How to manage anxiety and stress

It’s totally normal to feel anxious from time to time, but there are lots of things you can do to feel a bit better. Remember: there’s a difference between feeling stressed every now and then and experiencing ongoing anxiety. If the anxiety is starting to take a toll and you're looking for ways to deal with it, consider talking to a mental health professional.  In the meantime, keep reading to learn how to deal with anxiety and stress.

Quick tips for managing stress and anxiety

These techniques can be really helpful if you experience anxiety every now and then or feel unexpectedly anxious.

Practise breathing techniques for anxiety

The physical symptoms of anxiety can be triggered by hyperventilation. This is when your breathing quickens and your body takes in too much oxygen, reducing the carbon dioxide in your blood. You need a certain amount of carbon dioxide in your body to regulate your reaction to anxiety and panic.

Try doing one of these breathing techniques for anxiety to help calm you down and slow your heart rate whenever you feel anxious:

  • The 4–7–8 technique: Breathe in for four seconds. Hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale for eight seconds.

  • Long exhale: Spend a bit longer exhaling than you do inhaling. Exhale fully, and then take a big, deep breath for four seconds. Then exhale for six seconds.

  • Find more breathing techniques for anxiety and stress here.

Practise muscle relaxation techniques

Also called a ‘body scan’, this technique helps you to focus on yourself and release tension you’re holding in your body.

  • Breathe in and tense the muscles in your face, squeezing your eyes shut. 

  • Clench your jaw and keep your face tensed for five seconds. 

  • Gradually relax your muscles over the time it takes to count to ten, then take a deep breath. You can say ‘relax’ as you relax. 

  • Next, move on to your neck and shoulders, and gradually move down your body. Be careful with any injuries or pain that you have.

Get more info on how to practise progressive muscle relaxation here.

Managing stress by focusing on the present

Have you ever noticed that feeling stressed or anxious often coincides with dwelling on the past or worrying about the future? Focusing your mind on the present moment can help you feel a little more relaxed.  Learn how to practise mindfulness techniques to help bring you back into the present moment.

Reduce stress and anxiety by taking breaks

Some small but meaningful ways to reduce stress through breaks can include:

  • Scheduling regular time for just you every day of the week. 

  • Excusing yourself for five to ten minutes when and where needed.

  • Relocating yourself into a space to help clear your mind.

  • Putting aside what you’re doing to take a walk around.

  • Trying some breathing exercises.

  • Going outside to get some exercise and fresh air.

  • Doing some light stretches to help you relax.

Check out this article for more helpful ways to relieve stress and anxiety through down-time.

Talk to someone you trust about how you're feeling

Just talking to someone about how you’re feeling can take a weight off your shoulders. Make sure you trust the person, work out what you want to say to them, and then just go for it. If you’re finding it tricky, we’ve got four more steps for talking to someone you trust here.

If you want to talk to someone anonymously, check out the ReachOut Online Community or book a free, text-based chat with a peer worker using ReachOut PeerChat.

Long-term strategies for dealing with anxiety

If you experience anxiety more frequently, or have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, quick coping methods can still help when you’re in a bind but they shouldn’t be the only thing you use. It’s important to find treatment that works for you to manage your day-to-day life. It can be helpful to have a chat to your doctor or mental health professional to figure out a plan.

Keep a ‘thought diary’ and challenge any negative thinking

Writing down what you’re worrying about can help you to clear your head and reduce stress and anxiety. You could keep a journal or have a notes file in your phone, and write down your thoughts whenever you’re feeling anxious. It’s almost like you’re transferring them out of your head and into your journal.

Doing this can also help you to see what you’re thinking about more clearly and to challenge negative thinking. If you’re having trouble challenging your thinking, you could try asking someone you trust (such as a friend, family member or mentor) or a therapist to help you out.

Identify your triggers for anxiety

You can identify your triggers with a psychologist or on your own. Recognising what causes your anxiety can help you to understand what’s going on and learn how to manage your anxiety better.

Some common triggers are:

  • alcohol, caffeine or drugs

  • a stressful work, home or school environment

  • driving or travelling

  • withdrawal or side-effects from certain medications

  • phobias

  • health issues or concerns

  • erratic eating patterns – if you skip a meal, your blood sugar may drop, which can lead to feeling jittery and anxious.

Knowing your triggers for anxiety doesn’t mean you should avoid them. Some ongoing stressors, such as your job, need more time to break down – is there a work deadline or a specific person or project that’s triggering your anxiety? Some potential triggers, such as a stressful home environment, are difficult to manage. In these situations, using other strategies can help you to become more resilient and better able to cope with your anxiety.

Avoid drugs, alcohol and stimulants to reduce anxiety

Stimulants are chemicals that ‘excite’ your nervous system, making it work faster and harder. Using stimulants can worsen your symptoms of anxiety. Cutting these out is an important and beneficial step in how to manage anxiety. Some of the most common stimulants are:

  • caffeine, which is found in coffee and tea

  • nicotine, which is found in tobacco products such as cigarettes, chews and vape pens

  • drugs such as cocaine.

It’s ideal to avoid alcohol and drugs in general when you’re experiencing anxiety. If you’re using substances to feel better or to relax, you might become dependent on them and they could make you feel worse in the long run.

Make relaxation and self-care part of your routine

A fully packed schedule would make a lot of people feel stressed. Make sure you take time out each day for at least one thing you enjoy doing – whether it’s spending time on a hobby, watching a Netflix episode, or chatting with a friend. It can also help if you schedule the activity into your day, so that you don’t feel guilty about not doing something else. Read our guide to relaxation for more ideas.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ to things when you need to.

Move more, eat well, sleeeeep

It’s pretty well-known that exercise lowers stress, reduces anxiety and improves mood. And the good news is: you don’t need to run a marathon to get the benefits. It takes just 30 minutes of exercise a day to make a difference. We’ve got some tips on how to exercise when you're not motivated.

Diet and sleep are also really important for your wellbeing. A healthy diet will make you feel healthier and stronger and better able to handle stress, while enough sleep positively affects your mood and stress levels.

Reduce anxiety by face your fears

If you always avoid situations that make you anxious, this might be stopping you from doing things you want or need to do. It sounds weird, but facing the things that make you anxious can reduce your anxiety.

Begin with small steps – think of them as ‘acts of bravery’ – to test whether the situation is as bad as you expected and to learn to manage your fears. It’s best to do this with the help of a professional (such as a counsellor or psychologist), though, so that it doesn’t get too full-on for you. Get more information about treatments for anxiety here.

What can I do now?

  • Gain more insight into how to reduce stress by understanding how it physically affects the body

  • Do you want to chat with a peer worker to gain support in dealing with anxiety?Book a free, text-based session with ReachOut PeerChat here.