In this emotional equivalent to an ultramarathon, it’s key to have some stress-reducing strategies available that work quickly and efficiently to help you hit the reset button.
Here’s why: Struggling with chronic worry gets in the way of effectively managing your emotions. Unfortunately, many people who experience distress try to escape their unpleasant emotions by distracting themselves in ways that ultimately backfire.
If you suspect you might be one of them, ask yourself whether you have a tendency to judge your emotions — it’s a common thing to do. But it can fuel a vicious loop of feeling, then avoiding the feelings and feeling even worse. Pushing away feelings is like trying to force a beach ball underwater: They will pop back up. Instead, notice and normalize difficult emotions; ideally, negative feelings, including fear, can motivate us to solve problems.
So rather than dealing with anxiety and uncertainty by getting lost worrying, then chasing short-term fixes with longer-term consequences, like procrastinating, using food or marijuana to cope or relying on benzodiazepines — the anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax — it’s helpful to experiment with quick strategies that will empower you. These strategies are not necessarily a cure, but can help lower the intensity of overwhelming emotions, allowing you to recalibrate to better deal with challenges you face.
My patients often reflect that an additional perk of strategic coping is boosting your sense of mastery — the hope that arises when you stretch yourself and accomplish something difficult, like coping with your anxiety in a productive way.
Try Music Medicine
Focusing on relaxing sounds reduces stress. In research spearheaded by Dr. Veena Graff, an assistant professor in the department of anesthesiology and critical care at the University of Pennsylvania, preoperative patients were assigned either to music medicine — listening to Marconi Union’s “Weightless” — or prescribed a benzodiazepine. Remarkably, serene music proved nearly as effective in easing patients’ jitters as the medication option, with no side effects.
To honor your unique taste, explore different options and create a playlist that you find comforting when you need a break. Keep in mind that although it can seem cathartic to hear songs that validate your emotions (for example, listening to lyrics about heartache while feeling lonely), research on inducing varying mood states concludes that we can improve our experience with a more uplifting soundtrack. “Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears — it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear,” as Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote in “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.”
Marsha Linehan, a professor emeritus in psychology at the University of Washington, popularized an exercise in dialectical behavior therapy to regulate intense emotions that involve immediately lowering your body temperature by creating a mini plunge pool for your face. This sounds odd, but it activates your body’s dive response, a reflex that happens when you cool your nostrils while holding your breath, dampening your physiological and emotional intensity.
To do it, fill a large bowl with ice water, set a timer for 15 to 30 seconds, take a deep breath and hold your breath while dipping your face into the water. While this isn’t conventionally relaxing, it will slow your heart rate, allowing blood to flow more easily to your brain. I love watching my clients try this over our telehealth calls and seeing firsthand how quickly this shifts their perspective. Just being willing to do this, I tell my clients as they prepare to submerge, is a way to practice being flexible.
Pace Your Breathing
One of my favorite ideas that never fails to fill me with gratitude, no matter what else is happening, comes from the mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, who likes to say, “As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you.” In “The Healing Power of the Breath,” Drs. Richard Brown and Patricia Gerbarg offer a range of exercises to promote resilience. One of my favorites: Slow your breathing down to six breaths a minute by consciously inhaling and exhaling (to practice this timing, you can use a secondhand and inhale for five seconds, exhale for five seconds, and repeat four times, or try a guided recording). Paced breathing offers a host of physiological benefits, like reducing your blood pressure, which helps promote a sense of tranquillity. When people tell me it feels challenging to breathe in a certain way when they feel panicked, I tell them to start with alternative soothing activities, like music, and work their way up to paced breathing.
Another way to stay present rather than spin into a crisis is to notice if you are engaged in thinking that isn’t helping you. Our interpretations of events supercharge the intensity of our emotions. After all, anticipating, “This will go on for years!” in a moment of anguish will only inspire more hopelessness. But mindfulness, or learning to see more clearly as opposed to jumping to conclusions, is a nice remedy for anxiety. One brief way to enter the moment is known as “anchoring,” a popular strategy.
Start by physically centering yourself by digging your heels into the floor — this evokes a feeling of being grounded in reality. Then take a moment to observe: What am I thinking? Feeling in my body? Doing? Then ask yourself: Is my response: A) Helpful? B) Aligned with my values now? Or C) Related to future worries or a past problem? While we can get stuck in specific thoughts, stepping back to more generally decide if those thoughts are helpful can get us out of rumination mode. It may also help to tape a list of these prompts on your computer to remember to take a step back and refocus when your thoughts are only making things worse.
If you struggle with physical sensations of anxiety, like muscle tension and feeling like you can’t get enough air, a counterintuitive yet important way to manage is to practice bringing on those sensations in more quiet moments to improve how you tolerate stressful ones.
Learning to repeatedly welcome physical symptoms allows you to stop seeing them as catastrophic. In a recent therapy group, I led on Zoom, my clients prepared to try this by ordering thin coffee straws. I set my timer for a minute as they pinched their noses and tried to breathe only through the straw.
We also worked on replicating the other sensations they associated with fear, like muscle tension, dizziness and shortness of breath. We held a plank, spun in circles and ran in place. Some people were surprised that the practice experience was worse than the anxiety they normally felt. Others found it was similar, which felt liberating — they didn’t have to wait for the feelings to catch them off guard — and instead could purposefully habituate themselves to them.
Recently, at the end of a long day of video calls with patients, my 5-year-old daughter asked, “When will the germs go away?” After removing my 3-year-old’s sneaker from my 1-year-old’s mouth, I saw a request from a client about an urgent check-in. I practiced paced breathing and pulled up our nightly dance party playlist (by request: Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”) before discussing my daughter’s feelings and returning to work.
Now I hope you create your own plan with the strategies above. By practicing managing your emotions, you’ll experience a sense of freedom in your life. I don’t know about you, but I’d chase that over any mindless short-term alternative.
Jenny Taitz is an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles