I’m no doctor, but I do listen to a lot of NPR, so I think it’s safe to say I know a thing or two about science. I tend to run high on the anxiety spectrum, and as a result, do a lot of self-diagnosing of my self-destructive behaviors. While my analysis may or may not be linked to actual medical science, these life hacks sure do come in handy when I feel like I have nowhere else to turn. Here are some anxiety-reducing tricks that work for me, when I actually take my own advice.
1. If you have a thing you do repeatedly that is destructive, swap it out with a thing you can do repeatedly that is either constructive or benign.
Back in the day, it made sense for human beings to be constantly on edge. We were being chased by predators among other environmental concerns. Now, however, we have less to worry about, which doesn’t always mean that we actually worry less. We’re not bad, we’re just drawn that way. Worrying without an outlet can lead to compulsive behaviors. I bite my nails until they bleed, which is a form of “obsessive grooming.” Since it is the behavior -- not the result -- that makes me feel good, I like the satisfaction of biting my nails rather than the result of having ugly-ass nails.
A helpful trick to avoid the negative result is to swap out the negative behavior for something that scratches the same or a similar itch. Generally speaking, what you’re craving when you lean on a compulsive behavior is detailed work with incremental change: nail biting, hand washing, organizing like things in a recognizable pattern, skin picking, hair plucking. Here are some things that are also detailed work with incremental change that are slightly more productive, or at least don’t destroy a perfectly good manicure: knitting, building lego sets, coloring books (they make them for adults, too, exactly for this reason) and simple math. It won’t cure your compulsions full stop, but it can help it feel like a more manageable task.
2. Hold your breath.
This one has appeared on all sorts of internet lists of late, and it absolutely works. When you’re freaking out, can’t sleep, or are otherwise in need of a calming sensation, take a deep breath, then hold it for a couple of seconds before you let it out. It helps the oxygen in your lungs make its way to your bloodstream, which helps it get everywhere else in your body, which calms you the hell down. It also gives you brain a rhythm to follow so you’re not just gasping willy nilly. If you’re not convinced, google 4-7-8 breathing. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight. I like to mix the counts up depending on my mood, but I swear by this technique. Sometimes I use it in scary conversations with important people I want very much to like me, such as celebrities.
3. Snack frequently, and snack well.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve self-diagnosed yourself as hypoglycemic! Meaning that hungry and hangry are absolutely the same thing. If you want to find out if you’re hypoglycemic for real, you have to call your doctor and schedule a sugar test, which sounds like a lot of work to me, and also going to the doctor gives me anxiety, which is exactly what I’m trying to avoid. I’ve decided to treat myself as hypoglycemic no matter what any “doctor” has to say. You can, too! Here’s the shake down: stay away from sugar. Like, keep it under 25 grams a day. A regular can of coke as 39. Not only is sugar bad for the human body overall, for us hypoglycemics (*wink*) it wreaks havoc on ones emotional stability.
Also, snack. Frequently. But not on garbage. The snacking system falls apart if you snack on garbage. Eat things that are good for you, and eat them in little bits throughout the day. I like to have a handful of almonds before I have to do anything stressful, such as driving across town during rush hour or having a conversation with my mom.
4. Stand in the place where you live.
Keeping your body in motion helps your thoughts slow down. Also, sitting kills you. No, seriously, I didn’t make that up. Sitting for 12 hours a day or more increases your risk of diabetes by 90%. Sitting makes your brain stop producing fat burning enzymes. Exercise in general is a great way to get your mind/body continuum in check, but since you can’t always go on a jog when you’re feeling like your thoughts are getting away from you, just stand up and move around for a sec.
Whether you have reason to or not, the physical act of smiling tells your brain it’s party time and aids in the release of all kinds of feel good chemicals. I use this one a lot when I am exercising, but do not want to be exercising at all. Forcing oneself to smile is a great way to get through anything that feels overwhelming, from an inexplicable bout of the heebie jeebies to that time your friend convinced you to go to Soul Cycle. If you make your body smile, your body will take the hint. You’ll be clapping along with Pharell in no time.