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7 Ideas for Managing Stress and Anxiety

Effective ways to manage your response to these challenging times.

Key points

  • 62% of Americans feel more anxious than in the previous year, which is double that of similar polls during the last three years.
  • Slow, controlled breathing, meditation, scheduled worry time, and exercise can help manage stress and anxiety.
  • Positive self-talk, activities that promote the flow state, and social engagement are effective stress management tools.

There is no end to suggestions published in print or online for managing or reducing stresses and the anxiety that may come with them, especially with Covid, political, climate, and money issues that affect so many. A poll in 2020 showed that 62% of Americans feel more anxious than they did at that time in the previous year, marking a substantial increase of about double that of similar polls in the previous three years, in which the number ranged from 32% to 39%.

Below is a summary of suggestions for managing stress and anxiety. (This is not medical advice, and it comes with no guarantees. For anxiety, sleep problems, depression, and other responses to stress, it would be good to see a primary care doctor to rule out any medical factors and see a licensed mental health professional if such problems are more prominent.)

Slow, controlled breathing. It can help quiet the nervous system. This is a method with a neuroscience background. During a slowed-down exhalation, the neural network that helps to rest and digest—the parasympathetic system, which includes nerve fibers in the vagus nerve—tends to oppose and reduce the emergency responses of fight, flight, or freeze controlled by the sympathetic nervous system and transmitted by norepinephrine and epinephrine. This calming method has been taught to first responders and military personnel facing threatening situations,

Meditation. Meditating is so popular that it needs no introduction. Combining it with slow, controlled breathing can be even better in some types of yoga. Lowering anxiety, muscle tension, and blood pressure are some of the physical and mental benefits that researchers have reported.

Scheduled worry-time. One recommendation is to use a notebook to write down topics for worrying as they arise, rather than dwelling on them. Then, schedule a time to think about them, say from 5:00 to 5:15, for example, and think of ways to deal with them as much as possible, especially about acting on things you can control.

Positive self-talk. People may think unnecessarily about worst-case scenarios, even catastrophes that are unlikely to happen. Analyzing them rationally and telling yourself about a more constructive response can help. This rethinking or re-framing can be part of the cognitive-behavioral approach to psychotherapy. Sports provide examples of mental resilience even during temporary failures: it has been pointed out that even a home run hero in baseball can strike out most of the times at-bat.

Physical exercise. People who work out or even take brisk walks 2-5 times a week often say they feel calmer, as much as after an anti-anxiety pill. High-intensity interval training, with short effortful exercises separated by rest periods, is another approach, especially for those with less patience.

Flow-promoting activity. It could be controlling a flight simulator, planting garden bulbs, painting a picture, or photographing birds. These activities take concentration and physical engagement, doing things step-by-step outside of work-related, home management, or routine tasks. The "flow-state" promoted by such activities was first described in a 1975 book by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, an engaging writer with a name challenging to pronounce.

Social engagement. Talking or doing things with friends or family can be good buffers against everyday stresses. That’s one reason small communities can be resilient. All the more so when there is an opportunity of volunteering to help others.

To be sure, the crises of Covid, climate change, and political turmoil are real; these suggestions for lifestyle changes are no substitutes for community actions to address viruses, wildfires, hurricanes, or toxic politicians. In the meantime, these are some types of coping skills and activities that can be sources of help.

But wait! There are more. We can add two more approaches to managing stress and the anxiety that may result:

  • Medication if needed. It is typically prescribed by a qualified health care professional, usually an M.D. psychiatrist or primary care provider.
  • Limiting media. Whether news, social media, or emails, you have a right to limit it to what you need to know and when. Some suggest avoiding it first thing in the morning.

More details about these and other methods can be found in The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, a user-friendly handbook by Edmund Bourne on diagnosis and treatment. As he points out, some anxiety is normal, several different types of anxiety disorders can be diagnosed, and anxiety is only one of the possible reactions to stress. We hope the ideas outlined here can be a helpful introduction.