Therapists Reveal the Best Ways to Stay Sane

There’s no denying we could all use a little escape from our day-to-day stress and seemingly endless to-do lists. Anxiety seems to plague our society like never before, affecting approximately 18% of the U.S. adult population (40 million people), according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Part of the reason for this staggering amount of anxiety is the influx of technology and the mental demands and little down time it requires. “Life moves quickly and doesn’t shut down. It can be difficult, and near impossible, for the average person or even techy to keep up with all the changes and advances,” Dr. Vivian Sierra, a marriage and family therapist in Saint Louis, Missouri, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. So to help you find some mental peace when the going gets tough, we asked top experts in the field of psychology to share their best sanity saving solutions.

1. Adopt strategies that will help you cope

A man writes a to-do list

Develop coping mechanisms that will help you persevere through life’s difficult moments. | iStock.com

“Learning about coping styles will help you develop a sense of self-efficacy and rational optimism, which are both essential for dealing with anxiety provoking circumstances,” Dr. Brenner said.

First, consider how you normally cope with certain circumstances. Then, determine which strategies are helping you and which ones may be hindering you. For example, denial can work in the short-term, such as as when someone is waiting for a scary medical diagnosis — you don’t want to spend the whole week thinking worst case scenarios when there’s nothing you can do until you get the information. On the other hand, if you’ve just learned difficult news, actively engaging is the right response, because denial will keep you from dealing with the problem.

“In general, people who use a lot of avoidance do poorly in the long-run,” Dr. Brenner said. “Cultivating adaptive coping approaches, such as active coping, reappraisal, acceptance, and related tools, will serve to lower your anxiety and increase your sense of self-efficacy.”

2. Participate in meaningful activity

young business people and designers working together on a project

Involving yourself in meaningful experiences during your personal time will lead to self-fulfillment. | iStock.com/SolisImages

Finding purposeful activity that makes you feel good about yourself can be a huge relief factor, especially when you’re anxious and distressed. “First, being active and useful is a healthy distraction and occupies one’s mind with structured thinking, rather than obsessive worry and panic fantasies,” Dr. Brenner said. “Second, beyond just being useful, if you find something personally meaningful, it will be more fulfilling and positive on several levels. And you’ll be more likely to meet people with similar values and goals, improving the social components.”

This could be anything that you find meaningful on a personal level, from joining a book club to becoming a member of an activist organization.

3. Spend quality time with friends and family

Three female friends pose for a picture in the kitchen

Don’t be afraid to lean on your friends when you’re feeling anxious or down. | iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

Research shows that knowing you’re supported by those around you not only helps boost resilience, but can also alleviate anxiety. “Social time can provide a health distraction, emotional support, and opportunities for you to vent and problem solve with others,” Dr. Brenner said.

This social time can be really anything that involves communicating with loved ones, from having Sunday dinners with close family, to celebrating your friends’ birthdays, to calling long-distance pals or a significant other via Skype.

“Don’t wait for those around you to make the first move,” Dr. Sierra said. “Reach out to someone when you need a little boost. There may come a time when that person will need your help, too.”

4. Practice mindfulness daily

Woman meditating on the beach

Meditation techniques can help you relax when the stress and anxiety become overwhelming. | iStock.com/kieferpix

Numerous studies support regular mindfulness practice as a means of helping to manage anxiety and mood problems. “Basic mindfulness practice involves cultivating non-judgmental breath awareness, and promotes relaxation and improved ability to regulate difficult emotions by building the internal capacity to buffer strong, sudden feelings,” Dr. Brenner said.

You can even do it on your lunch break, or when you’re waiting in the carpool lane to pick your kids up from school, suggests Dr. Jenn Mann, author of The Relationship Fix. “Turn off the radio, cancel out the sounds of the cars and people outside, and focus on breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth,” she said in a phone interview with The Cheat Sheet. “Repeat these thoughts and breaths for a few minutes, or until you feel your body begin to relax.”

5. Disconnect from social media

Mature woman sitting on a bench and reading a book

Social media could be the cause of a lot of stress. | iStock.com/Moussa81

Limiting access to anxiety-provoking material — for example, the front page of the newspaper or headlines on news websites — can seriously help control your anxiety. “Triggering material can increase and sustain anxiety, making one’s present situation terribly uncomfortable to deal with,” Dr. Brenner said. “People checking the news with unpredictable emotional reactions can kindle stress leading to further distress.”

Know your news limits. Check the news less frequently, and set a schedule to have predictable slots during the day when you get updates. Keep the amount of time spent checking the news between 10 to 15 minutes for each slot, Dr. Brenner suggests, and pay attention to whether it makes you more or less anxious. Adjust accordingly, and know when to turn the television on or off. “It’s very important to stay informed, but it’s also crucial to know when you’ve become overwhelmed,” he said.

6. Practice self-love

beautiful woman doing her makeup

Be kind to yourself. | iStock.com/gpointstudio

During our most difficult, challenging moments in life, we’re often our worst critic, which only flushes us deeper into unhappiness and self-pity. It’s important to work on keeping that internal dialogue positive and non-judgmental. 

“Try to be kind and gentle in the way you talk to yourself,” Dr. Helen Odessky, a clinical psychologist and author of Stop Anxiety From Stopping You said in a phone interview with The Cheat Sheet. “If this does not come naturally, imagine that you’re talking to a very good friend. Talk to yourself the way you would speak to him or her.”

7. Take some time to breathe

A man takes in a deep breath

Breathing through your diaphragm can go hand in hand with your meditation. | iStock.com

Yes, breathe. But don’t do just any kind of breathing, either. What you’ll want to engage in is diaphragmatic breathing. Don’t know what that is? Well, have you ever noticed how a sleeping baby breaths? Their belly rises and falls in a smooth and even rhythm. That’s diaphragmatic breathing.

“First, breathe in through your nose to the count of four, pause, and then exhale to the count of four,” Dr. Sierra said. “Pay close attention to your belly and make sure it’s rising and falling — one count equals one second.” Practicing this type of breathing three times a day can help you relax and get your nerves under control.

8. Establish a consistent exercise routine

A woman excercises in the forest

Make excercise a part of your daily routine, even if it is just going for a walk after work. | iStock.com/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

Exercise has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. It gets your blood flowing, releases feel-good endorphins, and puts all that anxious, jittery energy to good use.

“Having a fitness routine in place, especially during stressful periods of time, is protective against stress and helps bolster resilience,” Dr. Grant Brenner, a Manhattan-based psychiatrist, said in a phone interview with The Cheat Sheet.

It’s important to have a plan in place to preserve routines even when circumstances make it more difficult to do so. For example, if you can’t get to your gym because work is too busy, rather than giving up completely, substitute another form of exercise that isn’t gym dependent, Dr. Brenner suggests. Whether it’s going for a brisk walk or for a run outside, exercise is one of the best ways to blow off steam and reduce stress.

9. Maintain a healthy diet

Healthy breakfast of muesli and berries with yogurt

Pay attention to what you’re putting into your body. | iStock.com/elena_hramowa

If you use food for boosting your mood, which many of us do, be aware of this tendency and plan for it. This may mean completely avoiding emotional eating if you know you can’t limit it, or, if you can, allowing yourself a few additional treats a week.

There are also certain foods that are helpful for anxiety, including those rich in whole grains, protein, and vitamin B — breads and pastas, salmon, fish, turkey, beef, eggs, tofu, lentils, bananas, milk, oats, peanut butter, nuts, and Greek yogurt, for starters. “If anxiety levels are haywire, try to avoid alcohol, caffeine, and artificial sweeteners, which can only enhance those nervous feelings,” Dr. Sierra said.

10. Volunteer to help those in need

A happy young man wearing jeans and a shirt that says "Volunteer"

If you have the time and are passionate about a cause, you should volunteer. | iStock.com

Similarly to finding a purposeful activity, volunteering activates our sense of selflessness, which can turn our focus outward instead of inward. “Having a sense of mission can help a great deal with anxiety because the motivation and goal orientation usually in a team setting helps channel emotions that otherwise might come out as anxiety or negative health behaviors,” Dr. Brenner said. “During times of political strife, many turn to protest as a form of spontaneous volunteerism, with varying levels of organization from seasoned protesters.”

Get involved with organizations that stand for what you believe in, whether that’s female rights, animal rights, or anything else you feel particularly passionate about.

11. Squeeze in some fun time

Colleagues drinking after work

Don’t sit alone at home, instead engage in activities with your friends. | iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

Regularly engaging in enjoyable activities in a sustainable way is a protective agent for anxiety. Schedule pleasurable events at least a few times a month, so you will have something to look forward to. Doing so will create a self-care health routine, given the direct benefits of the activity, and it will create social opportunities. If anxiety or other issues keep you from doing this, you should look into speaking with a professional who can come up with coping mechanisms that’ll help break you out of your shell.

12. Seek professional help

couple with a problem consults a psychologist

When the problems start to become more than you can cope with, reach out to a psychologist for help. | iStock.com/alexsokolov

When in doubt, ask a trusted confidant for advice, and consider speaking with a professional to see if your symptoms are excessive or can be better managed. Many anxiety disorders can be treated without medication, and a lot of simple and easy to institute approaches can help to improve stress management. 

“Some severe anxiety disorders require medical intervention, so you should never be afraid to seek out the help you need,” Dr. Brenner said. These medical professionals are trained to help people cope, find positive outlets, and provide anxiety education.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published March 2, 2017.