We live in anxiety-ridden times.
- What's going to happen to the economy?
- Is political strife going to get worse?
- Am I doing the right things with my life?
Fortunately, we can point to simple techniques that neuroscience suggests work effectively to make people much less anxious – quicker than you think.
Here are five of them:
1. Listen to this specially designed song
I'm putting this first because it's my favorite and I'm still shocked at how well it works.
A decade ago, British musicians teamed up with sound therapists to record a song called Weightlessness that stimulates specific neurological reactions: lower heart rate, lower blood pressure and reduced levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
"The song...contains a sustaining rhythm that starts at 60 beats per minute and gradually slows to around 50," explained Lyz Cooper, founder of the British Academy of Sound Therapy. "While listening, your heart rate gradually comes to match that beat."
It's just eight minutes long, and it works like a charm. I first tried it several years ago, and I've kept it bookmarked on my computer ever since. I'll embed a YouTube version at the end of this column.
2. Use the 4-7-8 breathing method
Another very easy, almost too-good-to-be-true method that actually works. In short, by breathing in a very simple way, you can kick-start your parasympathetic nervous system, which causes the body to become calmer.
In short, just do this:
- Find a place to sit comfortably, back straight.
- Put your teeth on the back of your tongue, and exhale completely through your mouth, making a sound like "whoosh" as you breathe out.
- Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds.
- Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
- Breathe back out again as you did at the beginning, for 8 seconds.
Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5 a total of three times. Bonus: If you're ever lying awake at night unable to sleep, the 4-7-8 method of breathing works wonders for that, too.
3. Get 45 minutes of vigorous exercise
This one is fairly recent, and it comes from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Researchers studied 66 college students during the pandemic, and concluded that negative thoughts and anxiety were appreciably less prevalent when participants exercised:
- lightly for just under 2 hours per day
- moderately for 80 minutes per day, or
- vigorously for 45 minutes per day.
Choose whatever works for your ambition and schedule; I tend to recommend the 45 minute version, simply because if part of what is creating anxiety is concern about getting things done, adding a 2-hour habit to your day might be a bit self-defeating.
4. Get some nature
We have all kinds of studies to point to here. Two of my colleagues on Inc.com have written pretty extensively about how taking an "awe walk" in nature can make people feel less anxious – even one lasting just 15 minutes.
You don't even have to walk, necessarily; researchers found that simply commuting to work through "outdoor spaces that contain 'green' and/or 'blue' natural elements" (think trees, grass, and bodies of water) made people less anxious.
For that matter, researchers at the University of Hyogo in Japan say that simply putting small plants on workers' desks in an office "contributed to their psychological stress reduction regardless of their age or plants choice."
Bottom line, it's a lot harder to be anxious when you're surrounded by green and blue.
5. Save it for later
This last trick is less about shutting off anxiety than it is about making it manageable. In short, make a note about the things that make you anxious – even a literal, written note – and then promise yourself that you'll set a block of time later in the day to be worried about them.
Seriously, pick a time and put it on your schedule: "From 2 p.m. to 2:20 p.m. is my 'worry time'. Any other time of day, I jot down my worries so I can feel anxious about them at the appropriate time."
"This strategy focuses on not postponing your worries," psychologist Dr. Regine Galanti explained to Time, "[instead] setting up a time where you can worry all you want. ... [I]t sets boundaries, so when a worry comes up at 9 a.m., you can say, 'Hey, not now, your time is coming.'"
Perhaps the best part about this trick? By whatever time you've set aside for worrying, you'll often find you're no longer worried.
Bonus: Train your brain
As I write in my free e-book Neuroscience: 13 Ways to Understand and Train Your Brain for Life, there's nothing more fascinating than the human brain, and the unexpected ways in which it works.
If it helps to get rid of anxiety, that has to be at the top of the list.
Here's the embed of the 8-minute song, Weightlessness, that I promised above. I recommend watching it within this article rather than clicking out, otherwise your calming music might be jarringly interrupted by an ad.