Exercises for Anxiety Relief
Following are three, easy-to-apply exercises to help you become more grounded when you are overwhelmed in a moment of anxiety. These three are simple ways for us to connect more with the ordinary earthiness of our experience, where it’s easier to relax and ease the grip anxiety. With practice, these exercises can give us tools that help us cut through anxiety before it builds up to levels where it causes problems in our life.
Exercise # 1: The Distress Tolerance skill of STOP, adapted from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (Marsha Linehan, 1993).
S – Stop! When intense feelings of anxiety arise and you begin to feel overwhelmed, just STOP! Do not react. Stop in your tracks. Don’t do anything at all with your body or say anything with your speech.
T – Take a step back. Remove yourself from the situation you are in. Walk away from the person, the event or the situation that you find yourself in. Step away and take five deep and long belly breaths.
O – Observe. Observe, notice, pay attention and grow curious as to what is going on around you both on the outside and inside. Notice with your five senses all the things that you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. And notice what thoughts are showing up in this moment and what is showing up in your physical body. Perhaps you might notice shallow breathing, a tight chest, knots in your stomach, hands and jaw clenched.
P – Proceed Mindfully. After you have stopped, taken a step back and observed both inside and outside of your body, then you can proceed mindfully. Act with awareness. Ask yourself “Even in this moment of anxiety, which action can I take that will help me move in the direction of ease and peace of mind”?
Exercise # 2: Grounding in the Five Senses
This exercise can help you get you right back into the here-and-now by re-grounding yourself in your five senses. This technique helps us take our focus off of the overwhelm of anxiety and to focus in our surrounding environment instead. In essence, it allows us to “get out of our minds and into our life” (Steve Hayes, 2005). Here are the five steps:
5 – Name five things you can see in the room or environment around you. Maybe it is your desk chair, your clock, your TV or a spot on the ceiling. No matter how big or small, simply name five things that you can see. There is no right or wrong ways to notice what you see.
4 – Name four things you can feel against your body or touch around you. Maybe it is the feeling of your hands against your desk chair. Maybe it’s the feeling of your sweater against your shoulder blades.
3 – Name three things you can hear right now. Make sure you focus on something external that you can hear such as the sound of raindrops, an airplane flying above or the sound of birds chirping.
2 – Name two things you can smell right now. Perhaps you can smell the faint smell of your perfume or cologne; perhaps you can smell the soap you use in the shower, a candle burning or perhaps even the smell of nature.
1 – Name one thing you can taste. What does the inside of your mouth taste like? Perhaps it tastes like the coffee or tea that you just took a sip of, gum or the sandwich from lunch. If there’s no taste in your mouth, just notice the lack of taste and then let it go.
Once you’ve connected with the five senses, just relax for a few moments, and then move forward with your day.
Exercise # 3: A Practice of Self-Compassion
Within your own heart is a source of healing energy – if we can allow ourselves to open to it. The following is a loving kindness meditation that can help us tune into and cultivate our natural sense of caring love. Begin by choosing a spot to sit in that is both comfortable yet dignified, either in a chair or on the ground.
Allow your eyes to gently close, or softly focus your gaze on an object in front of you. Place your palms either face up or face down on your lap and gently roll your shoulders back so that your back is straight up. Feel strong and relaxed with the ground or cushion beneath you. Hold your head upright, as if there is an invisible string gently pulling at the top of your head.
Then, when you’re ready, breathe from your belly, in through your nose and out through your mouth. After five rounds of deep belly breaths, begin to introduce the following statements to yourself, silently or out loud, whichever feels best. “May I be safe”, “May I be happy”, “May I be healthy”, “May I live with ease”. You can say one at a time over and over again, or you can say all four in a row, as many times as you wish.
As you repeat the phrases, just relax and allow yourself to feel what you feel. If you don’t feel of a direct result in the moment, it’s ok, and just let yourself to connect whatever is there. In that way, you are cultivating loving kindness towards your experience, just as it is.
These three practices are each quite simple, and easy to apply. It can be helpful to write them down or put them in your phone, so that when anxiety arises, you’ll have them at the ready. It’s also helpful to work with them one at a time, using the same one several times to get somewhat familiar with it, before trying the next one. Then once you are confident in all three, you’ll know which one to try in a given situation.