These fun and effective ideas will help when anxiety is getting the best of you.
I don’t know about you, but even in normal, not particularly chaotic times, I know when I’m stressed—my shoulders tense up and fuse with my ears, my digestion gets wonky, and according to my boyfriend and kids, I become especially delightful to be around. Stress looks different for different people, but it’s usually some version of your brain and body crankily pushing back against all you’re trying to manage.
The question is, what can we do to relieve stress, especially if we’re stuck inside? Because not to stress you out further, but both chronic and acute stress can have negative impacts on our health, and can lead us to engage in less-than-wise escapist habits.
“When we think about the body on stress, it’s really fuel for the fight-or-flight response,” says Debra Kissen, Ph.D., the co-chair of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s education committee and co-author of Rewire Your Anxious Brain For Teens. This is helpful when we have to get in gear to, say, lift a car off a small child or flee an ax-wielding horror movie villain. “It’s just that when our brain continues to feel that we’re in danger when we’re not, that stress starts to create all kinds of physical and emotional problems.” Add anxiety—dread and worry about what may happen next—and that doesn’t help our stress levels.
But which stress-relief activity will depend on what you’re experiencing it at that moment, says Kissen. Are you climbing out of your skin, or is your mind racing? Do you have physical pain, or are feeling overwhelmed? “Having a toolbox of different techniques ready to go when you realize you’re stressed is really important,” she says.
That’s why we asked the experts for their best stress-relieving activities that you can have at the ready, even if you can’t get outside.
1 Do a quick exercise
2 Do something tactile
Getting out of your head and into your senses (in this case, your sense of touch) can bring you back to the here and now, says Kissen. Whether that’s popping bubble wrap, sorting your change jar to cash in at the bank, or making homemade slime with the littles, it brings you back into your body. Or you can try this quickie exercise. “Ask yourself: What’s one thing I can smell, one thing I can taste, one thing I can touch, etc.,” says Kissen. “Activating all the senses is a good grounded technique.”
3 Give yourself a massage
4 Point your brain at a problem
If the stress is more mental than physical and you feel your mind looping around itself, give yourself a discrete task, such as organizing your shoes or doing a word puzzle. “When you’re stressed, your brain may be saying, ‘we’ve got a problem to solve’ so it keeps spinning. That’s a good time to engage your mind,” says Kissen. If you give it a task to focus on, you’ll feel calmer and be better able to deal with what’s actually stressing you out.
5 Dance like no one is watching
6 Take a bath
Run a bath and sink on in. “By changing the body temperature, it’s the full sensory slowing down—it’s kind of like rebooting a computer that has all these windows open doing too much processing,” says Kissen. “By turning it off and starting again, it’ll help to get unstuck.” If you like, add in some other calming sensory stimulators, like fragrant soap or some chill music.
7 Try knitting
Assuming you like crafting (Kissen emphasizes some people are overwhelmed by the mere thought!), there’s evidence that the repetitive action of clicking your needles can be meditative and calming. There’s also been research that looked at women with anxiety who also had eating disorders that found knitting made most of them less preoccupied and anxious. If you’re a newbie, check out these DIY tutorial videos from We Are Knitters, which also makes easy beginner kits.
8 Go ahead and stress bake!
Baking checks so many stress-reduction boxes: It can be a sensory experience (smushing the dough, the smell of baked yummies and of course the taste); it is a project that requires planning, concentration, and mindfulness, which activates your brain; and if you enjoy it, it’s fun. Kate Merker, Good Housekeeping’s Chief Food Director, loves this amazing blueberry sweet roll recipe, but if you’ve had enough sugar, move on to a healthy pizza recipe. “It feels comforting and you can literally put anything on top of pizza dough,” she says. “My kids help shape the dough, which is just fun, and they get a kick out of me twirling it in the air.” And if you’re stressed by the fact that no eats the same thing in your house? “Everyone can pick and choose their own topping,” Merker adds.
9 Stretch yourself
10 Meditate—or even just consciously breathe
11 Have sex
12 Go on a cleaning binge
Giving the inside of your pantry a good wipe-down or really getting into the sofa cushions with a vacuum attachment has multiple stress reducing benefits on top of fewer visits from icky vermin: it’s a project that requires a little planning, but some physical activity—both of which Kissen says can reduce stress—and is likely to result in a sense of achievement that lifts your mood. And working mindfully at it can reduce stress even more: one study found that folks who were told to stay gently focused on what they were doing while washing dishes boosted their effect (although being mindful while you do most any activity may show similar benefits.)
13 Do progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)
Years of research have found PMR helps reduce anxiety and calm breathing. Lie down and relax, and then tighten, hold and then release each muscle in your body, one at a time, starting with your toes and moving up to the crown of your head. Do this slowly and methodically, and don’t forget the muscles of your face. It may be more relaxing to listen to someone else walk you through the exercise. Visit this link to find audio, video, and scripts that you can record and then playback to yourself.
You don’t have to have any skill at art to just let your pen have its way with the page, or even easier, pick up an adult coloring book. “Anything that can get you out of your head, if you enjoy it, can be a stress reliever,” says Kissen. If you’re not focused on how good the drawing is, then the stakes are blissfully low.
15 Get lost in a story
It may be hard for some people to dig into a good book when they’re feeling stressed, but binging on a super-absorbing podcast or TV series that transports you out of your life is a positive distraction. “Whether it’s a podcast or a really dumb series, mindfully attending to a target is a great anchor,” says Kissen. In other words, the point isn’t simply to distract yourself, but to make an active choice to place your attention elsewhere, she says. The mind, says Kissen, thinks, “If only I keep thinking and thinking I’ll solve the problem and get out of it,” and choosing to anchor it elsewhere can stop this stress response.