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Are you suffering from an anxiety disorder, or are you just really stressed right now? These research-backed relaxation and physical self-help techniques could help you feel better.

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental illnesses in the United States, affecting an estimated 18 percent of the adult population. While anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder, can be truly debilitating, only a third of people who meet the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder receive treatment. [1]

Cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressant therapy are the most studied and recommended treatments for anxiety disorders [2], but research shows that large numbers of adults suffering from an anxiety disorder intentionally refrain from seeking professional treatment, saying that they prefer to manage their symptoms themselves. [3]

A need for information about self-help techniques to cope with anxiety thus exists. These techniques can help people with diagnosible anxiety disorders who have decided they would prefer to self-manage their conditions, as well as those in treatment who are looking for complementary techniques, and people who are struggling with normal anxiety that does not warrant a diagnosis but nonetheless has a detrimental impact on their lives. 

What relaxation techniques and other self-help techniques for anxiety are actually actually effective — as backed by science?

Progressive Relaxation To Ease Anxiety

Many anxious individuals will notice that their muscles become tense and painful as the result of their anxiety. Can relaxing your muscles have a similar effect on your mental state? For many people, the answer is "yes". 

Progressive relaxation, also referred to as progressive muscle relaxation, is a rather simple technique that has nonetheless been shown to have great potential. It is easy to learn and easy to practice. During progressive relaxation, you mentally concentrate on one muscle group at a time, first tensing and then relaxing it. You start at the feet and work up to the head, or the other way around, depending on your personal preference. Many people with anxiety find the routine comforting, and find that practicing progressive relaxation has a significant positive effect on their symptoms. [4]

Applied Relaxation (AR) As A Means Of Coping With Anxiety

Applied relaxation can be seen as an "advanced" form of progressive relaxation, wherein the anxiety sufferer skips the step of tensing the muscles — often easier to do than relaxing them, for beginners — and instead relaxes them straight away. Applied relaxation has been promoted since the 1970s, has been widely studied, and has been shown to be effective at reducing anxiety symptoms, particularly in people suffering from generalized anxiety disorder. [5]

With practice, applied relaxation can be used anywhere and at any time. Once you are trained to recognize the physical symptoms of anxiety, you will be able to take a deep breath, engage in affirmative thinking ("relax"), and use applied relaxation to accomplish it. When you encounter a situation that triggers your anxiety, you can engage in applied relaxation until your symptoms improve. AR can likewise be used in combination with exposure therapy, where the person uses AR techniques while exposed to a situation that frightens them until the fear passes. [6]

Breathing Exercises As An Anti-Anxiety Technique

Breathing exercises, such as deep abdominal breathing during which you inhale through the nose, hold your breath for three seconds, and then slowly exhale through the mouth, are often recommended by therapists. Research shows that people who practice controlled breathing reduce their levels of the stress hormone cortisol significantly after just four weeks [7], and that yogic breathing has the ability to reduce inflammatory markers — which are associated with anxiety [8]. 

Autogenic Training: A Technique That Builds On AR And Progressive Relaxation

Autogentic training is yet another technique that is related to progressive relaxation and applied relaxation. It combines focus on specific parts of the body with breathing exercises and affirmations such as "my right arm is heavy" and "I am completely calm". Over time, people practicing autogenic training learn to control their heart rate, the experience of feelings of warmth in their muscles, and reduce anxiety or improve their moods. [9]

Does Meditation Reduce Anxiety?

Meditative techniques have one particular advantage for those people suffering from anxiety who are not (yet) ready to seek help from a psychologist — they are taught by people who are not mental health professionals, in an environment you may perceive to be less threatening.

Meditation — a process that involves acceptance, focusing on particular objects or thoughts, and comfortable physical positions — has the potential to reduce trait anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder, research indicates. It is not yet clear if people with other anxiety disorders benefit from meditation [10], but that should certainly not prevent you from trying, especially in combination with other relaxation techniques for anxiety. 

Mindfulness meditation, a process of focusing fully on the here and now, is one specific meditative technique that may benefit people with anxiety [11]. Yoga, which could likewise be considered a form of meditation, has been shown to reduce anxiety as well [12]. 

Other Physical Techniques That May Reduce Anxiety

Relaxation techniques may help specific individuals with anxiety disorders achieve significant reductions in their symptoms, but activities aimed specifically at helping you relax are not the only physical self-help techniques you can benefit from.

In addition to exploring relaxation techniques, you may also wish to look into:

  • Regular exercise. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise has a strong positive effect on the moods of people suffering from mild to moderate anxiety. Because physical activity is such a promising self-help tool for anxiety, we would encourage any person suffering from anxiety to make sure that they work out regularly in an environment they feel comfortable with. 
  • Dance and movement therapy helps establish a mind-body connection, much like meditation and relaxation techniques. Dance therapy done in a group can likewise reduce feelings of isolation. 
  • Massage therapy will certainly reduce muscle tension you may have developed as a result of your anxiety. It is not yet clear whether it can help people with anxiety disorders, but there is evidence that it can reduce anxiety as the result of post traumatic stress disorder. [10]

How To Cope With Panic Attacks?

People who suffer from panic attacks, intense episodes of anxiety during which they often experience chest pains, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, choking sensations, trembling, sweating and frequently even believe they are about to die, may be suffering from panic disorder. Short-acting benzodiazepines are often enough to relieve the acute problem. Cognitive behavioral therapy is also frequently suggested as a treatment. [13

If you suffer from panic attacks, you can certainly find solace in applied relaxation, progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic training and breathing exercises. In addition, you will want to try realistic self talk, in which you assess the situation logically and seek to let go of the panic response your body has accustomed to by constantly reminding yourself that the threat your body is perceiving is not, in reality, that severe. Positive thoughts have been shown to have the power to reduce acute anxiety. [14]

You can also try a form of "exposure therapy" as a self-help technique, by beginning to accustom yourself to situations you currently find frightening and that sometimes induce anxiety attacks. Every time you repeat the situation, it should become slightly less anxiety-inducing. [15]

In Conclusion

Progressive relaxation, applied relaxation, breathing exercises, autogenic training, and meditation share many similarities — all aim to reduce anxiety by helping you exert a greater amount of control over your physical body. This is, in turn, hypothesized to calm the mind. People who are looking to reduce their anxiety through physical self-help techniques should note that these techniques all build on one another. Rather than picking one, they should be aware that these techniques are frequently used in combination. 

Many of these techniques are taught by psychologists and other mental health professionals, and though you can use them as self-help techniques once you have mastered these relaxation techniques, you will first have to learn them. Should you not yet be ready to seek professional help or you are suffering from situational stress rather than a diagnosible anxiety disorder, meditative techniques and exercise might be your coping mechanisms of choice. 

The benefits of physical exercise are so profound that every person suffering from anxiety, whether they are taking antidepressants, learning about relaxation techniques, are receiving psychotherapy, or have not yet sought any outside help for their anxiety, should strongly consider exercising regularly. 

  • Infographic by SteadyHealth.com
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth.com

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