En español | Anxiety is on the rise in the U.S., with boomers leading the hand-wringing charge. A 2018 national poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association found that Americans’ anxiety score jumped five points on a zero-to-100 scale from the same poll taken in 2017 — with a seven-point leap among boomers.
Plenty of theories try to explain why we're so stressed out, pointing to technology's influence (devices that demand our constant attention), a faster-paced world and more widespread financial worries. Whatever the cause of your own anxiety, it's helpful to have ways to calm yourself when you start to feel the tension rise. Consult a doctor if your anxiety is persistent or interfering with your daily life.
Here's the lowdown on some popular self-calming methods:
What it is: The practice of simply being still and focusing on your breath while you let thoughts float by — staying present without drifting into worries about the past or future.
One beautiful benefit is that you can do it nearly anytime, anywhere, says mindfulness mediation trainer Danesh Alam, a psychiatrist and medical director of behavioral health at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. “If you're going to a family event and it's going to be a high-anxiety day, you can slip away to have a five-minute meditation every hour. Do some deep breathing, and in those five minutes you'll lower your stress hormones and rejuvenate yourself,” Alam says.
Science says: Of all the self-care stress relievers, meditation is among the best-researched. A 2014 metanalysis of studies including 47 trials and 3,515 participants reported that mindfulness meditation practiced for two to six months worked as well for reducing anxiety symptoms as antidepressant medications.
Bottom line: Mindfulness meditation is easy, accessible and highly recommended for anxiety. Though many books, online articles and smartphone meditation apps like Headspace can guide you through the steps, Alam recommends taking a class. “Most communities have mindfulness meditation groups, some are no charge, where you can learn and ask questions. It's a good way to start,” he says.
What it is: Using scents, generally from essential oils from plants, to manipulate your state of mind. The theory is that inhaling certain compounds can affect the same parts of your brain as anti-anxiety drugs, but without the worrisome side effects. Some popularly used essential oils for anxiety include lavender, rose, ylang-ylang, chamomile, jasmine, basil, clary sage and bergamot orange.
The simplest way to practice aromatherapy is to inhale these essential oils by sprinkling a few drops on your pillow or a cotton ball, spritzing them into the air, or using a diffuser that disperses the fragrance into the air. You also can apply them to your skin via lotions or in a bath, but they can be irritating if not properly diluted.
Science says: There's not much valid scientific research on the effectiveness of essential oils and aromatherapy, says mental health counselor S. Katharina Star, adjunct professor at Cleveland State University. But dozens of small studies indicate that various essential oils may help reduce anxiety and stress, especially when used in hospital settings and other stressful situations.
Bottom line: “Scent has a connection to the brain, and there are certain scents, like lavender, that trigger a relaxing response,” Star says. “Some people really do find it effective. So if it works for you, use it."
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR)
What it is: A sensory phenomenon by which some people experience a pleasant tingling sensation across their scalp and down the back of their neck — causing relaxation and feelings of well-being — when they're exposed to specific sounds and visual stimulation like whispering, tapping and slow hand movements.
Not everyone experiences the ASMR phenomenon, but it's become wildly popular among those who do. YouTube has more than 13 million ASMR videos, including people carving soap, cutting hair and talking in whispers that devotees (some call themselves “tingleheads") watch to relax and sleep better.
Science says: New research on this previously unstudied phenomenon suggests there might be something to it. A 2018 study published in the journal PLOS One found that people who experience ASMR enjoyed significantly greater reductions in heart rate and increases in positive emotions like relaxation when watching ASMR videos (created by “ASMRtists") than those who do not experience the phenomenon.
Bottom line: “It's not for everyone, but I have used it myself and find it really calming,” Star says. “There's a lot going on in our own minds, and there's a lot of noise in our lives. ASMR can bring you back to your center and make you more mindful and in the moment in a very calming way."
What they are: Blankets that are filled with beads and other materials to give them heft. They typically weigh anywhere from five to 25 pounds, depending on the size of the person (most guidelines suggest that your blanket weigh about one-tenth as much as you do). The idea is to simulate deep pressure touch (DPT) — a type of therapy that uses pressure to reduce stress and anxiety. Like swaddling an infant, weighted blankets are supposed to have a calming effect, lowering stress hormones, triggering the release of feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin and oxytocin, and helping you relax and sleep better.
Science says: Research is limited, but some studies have yielded positive results. One published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders reported that people with insomnia who went to bed with a weighted blanket found it easier to settle down and sleep, slept longer, and felt more refreshed in the morning. In another study of 32 adults, most (63 percent) reported lower anxiety after spending time under a 30-pound weighted blanket.
Bottom line: If you toss and turn at night and struggle to quiet your racing mind and relax enough to sleep, a weighted blanket could help. Just be prepared to pay at least $100 for one. Experts also caution that people with circulation, respiratory and/or sleep disorders such as sleep apnea should talk to their doctor before trying one.
What they are: A practice that's at the heart of every piece of advice you've ever gotten when you were stressed out: “Just take a deep breath.” According to the American Institute of Stress, the goal is to use abdominal — or deep belly — breathing to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a sense of calm.
It's similar to meditation, says Michael Ziffra, a psychiatrist with the Northwestern Medical Group in Chicago. “When you're anxious, you have fast, shallow breathing, which can lead to hyperventilating, which triggers anxiety,” he says. “Deep breathing focuses on the inward and outward movements of the breath, getting your mind and body to a calmer place.”
Though practicing is as simple as taking deep breaths, there are specific methods you can use, including pranayamic breathing, where you inhale, hold, and exhale your breath for a certain number of seconds.
Science says: A 2017 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that volunteers who participated in eight weeks of deep breathing training (20 sessions in all) showed levels of the stress hormone cortisol significantly lower than in people who didn't do breathing training. Other research has found deep breathing can lower anxiety and increase feelings of well-being.
Bottom line: You always have your breath with you, so deep breathing is a good tool for calming anxiety. Many smartphone apps, including Breathing Zone and Breathe+, can coach you through deep, even breathing.
What it is: Anything that involves moving your body — walking, cycling, lifting weights, yoga, tai chi, dancing, paddleboarding. The list is endless.
Science says: Myriad studies show that exercise improves well-being and stimulates feel-good brain chemicals that can help quell anxiety. One study published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics found that six weeks of either aerobic exercise training or resistance exercise training reduced worrying among women with generalized anxiety disorder.
"Exercise is one of the biggest lifestyle interventions I recommend,” Ziffra says. “People who consistently exercise are a lot less prone to anxiety. People who don't exercise have more problems with anxiety."
Bottom line: If you do nothing else to beat stress and calm anxiety, exercise. It is hands down the best-researched and most widely recommended form of self-care for anxiety. Aim for 20 to 30 minutes a day of any activity you like.