2. Be mindful
Whenever you feel anxious, practice some mindfulness techniques, suggests Amy Sullivan, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic. “It teaches us how to stay in the here and now, instead of toward fear and uncertainty in the future,” she says. One easy exercise involves going no further than your own pantry. Grab an orange or other citrus fruit, and then take some time to really examine it as if you'd never seen it before. “Go through the process of describing it, peeling it, and eating it, using all five of your senses” — sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing, Sullivan advises. As you are focusing intently, you will tune down your autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for producing that panicky fight-or-flight response you get when you're anxious. A 2014 review of 47 clinical trials published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that practicing mindfulness meditation can help ease anxiety.
Another way to practice mindfulness — and lower anxiety — is yoga. One 2019 Boston University study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice found that people who practiced yoga several times a week reported improvements in both depression and anxiety symptoms within just eight weeks.
3. Stay active — especially outdoors
You probably already know that exercise is good to both boost your mood and your health. But taking any workout or walk outdoors reaps even more anxiety-busting benefits. A study published in Environmental Science & Technology found that people who did their exercise outside reported feeling more energy, and less tension and depression, than those who did indoor workouts. What's more, a 90-minute walk in nature lowers activity in the part of the brain linked to negative rumination, according to a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Even just listening to birdsong can lift your mood, studies find. But if you're somewhere like an apartment complex or nursing home where you can't easily get outdoors, then any type of indoor physical activity — even just walking up and down a flight of stairs — can help, Rabin says.
“[Mindfulness] teaches us how to stay in the here and now, instead of toward fear and uncertainty in the future.”
4. Set a power-down routine
When it comes to sleep and anxiety, it's a little bit of the chicken-and-the-egg syndrome: Anxiety makes it hard to nod off, then sleep deprivation makes your mood worse the next day. But people with insomnia are 17 times more likely to have clinical anxiety than more-sound sleepers, according to the National Sleep Foundation. You may be tempted to try an over-the-counter sleep aid such as doxylamine (Unisom) or diphenhydramine (Sominex). But these have been linked in older adults to next-day drowsiness, confusion, constipation, dry mouth and difficulty urinating.
Instead, try resetting your nighttime routine. Ninety minutes before bed, hop into a warm bath or shower, advises Michael Breus, a Los Angeles sleep specialist and author of The Power of When. “Your body temperature will decrease once you get out of the tub, helping produce melatonin naturally,” he explains. Once you've toweled off, give yourself an electronic curfew. This means no CNN, and no checking Facebook or Twitter. “You need time to relax and destress,” Breus says. If you want to read and typically do so with a tablet, know that some Kindles automatically reduce the amount of blue light you get. If yours doesn't, don a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses (you can find them on sites like Amazon) if you read this way.
Finish with some deep-breathing exercises before bed. “This kicks off a series of physiological changes that aid relaxation, including reducing muscle tension, slowing breathing rate and heart rate, lowering blood pressure and metabolism,” Breus explains. He recommends 4-7-8 breathing. In a comfortable position, with your eyes open or closed, inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale slowly for eight seconds. Repeat several times. “That slow exhale is very similar to the pace of breathing your body adopts as you're falling asleep,” Breus says. As a result, you're mimicking the breathing patterns of sleep onset. With luck, your body will soon follow.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 6, 2020. It has been updated to reflect new information.