I've touched on my anxiety issues before—revealing the most effective (and all-natural) coping mechanisms I've tried thus far. And while it's helpful to employ guided meditation and acupuncture treatments, they're not always readily available when you need them. Take last week, for example. I was having a tough day, which started from almost-debilitating anxiety in the morning to tossing and turning through the night. It was a struggle to make it through the day, calm my body, and slow down my perpetually buzzing mind. I couldn't take time from work to see a specialist, so I needed something I could do from my office or living room floor.
I know if I'm feeling this way, many others are, too. According to the American Psychological Association, almost half of all Americans feel more stressed than they did five years ago.
To help, I sought out the expertise of Kelsey Patel, a jack-of-all-trades in the wellness category. Patel is a leading meditation teacher at The Den Meditation in L.A., a reiki master, intuitive healer, emotional freedom techniques specialist, a yoga and barre instructor, and a spiritual empowerment coach. If there is anyone who could help, it's her. She suggested a series of exercises and postures specifically targeted to relieve stress and anxiety from your body.
For a second opinion, I asked Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, an NYC-based licensed clinical psychologist, why this strategy works. She breaks it down: "When we start to be conscious of our bodies in motion, we let go of worries, doubts, triggers that stress us out." Hafeez continues, "Stress and anxiety occur when we are focused on things we cannot control or future events. When we are focused on action and impacting outcomes, we feel stressed. When we are in the moment and focused, we let all of those concerns go. Exercise, stretching, breathwork, yoga, meditation, all require a focus on body and breath first and foremost, leaving little room for cluttered thoughts."
So let's get down to business, shall we? Below, Patel details exactly what you should do the next time you're feeling anxious (and why).
Meet the Expert
- Kelsey Patel is a leading meditation teacher at The Den Meditation in L.A., reiki master, intuitive healer, emotional freedom techniques specialist, yoga and barre instructor, and spiritual empowerment coach.
- Sanam Hafeez, PsyD is an NYC-based licensed clinical psychologist.
Best For: Alleviating Anxiety, Feelings of Imbalance, and an Unsettled Mind
"This is one of my favorite morning postures, as it's an incredible way to begin the day and balance the body," Patel notes. "I also use this seated posture anytime during the day when I feel my mind is imbalanced. The intention for this exercise is to align your body's left and right hemispheres with breath, and as you do this, you also balance your left and right sides of your brain."
- Sit in a cross-legged position and lengthen your spine.
- Take your right hand across your chest and place it underneath your left armpit, and release your thumb to rest on the front of your left shoulder.
- Take your left hand across the chest and place it under your right armpit, and release your thumb to rest on the front of your right shoulder.
- Begin breathing. Try it for three minutes, and focus on your breath. Allow the inhale to bring in clarity and the exhale to let go of stress or anxiety.
Invest in a great yoga mat to make each exercise more comfortable. Try this Premium Print Yoga mat from Gaiam ($25).
Best For: Reviving Energy and a Mind That Feels Blocked
"This exercise is great to balance your body's energy," explains Patel. "By lifting opposite sides of the body and holding the position through your breath, you are once again aligning the two sides and cleansing the entire length of your body and mind. I love to use this position when my brain feels stuck and my body's energy feels stagnant. When you move your leg, arm, and engage your core, you reconnect to your center and shift energy from your mind into your body. It helps to help reset everything."
- Come onto all fours into a tabletop position.
- Extend your right arm out in front of you, lift it to shoulder height, and lengthen it toward the wall.
- Extend your left leg behind you, lift it to hip height, and flex your foot. Engage your core as you lengthen your spine and hold this posture.
- Focus on your breath, allowing it to flow in and out of your body.
- Begin to pull your knee and elbow toward your chest, then lengthen them back out. Do this 10 times, and repeat on your other side.
Best For: Relieving Negative or Heavy Energy in Your Mind, Healing a Hurting Heart, and Tapping Into Your Emotional Space
This posture is one from the Five Tibetan Rites, a system of exercises said to yield fountain of youth-type results. "It lifts your energy and releases negative blockages in your mind," says Patel. "By utilizing this posture, you are opening up the heart space and emptying your mind every time your neck lifts and drops." Before completing each move, spritz this blend of lavender, chamomile, cypress, and lemon from Mio Skincare to your pulse points ($29).
- Come onto your knees, resting your seat on your heels.
- Lift your hips so they are on top of your knees and place your hands on your lower back.
- Gently tuck your chin toward your chest.
- Lift your chin, open up your chest and heart toward the ceiling, and pull your elbows back toward one another. Repeat this 10 times.
Best For: Strength and Clarity of the Mind and Flushing Out Negative Thoughts or Feelings
"This twist is amazing for detoxing, strengthening, and opening the body," Patel suggests. "Imagine your mind being wrung out like a washcloth each time you engage the twist and allow your thoughts and unwanted energy to empty. As it relates to the mind, I incorporate twists into every class because of how they allow for a lift of energy by lifting the spine and then release any unwanted or undesired thoughts."
- Sit with both legs out in front of you.
- Lift your right leg over your left thigh, and place the right foot outside your left knee.
- Lift your right arm in the air to lengthen the spine, then cross your chest and hook your right elbow outside your right knee.
- As you inhale, lengthen your spine, and exhale with a twist. Take three to five breaths in this posture.
- Slowly release the posture, step by step, and switch sides.
Best For: Finding Balance, Even If You Fail or Fall
"This is one of the ultimate balancing postures in yoga," says Patel. "I love Tree Pose because, no matter what I feel during any given day, it balances me. It's a great way to come back to your center—to allow yourself to wobble, fall, and keep coming back up."
- Come up to standing.
- Lift your right leg, and place your right foot just above the inside of your left knee up to your inner left groin muscle.
- Keep your left leg strong and the quadriceps contracted.
- Place your hands in prayer at the heart center.
- Ground through your standing leg to support your posture and breath. Try to hold for at least one minute and soften your eyes. Repeat on the other side.
Hafeez reminded me that, after trying each posture, the challenge is maintaining that calmer state of being long after exercising or stretching. "I encourage patients to do stretching and breathing at the start and end of every day," she recommended, "and take 10 minutes to write in an appreciation journal after completing the exercises. You'll be in a better state of mind given the brain chemicals released during exercise and focused breathing. Write down things you appreciate. You'll set the tone for a positive day." So, I did just that. And guess what? It actually helped. Use an easy-to-carry notebook to complete your appreciation journaling each day. Try this Moleskin Classic Notebook ($20)
Running isn't just good for your heart and lungs; it can improve symptoms of anxiety. In an analysis of available research in BMC Health Services Research, scientists conclude that aerobic activity is a viable treatment option for anxiety. High-intensity exercise has the potential to be even more effective than lower intensity.
Another study had those with anxiety and low-level depression participate in a 12-week running program. The study, published in BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine, revealed improvements in mood, stress, and anxiety. While you shouldn't stop any current treatments for anxiety or depression without discussing it with your doctor, lacing up your shoes and hitting the pavement could perk you up when you're feeling stressed.
Like running, cycling is a fantastic form of cardiovascular activity that you can perform at high intensity to ease anxiety. Getting outdoors in the fresh air is beneficial, but when the weather keeps you house-bound, indoor cycling is a convenient option. What's more—research published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine shows that cycling in a virtual environment at home or in a studio can boost your intensity while lowering your stress levels.
While these exercises are a fantastic jumping-off point to help you tune into your body and relax, any form of physical activity can benefit your mood and can ease anxiety. Experiment with other forms of activity that you enjoy, whether that be team sports, group fitness, or forest bathing. Knowing what works for you and participating in movement that you enjoy will keep you motivated.
Aylett, E., Small, N. & Bower, P. Exercise in the treatment of clinical anxiety in general practice – a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Health Serv Res 18, 559 (2018). doi:10.1186/s12913-018-3313-5
Keating LE, Becker S, McCabe K , et al Effects of a 12-week running programme in youth and adults with complex mood disorders BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine 2018;4:e000314. doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2017-000314
Wang TC, Tsai CL, Tang TW, Wang WL, Lee KT. The Effect of Cycling Through a Projection-Based Virtual Environment System on Generalized Anxiety Disorder. J Clin Med. 2019;8(7):973. Published 2019 Jul 4. doi:10.3390/jcm8070973