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Therapists Reveal Their 7 Top Tips For Warding Off Stress

Here's how the experts calm themselves down.

What might be something that all therapists have in common? Aside from helping you when you’re feeling stressed, worried or anxious, they all deal with these feelings too. After all, anxiety is a normal human emotion that doesn’t simply dissipate with a medical degree or professional background. In the fast-paced world we live in, these feelings can creep up on us, and if you’re not armed with proper tools to send them packing, it can lead to even more stress and worry. We spoke to therapists to find out what they do to calm themselves down. Here’s what they said.

Acknowledge the anxiety

Dropping some humor is always a good idea, especially if it addresses your anxiety head-on. Make like Erika J. Vivyan, a licensed psychologist and director at Brave Young Minds, and take the time to acknowledge what you’re feeling. “I like to say something silly like, ‘Oh, hi anxiety. You’re not usually around on Tuesdays, but OK,’ ” she says.

This does many things. For one, it allows your brain to accept the anxiety and its associated physical sensations as valid signals from the brain and body, says Vivyan. Plus, the humor breaks down the resistance many people feel toward uncomfortable emotions like anxiety. “In general, people tend to want to avoid emotions like anger, anxiety and sadness simply because they’re not fun to experience and include a lot of physical discomfort (think nausea, crying, tension, etc.),” explains Vivyan. But taking the time to address it in a light-hearted way can be the first step in taking action against it.

Practice mindful breathing

“The first thing I always do when I get anxious is breathe,” says Holly Wade, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist. “Our breath is our best tool to deal with fear and anxiety and has been proven to reduce the activity of our limbic system and help us regain our equilibrium. Simply noting my breath and breathing in and out while counting can help.” If you’re dealing with heightened anxiety, practice box breathing, which refers to breathing in for four seconds, holding for four seconds, out for four seconds, holding for four seconds. Repeat a few times. Wade says that another helpful calming breath is to breathe deeply in and out while expanding your belly. “This is believed to massage our vagus nerve, which is key in calming our fight, flight and freeze response,” she says.

Exercise regularly

“I make sure to fit in a heart-pumping workout a few days out of the week — think kickboxing, dancing, running and high-intensity interval training — to boost feel-good chemicals in my brain,” says Vivyan. “Exercise that increases your heart rate also increases the availability of serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and endocannabinoids, all of which can improve mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety.”

Talk it out

Having someone who knows you well can help you explore whether your anxious thoughts are grounded in truth or wild exaggerations, says licensed psychologist Shauna Pollard. “I have my go-to friends who I call or text when this happens, and even if no one is available, the mere desire to connect is a reminder that I need to sort through and tend to my anxious thoughts.” Wade agrees, adding that it’s often helpful to fact-check the story in your brain to make sure the anxiety is warranted. “Many times our brains catastrophize situations, and go to the ‘worst case scenario,’ which causes unnecessary stress and anxiety,” says Wade. “When I am able to identify the facts, though, it often reduces the anxiety because it brings me away from those thoughts that are making the situation more scary.”

Write it out

For therapist and coach Emily Capuria, free-writing journaling helps reduce anxiety. “It takes 15 minutes or so of just writing — pen to paper — and it helps to get all of the thoughts that are spinning in my mind out in front of me on paper,” explains Capuria, author of Happiness Happens. “Many times, that stream-of-consciousness writing shows me a chain of thoughts and memories that I wasn’t at all aware of. Instead of just the wild-wild-west of thought spiraling in my brain, I see them on paper and can really look at them, explore them, and move them to a more neutral place.”

Cool off

When licensed independent clinical social worker/therapist Canh Tran gets anxious, he finds that changing his body temperature helps. “I often get hot and tense when I’m anxious, so I’ll wash my face and hands with cold water, or I’ll take an ice cube and rub it on my face,” he says. Feeling stressed at the office and don’t have access to a shower? Tran says drinking ice cold water will do the job too. This change in body temperature — whether large or small — can help to regulate and manage anxiety.

Try essential oils

“Scent is a powerful tool for relaxation and helps me when I am feeling anxious,” says licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist Christine Kotlarski of High Note Counseling. “I am well stocked in a variety of oils and use them at home, in my home office, and even in my car.” During high-stress situations, she finds that essential oils help soothe her and give her the clarity to focus on work. “The oils that I find most beneficial for anxiety are lavender, ylang ylang, bergamot and clary sage,” says Kotlarski. “I apply to my skin with some coconut oil, diffuse it, or put a few drops in the palms of my hands and inhale directly. I also love adding a few drops to a steamy hot shower.”

What's YOUR secret to warding off stress? Let us know in the comments below.

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