wander, because you’re human and that’s what we do. When you notice your brain has wandered, just turn your attention back to your breath and be patient with yourself. This will probably happen an absurd amount of times in the first few practices, and that’s okay.
The scientific data and research on mindfulness meditation still has a long way to go, but after experiencing it myself in therapy, I would recommend you at least try it. Although it didn’t have the same positive physiological effects that I experienced with diaphragmatic breathing, mindfulness meditation definitely helped me to focus more on being in the present and not letting any negative or worrisome thoughts become too powerful or overwhelming, which I believed at least helped prevent my anxiety from worsening.
That’s it! Just work it into your day whenever is convenient for you, whether it’s on the train or on the walk to work. It’s a small change, but learning how to become aware of my own body and breath helped me become significantly more aware when I was having negative thoughts, instead of just drowning subconsciously within them.
3. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Here’s an exercise that helps me relax and feel less anxious during the day, while also helping me fall asleep at night when I’m struggling to slow down my mind and body.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is an exercise that works by first feeling and tensing up various muscle groups throughout your body (such as your neck and shoulders, your hands, or your feet), and then releasing the tension and allowing your muscles to relax. The exercise is supposed to relieve tension, improve sleep, and possibly even address problems like headaches and upset stomachs. It’s pretty simple, but you can read a little more in depth about performing progressive muscle relaxation here.
Something I learned through this exercise is how to become aware of parts of my body that I kept tense without even realizing it. My therapist would have me start by concentrating at my feet and slowly working my way up my body, paying attention to each section of body parts and noticing what was already tense, and then concentrating on releasing the tension. It made me feel very present in my own body and also helped me become so much more aware of where I hold tension without even realizing it. Practicing this exercise while I was relaxed also helped me to learn how to take control of my own tense muscles when I started to feel particularly anxious or even when my muscles tensed up during a panic attack.