Anxiety is a common experience for many people. But what is it, and what are some skills to help manage it? And how difficult are those skills to use?
In this blog, I will cover 21 anxiety management skills, how they help, and when you should use them.
Jump to a section:
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is the emotional, conscious experience of the body's impulse to escape. When one does not act on the impulse, anxiety emerges and can be noticed and felt.
For example, when someone who does not do well with social situations goes to a workplace potluck, they will have an impulse to leave. However, if they do not leave due to social norms and expectations of the workplace, they will then experience anxiety.
Skills to help manage anxiety
When I say "manage anxiety," I do not mean "cure." I believe that anxiety can get better and alleviate, something I have seen often as a therapist, but these 21 skills do not guarantee that. These may reduce the intensity of anxiety but not cure it.
Whether you experience mild or severe anxiety, there are many techniques that you can use to help manage your symptoms and find relief. However, you may not be able to use all of these skills due to how inaccessible they are from your anxious state or due to more practical matters.
Here are 21 anxiety management skills listed for difficulty and accessibility based on anxiety intensity. Use this list to find the right strategies to manage your anxiety.
7 Easy anxiety management skills
These 7 anxiety management skills are easily accessible and free or very low cost. Practice using these before you have anxiety to increase your access to feeling safe, which will better prepare you for moments where you need to use these same skills to alleviate anxiety when it does occur. The 7 easy anxiety management skills are:
1. Practice deep breathing exercises to lower anxiety:
Deep breathing exercises are a simple but effective way to reduce anxiety. Sit comfortably, take a deep breath through your nose and into your belly, hold it for a few seconds, and then exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat as needed.
This type of belly breathing was shown to "... improve sustained attention, affect, and cortisol levels" in this study. And this meta-analysis shows "...increased comfort, relaxation, pleasantness, vigor and alertness, and reduced symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion."
How breathing exercises help anxiety:
The extended exhale utilizes the parasympathetic system, which calms the body and slows the heart. Slowing the heartbeat is exactly what's needed when anxious, as the flight impulse comes along with an increased heart rate. I think mindful breathing is very helpful for lowering anxiety. The more academic meta-analysis explanation is this:
"Slow breathing techniques act enhancing autonomic, cerebral and psychological flexibility in a scenario of mutual interactions: we found evidence of links between parasympathetic activity (increased HRV and LF power), CNS activities (increased EEG alpha power and decreased EEG theta power) related to emotional control and psychological well-being in healthy subjects."
When you should use breathing exercises to reduce anxiety:
Breath can be used for any level of anxiety intensity, even panic attacks. However, you will get better results if:
you practice breath exercises ahead of time
you have high distress tolerance
you have practiced mindfulness and can attune to your breath
2. Take short movement breaks to lower anxiety.
Taking short breaks to stretch and move your body can help reduce tension and promote relaxation. I'd recommend mindful stretching and movement over using your phone to distract yourself from anxiety.
How movement helps reduce anxiety:
Doing so mindfully uses the pent-up flight energy lingering in your system. It also reminds your body that movement is possible and you are not immobilized.
When you should use stretch breaks to reduce anxiety:
Use movement when you notice your anxiety escalating, and you can take a break from what you're doing. For example, I like to walk around the block daily at work. I highly recommend movement combined with sensory mindfulness of the environment.
Are you new to the Polyvagal Theory?
I realize this may all be brand new to you: states of the body, safety cues, impulses... it's a lot! If you're brand new to my site and this information, I highly recommend learning deeply about the Polyvagal Theory. Download my Polyvagal Checklist to use as a guide on what to learn. My site is filled with resource, like my Polyvagal Intro, to help you learn easily and clearly. Sign up for my email list below to download the checklist.
3. Listen to calming music to reduce anxiety:
Music can help you relax and reduce anxiety. So choose music that you find soothing and relaxing. Something that enables you to slow down and feel more present. Alternatively, choose music that allows you to mobilize and feels playful.
How does music help lower anxiety?
Music can help to lower anxiety in many ways:
it can help you to move through dance
it provides a rhythm to synchronize with and feel more present
The vocal prosody of music is a cue of safety to your system (the sing-songy quality of it)
it may match the intensity of what you're feeling and allow it to be present within you
it can also function as a distraction to anxiety
When you should use music to reduce anxiety:
Music is always a good idea for reducing anxiety. Have it on the background to provide passive safety. Use earbuds to keep things discreet as you work. Or dance with friends and co-regulate in social mobility and play.
4. Write in a journal to reduce anxiety:
Writing in a journal can help you process your thoughts and emotions and reduce anxiety. Take a few minutes each day to write down your thoughts and feelings. I recommend focusing on the present moment and straying away from reflecting on painful moments from the past.
How does journaling help to lower anxiety?
Journaling aligns your cognitions with what is happening within you and also with the external world. If you journal about the present moment, you may write about things like:
what your senses are detecting, like sounds and sights.
what your present-moment emotional experience is, like anxious or nervous.
what it feels like in the present moment to journal.
When your thoughts align with the present moment through journaling, it permits your emotion of anxiety to be present, which may help reduce its intensity.
Read my 5 journaling tips by clicking here >
When you should journal to reduce anxiety:
Journaling is best done when the anxious feelings are at a mild to moderate level. It would help if you stayed anchored in the present moment to journal effectively. For example, you may notice past events coming to mind that were potentially traumatic and connected to your anxiety. In that case, you must tolerate the experience that may surface, which requires staying anchored in the present moment and having a strong enough vagal brake.
5. Take a warm bath or shower to reduce anxiety:
Taking a warm bath or shower can help you relax and reduce anxiety. Add some Epsom salt or essential oils to enhance the relaxation experience.
How does a warm bath or shower help lower anxiety?
Bathing provides numerous passive cues of safety to your system to help lower the flight activation of anxiety:
warmth on your skin
scents of soaps or oils
solitude in being alone in the bathroom
But those passive safety cues can also be actively noticed and experienced. Slow down and take them all in, one at a time.
When you should use a warm bath or shower to reduce anxiety:
One of my therapy clients took a 2-hour bath daily along with a charcuterie board of cheeses and meats. I don't recommend this lol, but it sounds amazing. However, I do highly recommend daily bathing! Think of this technique as a part of your daily structure that is more preventative than a coping skill. It can serve as a means to start or end your day calmly and serves as a foundation. Although, a shower was beneficial in my self-regulation example.
6. Drink tea to reduce anxiety:
How does tea help to reduce anxiety?
There may be some benefits from tea ingredients, like herbs or caffeine. But, for me, it's the taste, the warmth, and the scents. Teas provide both active and passive safety cues to your system, calming the flight activation.
When you should drink tea to reduce anxiety:
I'd recommend doing so when you have a decent amount of anchoring in your safety state and can be mindful of the experience. For example, messing with hot water is not a good idea if you're in a panic attack. But for mild to moderate anxiety and stress, I think tea is a great option.
7. Spend time in nature to reduce anxiety.
Spending time in nature can help you feel more relaxed and reduce anxiety. Take a walk in the park, hike, or spend some time in your backyard.
How does nature help to reduce anxiety?
Humans evolved in nature. So we generally feel an aversion to dangerous elements of nature, like lightning and hail. But we are drawn to safer aspects of nature, like water and greenery. Safety cues include a warm sun, a gentle breeze, and quiet solitude. Hearing birds singing also indicates there is no danger present.
When you should use nature to reduce anxiety:
Use nature as often as you can. If you don't have access to a lake or whimsical forest, that's okay. Incorporate elements of nature into your home, like potted plants. I even use fake plants and framed dead moss on my office walls to bring some green into the room! I also play an extended scene of nature on my monitors during therapy sessions, like the one below.
9 Intermediate Anxiety Management Skills
These 9 intermediate anxiety management skills are generally accessible but are more challenging than the 7 easy ones above. Each of these requires practice, lifestyle changes or some financial investment. The 9 intermediate anxiety management skills are:
8. Take a technology break to reduce anxiety.
Taking a break from technology can help reduce stress and anxiety. Turn off your phone, tablet, VR headset, and computer as often as possible. I put this at #8 because our devices are deeply ingrained into our daily lives. We find connection, education, entertainment, and distraction from these. So it takes work to put them down for many.
How does a technology break help to reduce anxiety?
When you're mindlessly scrolling through your phone, it's activating your sympathetic system as you hunt for the next dopamine hit from content. But, unfortunately, it also distracts you from your inner world, which must be permitted and experienced.
When you should take a tech break to reduce anxiety:
As often as possible. Maybe even right now!
Ever notice irritation when you step away from your device? That's your sympathetic system. Same with boredom. If boredom looms over you after turning off your devices, it's time for an extended break to self-regulate.
My kids do much better with less screen time. They use their imagination more and are generally more sociable.
Take a break to reduce anxiety and stress and prevent them as well.
9. Practice mindful meditation to reduce anxiety.
Mindful meditation is a powerful technique for reducing anxiety. One method is to sit quietly in a calming environment, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. Then, when your mind wanders, gently bring your focus back to your breath.
How does mindful meditation help to reduce anxiety?
Just like journaling in #4, meditation helps to align your cognitions with your inner experience. Mindfulness gives anxiety permission to be present and also to soften in intensity. You can also do a deep meditative dive and directly experience the sensations and impulses underlying the anxiety. I teach this process in Unstucking Defensive States.
When you should use mindful meditation to reduce anxiety:
I recommend using this for mild to moderate levels of anxiety. You could use it for more severe levels, even panic, but it's not easy. I recommend practicing mindful meditation before you have anxiety. Then, when you have anxiety, you will be better prepared to experience it mindfully.
And no, being busy is not an excuse. You can learn more about that here.
10. Try muscle relaxation to reduce anxiety.
Muscle relaxation is a technique for tensing and relaxing muscles to induce more calm. You can do so in a sequence, using each of your muscle groups, or focus on one area in particular. For example, with anxiety, I recommend concentrating on your legs.
How does progressive muscle relaxation reduce anxiety?
Muscle relaxation helps to release the lingering flight activation in your body. However, it may be more of a challenge since you need to validate you have the emotion first, then identify where you feel it if you are concentrating on one area. The general relaxation sequence all over your body may be more approachable.
When you should use muscle relaxation to reduce anxiety:
Use muscle relaxation anytime. It's discreet, so it can be used when at work at your desk or even in bed before going to sleep. I recommend this for mild to even severe anxiety. But you need to be able to feel it and use your muscles to relieve the anxiety.
11. Use positive affirmations to lower your anxiety.
Positive affirmations are statements you repeat to yourself to promote positive thinking and anxiety reduction. Choose affirmations that resonate with you and repeat them throughout the day. They need to mean something to you personally. If not, they may not be helpful at all.
How does positive affirmation help anxiety?
As long as the affirmation means something to you, it helps you focus on your thoughts, not the anxiety. In addition, it may increase safety in your body through brain-to-body messages. Some examples are:
"All I need is within me right now."
"I am confident."
When you should use positive affirmation to reduce anxiety:
They're free and easily found through internet searches, so use them whenever you need them. However, they are not terribly helpful, especially if they don't come from you. Visualization (#14) or a specific memory may be more helpful. Positive affirmations are best for mild anxiety, in my opinion.
12. Get regular exercise to reduce anxiety.
Regular exercise can help reduce anxiety and promote relaxation. Choose an exercise routine you enjoy and aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise most days. A daily walk around the block can do wonders for your overall mental health.
How does exercise help to reduce anxiety?
Anxiety comes from the flight system. Being mobile utilizes flight energy as long as you are mindful of the experience. The Mayo Clinic lists these two key explanations:
Releasing feel-good endorphins, natural cannabis-like brain chemicals (endogenous cannabinoids) and other natural brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being Taking your mind off worries so you can get away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety
When you should use exercise to reduce anxiety:
Anytime you can, really. Some form of exercise is generally available to you. You don't need to go to the gym or buy equipment. Short movement breaks might be more accessible, but regular exercise is excellent.
13. Reduce caffeine and alcohol consumption:
Caffeine and alcohol can increase anxiety levels (and poor decisions), so limiting your intake is important. Switch to herbal tea or decaf coffee and avoid alcohol or limit consumption.
How does lowering caffeine and alcohol lower anxiety?
Caffeine can increase your heart rate and leave you feeling jittery. It looks like anxiety. Caffeine and alcohol both remove you from your present-moment experience. The more you can exist in reality, in the present moment, the less anxious you will be.
When you should lower caffeine and alcohol to reduce anxiety:
Probably all the time. But realistically, check your intake and adjust what you need to. If you're losing sleep, then you should probably cut back. If it's interfering with your daily functioning, then cut back. If you go through withdrawals when you stop, then yeah, it's probably a good idea to cut back.
I like to do mini detoxes from caffeine every now and then. I focus on water intake and slowing down. I also have mostly eliminated energy drinks. Balance and mindfulness can help with cutting down on caffeine and alcohol.
14. Practice visualization techniques to calm anxiety:
Visualization is where you imagine a peaceful or calming scene to help reduce anxiety. Close your eyes and imagine a place or experience that makes you feel calm and relaxed. What would safety look like to you?
How does visualization help to decrease anxiety?
Visualizing safety can help to activate your body's ventral vagal safety pathways. Using your imagination or remembering a moment of safety is a brain-to-body cue of safety that helps calm flight activation.
When you should use visualization to reduce anxiety:
Practice visualizations in mini moments to help you anchor into your body's safety state. Don't wait for anxiety and then act reactively through visualization. However, visualizing an imaginary scene or remembering a moment of peace can help to reduce anxiety. I recommend allowing tolerable anxiety levels and then balancing it with mindful visualizations of safety.
15. Try aromatherapy with essential oils or incense to manage anxiety:
Aromatherapy can help to create an environment conducive to anxiety reduction through passive safety cues. For example, they may provide passive olfactory (smell) safety cues to calm your system. Combined with other environmental adjustments like lighting changes, it can help set a tone for mindfulness.
However, unlike most of the list, essential oils are not free and can be costly. Incense may be more accessible.
How does aromatherapy help anxiety?
"Essential oils promote calm and relaxation, which can reduce symptoms of anxiety. They are often used as a complementary therapy alongside other treatments for anxiety" (Healthmatch).
I tend to believe that aromatherapy shows the benefit of one's belief that it is going to be helpful. When the label on the box tells you it will reduce discomfort, you expect it to happen. This is called a "placebo effect." I also believe that the pleasant smell provides a calming cue of safety to the body, helping to ease anxiety.
This study compared two groups - one was told a lavender-odor would reduce their pain and another group not given this information. The group that was told their pain would be reduced in the experiment reported significant alleviation of pain, whereas the other group did not. The study suggests that "the current results suggest that prior information regarding an odor has a greater impact on analgesia than breathing changes or the perceived pleasantness of the odor."
When you should use aromatherapy to reduce anxiety:
Use aromatherapy to provide passive safety cues to help settle into a meditative practice before you have anxiety. For example, as part of a daily practice. If you have mild to moderate anxiety and can tolerate it, use aromatherapy and other mindful practices to soften the intensity of anxiety.
I do not recommend using aromatherapy as a stand-alone anxiety treatment.
"Essential oils promote calm and relaxation, which can reduce symptoms of anxiety. They are often used as a complementary therapy alongside other treatments for anxiety" (Healthmatch).
16. Use a weighted blanket to reduce anxiety and feel more contained.
This meta-analysis found that "Weighted blankets may be an appropriate therapeutic tool in reducing anxiety." And this study of adults in an inpatient facility "...found a statistically significant drop in anxiety..." So choose a blanket that is the right weight for your body and use it while you sleep or relax.
I put this in the "intermediate" category due to cost. Weighted blankets are not cheap, but there is a range in cost, so you might find something in your price range.
How do weighted blankets help reduce feelings of anxiety?
This is my hunch - anxiety can feel out of control. Weighted blankets can help reduce anxiety by giving you a feeling of containment. If you want something more academic, here you go -
"Weighted blankets provide deep touch pressure stimulation, which has both physical and psychological advantages. Deep pressure stimulation affects the nervous system by increasing serotonin and melatonin concentrations while decreasing cortisol levels. This creates a calming effect, which may minimize stress, induce sleep and increase feelings of well-being." (ScienceDirect)
When you should use weighted blankets to reduce anxiety:
This study found weighted blankets helpful in an inpatient psychiatric facility. So if they're useful in an intensive setting like that, they will potentially benefit you in your own home.
Weighted blankets can be helpful for mild to severe anxiety. I recommend using one as part of a "regulation station" that you pre-plan. Meaning having things ready beforehand that you know reduces your anxiety. Your regulation station could include the following:
a weighted blanket that you know works for you
5 Advanced Anxiety Management Skills:
These 5 advanced anxiety management skills are less easily accessible but may be required if your level of anxiety is detrimental to your health and daily living. Each of these requires practice, lifestyle changes, financial investment or professional assistance. The 5 advanced anxiety management skills are:
17. Seek professional therapy or counseling to manage anxiety:
Professional therapy or counseling can help you work through anxiety and develop coping strategies to manage your symptoms. My therapy clients often eliminate or reduce their anxiety so much that it's a non-factor in their daily life.
Therapy is great, but sadly, not always easily accessible. Private pay therapy is expensive, often $200/session. Therapy through insurance is possible, but you may get a group educational model or a checklist of interventions. The medical model of therapy focuses on symptom reduction and management, like through a county program. And insurance providers are highly impacted with therapy requests, potentially leaving you on a waitlist.
How does therapy help reduce anxiety?
Therapy can help in many ways to reduce anxiety. Here is a short list of potential therapeutic benefits:
providing a safe environment
providing a nonjudgmental relationship
identifying triggers and solutions
developing coping mechanisms
reframing negative thinking patterns
When you should seek therapy to reduce anxiety:
If anxiety disrupts your daily functioning, it might be time to seek professional help. Daily functioning would include things like:
workplace or academic performance
relationships and socialization
self-compassion and growth
18. Practice trauma-relieving meditative techniques to reduce anxiety.
Persistent anxiety may be a present-day symptom of previous traumatic life events. It's possible to practice self-regulation techniques to alleviate stuck trauma in the body. This is not easy and should be done after having sufficiently built the strength of the vagal brake.
This type of work is innate within each of us, though humanity has largely lost its capacity to do so. Consequently, we need to relearn how to use these self-regulatory practices. This can be costly, like through online courses, therapy or coaching.
How do meditative practices help relieve trauma and lower anxiety?
If your anxiety stems from underlying trauma, then if you relieve the trauma, your anxiety will also relieve.
Your body may be stuck in a state of flight due to life circumstances, like a childhood environment or something you went through. However, you need to address the underlying stuck flight state as the primary factor, which will reduce or even eliminate the feelings of anxiety you experience.
Trauma-informed meditative practices like UDS bring the conscious experience of self-regulation needed to relieve the stuck flight state.
When you should use trauma-informed meditative practices to reduce anxiety:
These practices are best used daily as part of a routine. Besides meditative experiences to feel and relieve anxiety, building the strength of your safety state is even more critical. The only structured practice I am aware of for that is Building Safety Anchors.
19. Join an anxiety support group to help relieve anxiety.
Joining a support group can provide you with a sense of community and support. In addition, you can connect with others going through similar experiences and learn from their experiences.
You can find free online support groups or forums to feel less alone in your anxiety. Your insurance provider may have a resource for groups as well.
How do support groups help to lower anxiety?
Feeling connected to others is hugely important in life, for every single one of us. But we lose connection with others when we exist in anxiety or other defensive state emotions. And being alone in anxiety can make things worse.
Connecting with people who share similar experiences can be validating and normalizing. You may also get resources from each other to further assist with lowering anxiety.
When you should join an anxiety support group:
When you have mild to severe anxiety, I think connecting with others is a good idea. However, when you seek a support group, remember that you can try it out and leave if it's not a good fit for you.
20. Consider medication under a doctor's or psychiatrist's guidance to reduce anxiety.
I was taught in therapy school that medication is a last resort, though now it seems to be the go-to first-line intervention. I know the above interventions can be beneficial, but I don't dismiss that medication has its uses. And many studies have shown this.
Talk to your doctor or psychiatrist about whether medication might be a good option for you.
How does medication help reduce anxiety?
NAMI says "Psychiatric medications influence the brain chemicals that regulate emotions and thought patterns. They're usually more effective when combined with psychotherapy. In some cases, medicines can reduce symptoms so other methods of a treatment plan can be more effective."
When you should use medication to reduce anxiety:
Talk with your doctor or psychiatrist about this and create a treatment plan together.
21. Use biofeedback techniques to monitor and manage your anxiety levels:
Biofeedback is a technique where you use electronic devices to monitor your body's response to stress. With biofeedback, you can learn to control your heart rate and breathing to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. This meta-analysis showed biofeedback to be generally helpful, though there is no current evidence for use in-home.
Biofeedback is not something that is easily accessible to most.
How does biofeedback help reduce anxiety?
The Mayo Clinic says "Biofeedback helps you make slight changes in your body, such as relaxing muscles, to help relieve pain or reduce tension. You may be able to decrease your heart rate and breathing, which can make you feel better. Biofeedback can give you the skills to practice new ways to control your body. This can improve a health problem or help make daily activities easier.
Easily Manage Anxiety in Your Daily Life
My 5 practical tips will help you to manage anxiety in your daily life. Each one is easily accessible and doesn't cost a thing!
Q: Can my anxiety actually get better?
A: Generally speaking, anxiety can improve. It's not a guarantee I can give to anyone in particular. Still, my therapy clients have improved or eliminated their anxiety problems. You can manage anxiety through coping skills, but you can also potentially eliminate it through somatic mindfulness practices. My UDS course teaches you how to feel and relieve your negative emotions, such as anxiety.
Q: What are the three best options from this list that I can use today?
A: My anxiety-reducing recommendations from this blog that you can use immediately are:
mindfully breathe into your belly and extend your exhale.
get up and move regularly, taking breaks for mindful movement.
get in nature or surround yourself with greenery that provides you with passive cues of safety.
Q: Can meditation really help with anxiety recuction?
A: Yes! Meditation can be super helpful. Set up a routine to meditate daily or use meditation when you're feeling anxious to reduce the intensity of the emotion. Surround yourself with passive cues of safety to boost the effect of meditation.
Justin Sunseri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach specializing in trauma relief. He is the host of the Stuck Not Broken podcast and author of the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states.