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5 life hacks for relieving anxiety

These are anxiety-filled times, but there are fast and effective ways to help yourself cope.

This is part of CNET's #adulting series of stories to help you figure out how to live, work and play now that you're all grown up. 

Here's a partial list of what's causing me anxiety right now:

  • The current political climate
  • Nutjobs with guns and bombs
  • Impending environmental catastrophe
  • Starting a new business
  • A water leak in my basement
  • The printer won't print -- again
  • Will the new "Star Trek" TV show be any good?

In other words, I have a pretty broad range of things to worry about, same as everyone. The thing is, all this stuff seems particularly overwhelming right now, like I'm surrounded by headaches upon headaches, awful news upon awful news, and then I had a bad night of sleep so I'm super-tired, and that leads to unhealthy eating, which just adds to existing worries about my weight and, hang on, is that burning in my chest acid reflux or something more serious, and all of a sudden, AHHHHHH!

Whoa. Someone needs to calm down. And I'm not the only one: According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, "anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting some 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18 percent of the population."

But, wait -- adults are supposed to have coping skills, right? You grow up, you learn how to stay calm in the face of life's challenges. Except when the challenges pile up, and seem both insurmountable and frightening, that's when our "adult" coping skills can falter.

Fortunately, there are ways to calm down. What follows is a mix of things I've learned myself and tips from professionals.

Stop, drop and breathe

If you're seriously stressed right this minute, to the point where you feel actual panic (or something close to it), focused breathing can help. "When we experience anxiety or stress our body interprets it as though we are in physical danger. When we breathe deeply, we are able to counteract the natural physical stress response and help our body and brain to realize there is no physical danger and we can relax." That's according to clinical psychologist Angela K. Kenzslowe, who offers a simple remedy: Take 2 or 3 deep breaths (from your diaphragm, not your chest) for a very slow count to four. (That's four seconds on the in-breath, four more on the out-breath.)

For a little more help, try an app like Breathe2Relax (Android|iOS), which provides guided breathing exercises based on your level of stress. The interface is a little clunky, but you get lots of information and how-to help along with the exercises. It's a free app.  

Get away from your screens

Every day, most of us face an onslaught of mostly unhappy news. It comes from our TVs, laptops, phones and tablets, delivered relentlessly via countless apps, news sites and social-media outlets. And as you bop back and forth between devices, it's very easy to get caught up in a tornado of negativity. Negativity leads to anxiety. 

The solution: unplug. "Taking a break from technology is a great way to give your brain some much needed down-time, allowing creativity to flow in," says Dr. Chinwe Williams, an associate professor in the College of Counseling Psychology and Social Sciences at Argosy University. "Intentional disengagement with your smartphone may [also] lead to intentional and meaningful engagement with others."

Go for a walk

One great way to disengage from screens and, consequently, calm your mind is to go for a hike. Studies have shown that even a 10-minute walk can release endorphins that improve your mood. And as noted in "10 Surprising Benefits Of: A 10 Minute Walk," walking increases mindfulness (see below): "Walking helps clear the mind. It also helps to increase our awareness. When we step outside, we activate all of our senses." And those senses help combat the things that were making us anxious.

"Engage in [any] movement you enjoy," adds postpartum specialist Thai-An Truong. "Walk the dog, dance, work on your garden, go for a hike, get outside and connect with nature."

Meditate

stop-breathe-think-for-ios

Meditation apps can help tremendously in your quest for calm.

Stop, Breathe & Think PBC

This is the big one -- arguably the single best way to not only calm yourself down in a moment of anxiety, but also reduce your overall stress level. That's the consensus of the couple dozen psychologists who responded to my inquiries for this story.

For example, Ginnifer Morley, a licensed psychotherapist in Boulder, Colorado, says meditation "allows the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system to rest, which is what is overreacting when we have high anxiety or panic attacks." She recommends guided meditation, noting that a calm and focused outside voice is the key to relaxing a brain that's "all over the place." Her pick: Stop, Breathe & Think, which is available for both Android and iOS and as a web app.

There are countless other apps designed to help you learn mindfulness meditation, including 10% Happier, Calm, Headspace and -- my personal favorite -- Buddhify.

Skeptical about whether meditation really works? One of my favorite podcasts, Science Vs., recently tackled the subject, and with interesting results: Although science doesn't really have much concrete evidence to support the many benefits promised by meditation, practitioners far and wide -- including a lot of the scientists who conducted the studies -- swear by it.

Practice aversion therapy

OK, you're calm now, but what about next time? David Brudö and Niels Eék, co-founders of mental wellbeing app Remente, suggest training yourself so there won't be a next time. They recommend this simple aversion-therapy trick: "Place a rubber band on your wrist, and every time that you start feeling stressed, lightly snap it. The idea is that your brain will subconsciously start avoiding the stimulus (in this case, stress) to prevent the unpleasant snapping of the rubber band."

Have found any other ways to calm down when life gets crazy? Share your tips in the comments!