Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/26/2022
Panic: That feeling that seems to seize up your brain and body in one big tight knot. If you’ve ever felt the full-body tension of a panic attack or another anxiety response, you probably wished you had some relaxation techniques for anxiety that could make it stop.
For people with anxiety — and everyone else, because we all feel anxious sometimes — learning to shut off anxious feelings is a crucial tool to help preserve your mental health and your physical health. Anxiety actually can go far beyond making us “nervous” — it turns out there are both short-term and long-term physical health risks associated with anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
Whether your stress levels have been going up at work or you’re experiencing panic attacks for the first time, doing relaxation exercises in the moment is a way out of those feelings. Understanding how to use these techniques, then, is your road map to control.
If you’re wondering how to deal with your anxiety on your own, as it’s happening, relaxation techniques might be just what you’re looking for. To understand how these techniques work, we just have to cover a few basics about anxiety and your body.
Anxiety disorder is really just a term for when your anxiety has become so bad that it’s affecting your quality of life. Everyone gets anxious from time to time, but when those symptoms set in and start keeping you from doing the things you want and need to do, you’ve got a problem.
It’s a problem that can be addressed, and one of the ways to address it is with relaxation techniques.
Relaxation techniques are simply exercises that you can use to decrease the intensity of your anxiety. They’re designed to switch your brain and body from your panic response state to your natural relaxation response state. Basically, that means turning off the imminent danger warning light and slowing your breathing, blood pressure and heart rate.
So do these things actually work? Well, unequivocally yes, yes they do.
Back in 2008, a meta-analysis looked at ten years worth of studies about relaxation techniques to root out central themes. They looked at 27 studies from 1997 to 2007, representing hundreds of subjects.
The study concluded that relaxation techniques had shown “significant efficacy” in reducing anxiety.
The study looked at a variety of types of relaxation techniques, and concluded that meditations, applied relaxation and progressive relaxation showed slightly better results compared to other techniques, but that all techniques were effective in various different study populations.
There are countless versions of relaxation techniques out there, and you’ve probably already seen modified versions of the ones below, either in apps, on TV and film or just as suggestions elsewhere on the internet.
They’re all designed to be repeatable, step-based systems to reduce the noise in your head, the panic in your mind and the tension in the rest of your body.
Box breathing is one of the simplest breathing-specific relaxation techniques, and that’s because it’s really easy to memorize and employ. Like a square, this breathing exercise has four parts to it: four seconds of deep breathing in through your nose, then holding the breath for four counts, then breathing out for four seconds, then holding your breath again for four seconds. You follow the pattern of breathing and repeat until you feel your anxiety, panic or tension reduced.
Unlike some other items on this list, box breathing doesn’t need to be done lying down or even in a comfortable position. Experts say that box breathing can be used in a variety of circumstances, does not need to be done when you’re in a calm environment and can be employed before, after or during stressful experiences.
The simplest explanation of guided imagery techniques is that they’re designed to distract you from your current feelings, but that is certainly an oversimplification of this effective tool. The premise of guided imagery is that you’re visualizing a calm space, and shutting out intrusive thoughts in the process.
You’ve probably heard a narrated guided imagery meditation before, in a movie or TV show, but you don’t need a narrator or mental health professional to do it. If you want to go solo, just envision a serene place and ask yourself questions about this place for each of your five senses:
What are you seeing?
What are you hearing?
What are you smelling?
What are you tasting?
What do you feel on your skin?
You’ll do this for as long as necessary for you to achieve the level of calm you need. Repeat the questions, and try to add new details each time, until the place feels very real in your head.
Progressive muscle relaxation takes the idea behind box breathing and applies it to your whole body. It’s one of the best ways to lessen the muscle tension associated with anxiety.
In progressive muscle relaxation, you start at your feet and work to relax muscles and groups of muscles all the way up until you’ve covered your whole body. Starting with your toes, you’ll tense muscles in each section of your body for five seconds before releasing for ten seconds. You’ll then repeat this five-second and 10-second pattern with your lower legs, your hips and buttocks, your stomach, then your chest, then your shoulders and face, before ending with your hands.
Each time you release a muscle group, you’ll want to focus on feeling the tension and stress relax out of your body. Oh, and it helps to take deep, slow breaths throughout the process — this might be a good time for box breathing.
Whether it’s art therapy, belly breathing or just putting on some comfortable clothes, we all have access to a wide array of solo relaxation treatments. The above list just represents a few well-proven options.
Relaxation methods are a great way to deal with anxiety in the moment — if you’re having a panic attack on a plane or just feeling overwhelmed at your desk, these systems for dealing with tension and anxiety are some of the best ways to reduce your symptoms.
If you want to really fight your anxiety though, you shouldn’t go it alone. A healthcare professional is a necessary partner in treatment, because they can help you find the best treatment of anxiety disorders for your individual needs.
Tailored treatment might include medications, therapy, relaxation techniques and even some daily life changes, like cutting back on the caffeine — we can’t tell you for sure. Only a healthcare professional can do that.
Ready to speak to one? We can help. Hers offers online therapy and other mental health resources that can get you the tools you need and a professional support partner you feel comfortable with, all without leaving your home.
When you’re ready to get started, take a couple of deep breaths, visualize yourself successfully treated and then contact someone today.