Ten surprising ways to combat anxiety

We all get anxious from time to time, but there are things you can do without resorting to medication. Here are 10 quick and easy ways to reduce feelings of anxiety and feel calm.

See also: How to cope with anxiety

See also: Could you have an anxiety disorder?

1. Chew some gum (or munch on celery)
A 2008 study found that people who regularly chewed gum reported lower levels of anxiety, increased alertness, reduced stress and improved multi-tasking ability.

Experts say that chewing lowers cortisol levels and stimulates us mentally, making us better able to cope with stress. And the faster you chew, the calmer you will feel. Researchers in Japan found that rapid chewing cut cortisol levels by 25.8 per cent within 20 minutes; slow chewing resulted in a 14.4 per cent drop.

If you don't like chewing gum, try snacking on celery. The low-calorie vegetable contains calming chemical apigenin (also found in chamomile) which is used in anxiety and insomnia remedies.

2. Slow your breathing
When we're anxious our breathing becomes shallower and faster, which lowers levels of calming carbon dioxide in our blood, increasing stress further. Simply taking 10 slow, deep breaths can be enough to take the edge off your anxiety. Sit up straight and inhale for five seconds, hold for five seconds, then exhale for 10 seconds. This slows the heartbeat and increases production of calming alpha brainwaves.

3. Go for a walk in the countryside
Going for a walk is one of the best ways to calm down. But instead of heading to the shopping centre, take a stroll around the park. A study from Stanford University in the US found that volunteers who walked for 90 minutes in a rural area, as opposed to a city setting, showed decreased activity in the area of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.

Walking in the hills and countryside can also help raise self-esteem and reduce depression, says MIND. The mental health charity commissioned a study from the University of Essex which showed that a 30-minute walk in the countryside can reduce feelings of depression by 70%. Those who walked around a busy shopping centre saw only a 45% reduction.

4. Have a bath (or wash your hands in warm water)
You know that warm water is relaxing, but you don't need to get in the bathtub to benefit. Experts say that immersing your hands in warm water is enough to engage the body's self-soothing mechanism.
Nutritionist and yoga teacher Charlotte Watts told the Daily Mail: 'In the moment of a stressful event, removing yourself to wash your hands can give you both the space and body connection to regain composure.'

If you're at home, try adding a handful of Epsom salts to a warm bath to help beat anxiety and relax before bedtime.

5. Doodle, paint or do a colouring book
When you're anxious, it's easy to get locked into a repetitive cycle of thought. Distracting yourself from your worries will give your mind a much needed rest. Doing something that you enjoy which requires your full attention can help, such as playing a sport or board game - or keep your hands busy and get creative.

Doodling, sewing, even concentrating on an adult colouring book can be enough to take your mind off things for a while. Plus, doing something creative will engage the right side of your brain, which has been shown to help you see things from a different perspective and help problem solving.

6. Exercise
According to researchers at Deakin University, Australia, prolonged periods of sitting are linked to an increased risk of anxiety. If you're too stressed to go to the gym, don't slump in front of the TV. Try cycling on an exercise bike as you watch – or at least get up and walk around during every ad break.

7. Turn nerves to excitement
If you're anxious about an event coming up – such as taking a test or giving a speech, try re-framing how you see the situation. Harvard Business School's Alison Wood Brooks asked volunteers to sing karaoke, do public speaking and perform a maths problem. Before each person did the task, she had them say they were nervous, excited or say nothing at all. The group who said, "I am excited" performed better than the nervous group or the control group.

Brooks commented: "Compared with those who attempt to calm down, individuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement feel more excited and perform better." And all they had to do was say the words, "I am excited."

8. Eat more oily fish
A Mediterranean-style diet – including nuts and seeds, wholegrains, oily fish, fruit and vegetables and olive oil - can help to reduce depression and anxiety. That's the finding of researchers from the University of South Australia. Experts believe the effect may be due to the brain-boosting powers of omega-3 fatty acids. If you do nothing else, eat oily fish several times a week or consider taking an omega-3 fatty acids supplement.

9. Quit smoking
Smokers reach for a cigarette when they feel anxious – and it's true that nicotine has a calming effect on the brain. The problem is that smoking increases anxiety in the first place. If you didn't smoke, you wouldn't need that cigarette to calm you down!

A study from University College London found that smokers are around 70 per cent more likely to suffer depression and anxiety. The good news is that those who successfully quit saw their anxiety levels gradually return to normal.

10. Stroke a cat
It's well known that a hug can help to reduce feelings of anxiety (due to the effects of oxytocin), but not everyone has someone to hug. The good news is that petting a cat or dog can have a calming effect on your mental health. 'Looking after a pet can bring structure to your day, reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness and act as a link to other people,' says Dr Eva Chylarova, head of research at the Mental Health Foundation and Cats Protection.

Not only that, owning a cat can reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes by more than a third according to one US study. Researchers say that having a cat helped to relieve stress and anxiety, which is known to help protect against heart disease by lowering blood pressure and reducing the heart rate.

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