You don’t always have to keep calm to carry on.

By Laura Schocker
February 01, 2018
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Maybe your heart begins pounding and your hands go clammy just before a major presentation. Or you’re headed out for a weekend at your always critical in-laws’ and your stomach starts churning as soon as you carry your suitcase out the door. The classic advice: Just relax! Take a deep breath, picture yourself on a beach, chill out. But while you might like to cool off, it’s really freaking annoying to hear “Relax!” when your nerves are shot, your head is spinning, and you couldn’t sleep the night before.

That’s because, experts say, trying to force relaxation is like showing up to a black-tie event in athleisure: There’s little you can do to switch into the right mode.

“The difficulty with telling yourself to relax when you’re feeling anxious is that the bodily symptoms and mental symptoms of relaxation are the opposite of those of stress and anxiety,” says Ian Robertson, PhD, professor emeritus at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin, Ireland, and author of The Stress Test.

When you’re stressed, your breathing and heart rate speed up, your muscles tense, and your mouth feels like sandpaper. And when you’re calm, your breathing and heart rate are slow, your muscles are relaxed, and your mouth feels just fine. No matter how much you may want to calm down, the mental journey from stressed to relaxed takes a lot more time than you probably have before the high-stakes event begins.

So, counterintuitively, relaxing can be really hard work, on top of whatever stressful situation you’re already facing down. With lots of practice—regular deep breathing, relaxation exercises, and the like—you might master it, but in the midst of a pre–public speaking mini breakdown? A few breaths probably won’t cut it. It turns out that experts and research say there might be just as effective—or even better—ways to handle day-to-day stress and anxiety (not to be confused with a full-blown anxiety disorder, which goes far beyond temporary stress; the experts all agree that if anxiety is interfering with your life, work, or family, it’s time to talk to your doctor). The key, as with any healthy habit, is figuring out which tricks work best for you.

1. Get yourself pumped.

Worry and relaxation are diametrically opposed emotions, but there’s one positive feeling that’s much closer to stress: excitement. After all, you can also get a racing heart or sweaty palms when you’re excited. For a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researcher Alison Wood Brooks, PhD, told participants they would have to either perform a song, speak in public, or complete a difficult, timed math problem. In each experiment, the participants said some variation of “I am calm,” “I am excited,” or “I am nervous.” The results consistently showed that those who stated aloud that they were excited about the challenge performed better across all three categories. “Those feelings of anxiety and excitement have a profound effect on subsequent performance,” says Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. “People who said they were excited were better at doing the math, more energetic, more competent, and more persuasive. They even sang better.”

This technique is called emotional reappraisal, and it’s all about relabeling one emotion as another. One way to practice it is to create calendar invites or leave yourself notes as reminders to get jazzed for an approaching event, suggests Brooks: Start feeling fired up! Big speech on the 30th. Or tell yourself a different story about the physical symptoms your body is exhibiting. Before a job interview, for instance, you might think, “My stomach has butterflies because I am so eager to ace this interview” or “My heart is racing because I’m excited for this meeting.”

2. Take some action.

If there’s a looming to-do stressing you out, sometimes buckling down and, well, doing something about it is a whole lot more productive than any number of calming techniques could ever be. “Ask yourself, ‘Is there a problem here that I can solve? Would solving it lead me to less stress?’” suggests Simon Rego, PsyD, chief psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. To get started, break the project down into small pieces. “Chunk it and reduce it until you say, ‘That I can do,’” he advises. Say you’re so nervous about going to the dentist that you’ve been putting off making an appointment for two years. Every time you think about it, you get so anxious that you can’t deal with it, so you distract yourself until you forget about it. In your list of life stressors, it’s The Dentist (dun dun dunnn…), and it feels untouchable. Break it down until it feels doable: (1) Ask three friends for a dentist recommendation. (2) Check whether the first one takes your insurance. (3) If needed, check whether the second one takes your insurance. (4) Make an appointment. (5) Write it down on your calendar. See how that works? Can you text three friends today to ask if they have a dentist they like? That’s a lot less intimidating than “deal with The Dentist.” Write down each step and cross it off as you achieve it so you also have a sense of accomplishment along the way.

3. Ask, “What’s the worst-case scenario?”

“If you actually play it out in detail in your mind, the worst-case scenario starts to unravel. Often you’ll find you can cope with it a lot better than you originally thought.”

Sometimes it’s best to face anxious thoughts head-on. This is particularly helpful for social anxiety, says Rego. Therapists call it decatastrophizing. In layman’s terms, that means asking yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Imagine you’re nervous about going to a party. Why? What’s the worst-case scenario? You won’t have anyone to talk to. You’ll feel awkward. Then what? Will people laugh at you? Will they really? Generally, the worst case is either highly unlikely or something you can deal with, notes Rego. “It’s a bit like shining light on the closet in the night—you’ll see it wasn’t the bogeyman; it was the hanger that fell down,” he says. “If you actually play it out in detail to the bitter end in your mind, the worst-case scenario starts to unravel. Often you’ll find you can cope with it a lot better than you originally thought.”

4. Find something to be grateful for.

One strategy that’s easier than you might expect is recasting stress as gratitude, says Amit Sood, MD, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and author of The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living. “Relaxation is passive and doesn’t give much for our mind to hold on to,” he says. But gratitude is active—and it’s correlated with feelings of satisfaction and joy. “Gratitude gives you access to positive emotions, which relaxation may or may not,” says Sood.

To try it, ask yourself, “What is right within what seems wrong?” Say you’re nervous about your upcoming colonoscopy. What’s good about it? You’re fortunate to have access to a procedure that can keep you healthy. Or if you’re feeling stressed about an overly booked social schedule, you might reflect on how thankful you are for your rich network of friends and remember the times they were there for you.

If possible, consider how your stressor might benefit others. If planning a friend’s baby shower is making you anxious, try to think about how much your efforts will ease her transition into parenthood and how grateful you are to help. “As you get into the nurturing mode, you release less of the stress hormone adrenaline and more of the bonding hormone oxytocin,” says Sood.

5. Get (a little) angry.

Anxiety is close not only to excitement on the scale of emotions but also to anger. (Think about that pounding heart or those sweaty hands.) Proceed with caution on this one: Too much anger can have toxic results, similar to too much unchecked stress, and approaching another person from a place of anger can be risky. But at the right place and time, you can channel your stress into productive anger, says Robertson, as long as you’re able to regulate it without getting physically or verbally abusive. Say you’re feeling anxious about a political or social injustice. Try turning the anxiety into righteous anger that will drive you to donate to a cause you care about or write to a politician.

6. Go to sleep.

A good night’s sleep can make a lot of things better, including stress. Shut-eye is an underrated anxiety fix, says Mary Alvord, PhD, adjunct associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences in Washington, D.C., and author of Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens. When you’re sleep-deprived, you get cranky, you can’t think as clearly, and even small things can feel overwhelming. Research backs this up: A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, for instance, showed that employees were less likely to take out their work stress on their families when they got solid sleep (as well as plenty of exercise).

Of course, getting stressed and losing sleep can be a vicious circle: How do you fall asleep when you’re anxious? The first step, says Alvord, is to, well, not worry about it—when is the last time you truly never fell asleep? Sleep will happen eventually, and freaking out about it will only make the problem worse. Try to stick to a regular bedtime schedule, even on the weekends. And avoid electronics for a good 30 minutes before bed—not just because of the now well-understood effects of blue light but also because consuming news can be too mentally stimulating right before sleep. If you still struggle to sleep, speak to your doctor.

7. Redefine relaxation.

What’s “calming” for one person might not work for you. “These images of people relaxing on the beach—that’s not relaxing for everybody,” says Alvord. “Define relaxation for yourself.” Maybe it’s running outside, knitting, journaling, or binge-watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Figure out what feels right for you and know that it doesn’t have to be an afternoon at the nail salon. (What if you don’t feel like chatting with the nail tech? What color will actually go with multiple outfits? Isn’t the polish going to chip in two days anyway? Forget it!)

When you find your personal happy place, make it a habit to revisit it regularly. That way relaxation is much less of a leap when you need it most.