Anxiety is common mental health condition that affects millions of people every day. While many people use anti-anxiety medications to help manage their symptoms, I often hear from people who want to learn more about strategies to cope with anxiety and panic attacks without using medication.
My general recommendation for coping with anxiety is to think of yourself as having a toolbox. You can use many different tools to cope with your symptoms, and medication may be one of those tools. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, medication may have place in your life as you learn how to manage your symptoms in the best way for you as an individual.
However, even if you take a medication for anxiety or panic attacks, you probably still want some other strategies to help you manage your symptoms so that you feel more confident that you can effectively cope when you begin to feel overwhelmed.
Here are 10 non-medical tools and strategies that you can utilize to help build your coping skills around managing your anxiety and panic attacks:
- Deep-breathing Practices
- Deep-breathing is a necessary strategy if you struggle with panic and anxiety. Deep-breathing techniques increase the oxygen flow to your brain and body, and it is the Number 1 way to combat acute panic and anxiety. Practice inhaling deeply through your nose, holding your breath for 5 seconds, and then exhaling through your mouth. Do this at least 10 times to produce a calming effect in your body and mind. Try closing your eyes while you are doing it as well, to increase the focus of your senses on your breathing.
- Another deep-breathing method to try involves closing your right nostril with your thumb while you breathe deeply in through the left nostril. Hold your breath for 5 seconds, then close the left nostril with your forefinger while you release your thumb on the right nostril, and then exhale through the right nostril. You are directing the flow of air throughout your nasal passage in a conscious way. Repeat this 10 times, alternating the open and closed nostril.
- Guided Meditation
- I love using guided meditation apps for sleep, but they are great for panic and anxiety as well. Using an app with your headphones can help you focus on your breath, and listening to a calming voice talk to you in a soothing way will bring your attention back to the present moment. Just go to wherever you usually get your apps from (I just use the app store on my phone) and search for “guided meditation” and look through the options. Many apps have free versions that give you a few tracks, while others cost a few dollars and come with expanded options.
- Yoga is an excellent technique to incorporate into your lifestyle to reduce stress and anxiety. The practice focuses on attention to your breathing as you move through poses that will stretch your muscles, increase your flexibility, and enhance your mind-body connection. Research has shown yoga to be an effective strategy for reducing anxiety and depression.
- Incorporate a hatha-style (gentle) yoga practice into your routine twice a week for 90 minutes for the best results. If that kind of schedule doesn’t work for you, try shorter practices more frequently, such as 15 minutes twice a day. For more tips on building a yoga practice for mental health, check out my post on How to use Yoga for Depression.
- Aromatherapy works by using essential oils to stimulate your olfactory system, which connects scents to your nose and your brain. I have recommended them to my clients frequently as an extra resource to cope with panic and anxiety. You can use essential oils by applying them topically to the skin, in conjunction with a massage, in a diffuser for your entire room, or you can just inhale directly from the bottle.
- The best oils in my experience to use for panic and anxiety are Lavender Oil, Frankincense , and Black Spruce. If you’ve never tried using oils before, you can start by rubbing a drop or two of oil on your wrists, and then bringing your wrists to your nose and inhaling deeply. Just be careful, as some oils that are very strong need to be blended with a carrier oil. The 3 oils mentioned here are fine to use topically on your skin, but if you have very sensitive skin, just mix a drop of oil with a teaspoon of carrier oil like coconut oil or grapeseed oil before applying to your skin.
- Make sure that you use essential oils, and not fragrance oils. Essential oils are derived from plants, whereas fragrance oils are synthetic and laboratory made. Fragrance oils will not have the same effects as essential oils and are not a replacement.
- I have tried different brands of essential oils, but I do prefer to use doTERRA when possible for 3 reasons: product quality, corporate social responsibility, and environmental responsibility. I’ve researched the company and find them to be reputable in those areas, which is important to me.
- Another method of aromatherapy is to diffuse the oil into the air around you. You can use a combination of lavender and frankincense by just adding a few drops of each to a diffuser with water, and then allow the scent to fill the room. Diffusing is probably best as a more preventative method. If you find yourself having acute anxiety, you most likely will find it more effective to apply the oils topically and inhale. Diffusing is great though, for creating on overall calming and relaxing atmosphere in your personal space.
- You can also use oils in your bathtub by just dropping 5 drops in the water. Using oils along with Epson salts will provide a relaxing bath experience. Again, lavender and frankincense are great options here. If you don’t use a bathtub, try dropping a few drops of oil in the bottom of your shower towards the opposite end of where the drain is where not as much water will wash it away so quickly. It will still diffuse a little into the steam of your shower.
- Journaling can be therapeutic as both a preventative strategy and acute anxiety. Any journal or notebook will do, so try doing a quick entry at night before you go to bed to help you get all your stressors off your mind before going to sleep. Or, you can keep a small journal with you throughout the day and start writing when you begin to feel overwhelmed. Many people find writing to be very helpful as a coping skill, so it’s worth trying. You can also try writing down your stressors and fears and then burning them in a fire-pit or outside on a driveway as a symbolic way to rid yourself of those feelings.
- Mindfulness Practices
- Mindfulness is another practice that has support from research demonstrating its effectiveness as a measure to improve psychological wellbeing. Mindfulness practices will not stop a panic attack that is already in progress, but it is a good strategy to promote mental health and resilience by consciously devoting mental energy to developing healthy habits both mentally and physically. To get started with a mindfulness practice, try to devote 30 days to changing your habits by paying extra attention to your nutritional, exercise, and mental health needs and reducing unnecessary distractions that create extra stress such as excessive social media and technology use.
- Walking is great for your heart and your mind. If you feel a panic attack coming on, getting outside to walk is one of the best things you can do right away to help calm yourself down. Walk at a comfortable pace, which may be faster or slower depending on how you feel as an individual and what your body is telling you that you need at that moment. Take deep breaths while you are walking and if you happen to have your essential oils with you, inhale some of the oils while you are walking and breathing deeply. This is one of the most effective combinations to combat an acute panic attack. You can also use one of the guided meditation apps in conjunction with walking, which may also help reduce acute anxiety.
- Sensory Distraction
- This strategy involves using your 5 senses to distract yourself and redirect energy to your body in the present moment. Try stimulating your senses by running cool water over your wrists, inhaling from a bottle of calming essential oils, using a scalp massager to stimulate your ASMR response, visual identification, or other methods. For a full description of how to use sensory distraction to help with panic and anxiety, see my post on the topic here.
- Emotional Support Animals and Pets
- If you have an emotional support animal (ESA) already, then you know how important your animal can be to helping reduce anxiety. Companion animals can have a soothing presence and provide unconditional love. ESAs can be cats, dogs, rabbits, or even snakes. The most important thing is that building a physical connection with your ESA or pet can help you calm down when anxiety is building, and stroking or cuddling your animal can produce feel-good endorphins that combat the negative energy of anxiety. You can check out more about the benefits of animals in this post.
- Art can be an amazing medium to express yourself and cope with overwhelming feelings. If you are artistically inclined and depending on your interests and talents, you may choose to paint, draw, sculpt, write, or play music when you feel overwhelmed to release and re-direct that energy.
- If you (like me) are not so artistically inclined but still love art and want to try using it to help with stress, then Adult Coloring Books are the way to go. There are lots of adult coloring books out there now with many different themes, so pick one and grab a set of colored pencils or pens and try it.
Refocusing Your Mental Energy
What all of these strategies have in common is that they bring your attention from the source of your anxiety and stress back to your own body and mind. They all include a method of directing your energy and attention towards what is happening in the present moment and using that energy towards mental and physical healing.
Anxiety is associated with worrying about the future in some capacity. Many people with anxiety conditions worry about having an unexpected panic attack and they experience stress and fear about whether they will be able to cope with it when it happens. Bringing our attention to the present moment with strategies such as these can help reduce the anxiety that you feel about potential outcomes that may happen in the future. This doesn’t take away our need to think about the future, and it doesn’t change our need to attend to our own needs in the present. But it can help balance those emotions and bring them into proportion.
I think of managing anxiety as a two-part process. You need to have an overall strategy to create a sense of balance and general stress reduction methods to improve your overall quality of life. Then, you also need to have that toolbox full of coping skills that can help you in the acute moments when you begin to feel overwhelmed or panicked. The strategies outlined above can help with both.
If you are regularly incorporating some of these strategies into your life, you will experience an overall reduction in stress and improved sense of balance in your life. However, during moments of panic or overwhelm you want to also have methods such as aromatherapy and sensory distraction to help calm you down when needed.
You may have already practiced some of these strategies before, but if there are some you haven’t tried yet, try to incorporate some new methods into your routine. You may be surprised to find out what works for you, and none of them will do you harm if you practice them mindfully.