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Stressed out?

Pick and Choose: A Chocolate Box of Healthy Ways to Deal with Modern Stress

by Morgan Randall MA LMHC

A shorter version of this article was published in the Skagit Valley Co-op’s Natural Enquirer newsletter in 2013. Whenever I discover a new way to manage anxiety, I add it to this growing list of behavioral tools. 

Let’s get our terms straight before we begin. Anxiety is what we feel on the inside when a stressor (stress) comes at us on the outside. A rattlesnake on the path is stress. The feeling of jumping out of my skin when I see one is anxiety.

Many health professionals are converging at the doorstep of anxiety. We see it at the core of disease, disorder, addiction and other personal and family problems. Our modern way of life assaults the human bodymind with excessive stress. The brain is biochemically overloaded by levels of chronic reactivity called “anxiety” that we weren’t designed to cope with when homo sapiens evolved in slow-moving preagricultural societies.

Anxiety can directly cause a health problem like arrhythmia or a mental problem like agoraphobia; it can be a disease’s epigenetic trigger (turning gene expression on) to cause cancer or bipolar disorder; or make difficult matters worse by stimulating unhealthy coping behaviors, such as domestic violence or drug addiction. Reducing anxiety in healthy ways is central to good health.

There are plenty of unhealthy ways to help calm down. Yes, overeating “palatable” foods such as potato chips or other carbs may calm down your hyper-activated amygdala, but can also contribute to Alzheimers, obesity and diabetes. Cannabis products will initially reduce anxiety, but also your IQ and your bank account. The next day, due to spring back effect, it causes you to be more anxious than you would have been without it, and around we go. Alcohol and benzodiazepines work great to help calm down in the moment, but are highly addictive, cause greater anxiety the next day and can destroy your health and relationships in a dozen different ways.

There are simply healthier things you can do to calm down. If you wish to recover from whatever ails you or your family––relationally, mentally or physically––check out these anti-anxiety activities I’ve shared with clients over the years.

Notice my use of the word “avoid,” as opposed to “eliminate” which can be anxiety inducing in itself. Please give yourself a break. Do what you can when you can to maximize your enjoyment of the beautiful life you have.

Anxiety-soothing activities

1. Breathing. Taking extra-long, slow, deep breaths throughout the day. Out breaths longer than in breaths calm emotional centers of your brain. Notice when you have a tendency to hold your breath and bring breath to these moments, e.g. when driving a car. Yoga, t’ai chi and qigong are simple exercise protocols that emphasize breath work and relaxation.

2. Drinking at least six glasses of water a day. The bodymind becomes anxious when thirsty.

3. Eating a fresh, low-acid-producing diet. Avoid caffein, carbohydrates, cooked fat and oils, and processed foods, particularly “the whites,” i.e. refined wheat, sugar and dairy. When your body is well nourished, your brain feels more calm.

4. Eating protein within one hour after waking helps the brain not feel anxious. The greater the stress, the more protein the brain needs to function. Carbohydrates stimulate the “seek food” function of the brain. Reduce them so as to not trigger your body into an anxious food-seeking state.

5. Adding vitamin and mineral supplements to enhance nutritional supplies received from food, e.g. Vitamin E. You are constantly replacing stress-damaged cells. Good nutrition helps your brain feel calm.

6. Substituting unrefined sea salt, high in minerals, for refined salt that strips minerals from your body.

7. Using pro-biotic supplements to balance the intestinal environment. Did you know 95 percent of mood- regulating serotonin is in the small intestines? See BeingNbalance for more information.

8. Bathing in a tub as opposed to taking a quick shower. Aromatherapy oils and candles enhance a peaceful experience. Massage and body work reverse anxiety effectively.

9. Walking everyday. Walk wherever you can. A 20-minute moderately-brisk walk a day in fresh air has noticeable anxiety-reducing benefits by stimulating the release of endorphins in your brain. Forty minutes even better! You don’t have to jog to gain the benefits of movement, but can be fun and confidence inspiring.

10. Using your hands to attain “effort-driven rewards” stimulates production of calming brain chemicals, too, e.g. coloring books, handicrafts such as knitting or wood working.

11. Limiting computer time to less than one hour a day for non-work activities, e.g. Facebook, email. Avoid hyper-stimulating TV shows and sensationalist news media.

12. Turning off all electronic devices two hours before sleep to calm down. The brain thinks the light from the device is the sun and won’t allow you to go to sleep, because it thinks the sun just set! Remember, you need sleep!

13. Meditating or centering prayer 20 minutes a day. Take personal reflective time for yourself. Practice choosing positive thoughts to reduce habitual worrying. Noticing “I am grateful for ______ throughout the day can reduce anxiety.

14. Singing, storytelling, making or listening to music, dancing or appreciating dance, creating or appreciating art, theatre, puppetry is not only distracting, they are fun!

15. Journaling, poetry writing and collage support therapeutic self expression and integration of brain hemispheres for psychological health and emotional processing.

16. Relating to something greater than oneself, e.g. attending religious ceremonies, AA, labyrinth walking, reading spiritual texts.

17. Being in nature. Hiking. Biking. Gardening.

18. Noticing the objects and others in the world around you. Even at work, look deeply at one object at a time. Allow yourself to feel its presence and feeling tone. Feel how you feel when you do this. Carry this connection to your world with you throughout the day.

19. Sun bathing up to 30 minutes a day when possible. Just being in the sun makes us feel happier. In the Pacific NW, we never get the Vitamin D we need even on a sunny day due to the slant of the sun’s rays. A Vitamin D supplement everyday helps reduce anxiety and depression.

20. Avoiding toxic chemicals that can agitate the nervous system, i.e. pesticides, household cleaning agents, perfume. Use essential oils such as lavender for cleaning or frankincense for perfume instead.

21.  Aromatherapy. A scent may help shift your mind to a calmer state.

22. Avoiding anxiety-producing legal drugs (e.g. alcohol and cannabis), illegal drugs (e.g. cocaine or meth) and pharmaceuticals (e.g. steroids or benzodiazepines).

23. Making and keeping appropriate boundaries, e.g. learning when to say “no” to friends, family or coworkers.

24. Cultivating healthy family relations. Differentiate your life from others (do your own thing) while remaining connected by being helpful, understanding and present. Enhance responsibility to the group behavior by being in integrity, using consistent rewards and consequences, not emotional blackmail.

25. Hanging out. Cultivating personal friendships outside of work.

26. Avoiding parasitic or toxic relationships with people and organizations.

27. Helping others stimulates anxiety-reducing self esteem and just plan feels good. Volunteering distracts you from your own problems, e.g. food bank, visiting the elderly, baby sitting.

28. Participating. Working together for common goal, e.g. community garden, cooking or housework.

29. Enjoying and caring for pets. Just petting the neighbor’s dog or cat will help you calm down.

30. Organizing at least one room in your home to create a hygienic, orderly, uncluttered environment in which to live. The brain is more calm in an orderly environment.

31. Caring for houseplants in the home and office for added oxygen and companionship. “Seeing green” calms the brain.

32. Enjoying healthy sexual activity with self or others.

33. Sleeping minimum seven hours uninterrupted, eight is better. Afternoon nap of 20 minutes when possible. People who short nap get more done and are more relaxed!

34. Lighting up your life. Full spectrum light bulbs to prevent light deficiency syndrome (SAD) during dark months. Supplement with Vitamin D.

35. Using side-effect free homeopathic and/or Bach Flower Remedies for anxiety reduction or as sleep aids when need. Anxiolytic pharmaceuticals are addictive, have negative side effects and cause “spring back effect,” i.e. you are more anxious after a day or two than you would have been.

36. Vacationing close to home. Traveling is inherently stressful. Try taking a mini vacation closer to home or playing croquet, cards, board games or cross word puzzles without leaving the house or apartment. I enjoy day trips to Bellingham or Anacortes from Mount Vernon.

37. Downsizing material responsibilities. Ask yourself if there is more on your plate than you can maintain without undue anxiety. Write a list of things you could do without doing.

38. Reading inspirational self-help books. Knowledge illuminates dark corners of the mind helping us to forgive ourselves and others.

39. Learning to ask for professional help when you need it. Call a counselor, doctor or pastor. Friends are not professionals and often give you advice they need, not you.

40. Quieting the internal critic. Reduce judging yourself and others. Tell your inner judge “Thanks for sharing. Now beat it.”

41. Imagining your “safe place.” Envision somewhere where you feel safe. It could be a beautiful beach you once visited, your grandmother’s kitchen or simply the thought of your own cozy bed.

42. Splashing cold water on your face when anxious. If you are having a panic attack or have lost your temper, consider stepping into a cold shower for a couple seconds! You will calm down instantly.

This is called the mammalian diving reflex. It’s likely the reason early religions around the world directed someone walk into a cold river to be “baptized” or “cleansed”—the mind becomes clear, calm and focused. Mammals are land creatures that can drown. Suddenly plunging into cold water shocks the brain into a calm state of mind to maximize chances of survival. The adage “go take a cold shower” actually helps.

43. Attending mental health counseling sessions helps resolve emotional issues and trauma. It teaches self regulation and supports positive change. A caring therapeutic relationship provides anxiety-reducing emotional holding.

44. Committing to a dozen weekly neurofeedback, acupuncture and/or structural integration therapies such as Rolfing or therapeutic massage. Each can have amazing results to help clear and calm a jangled nervous system. Even one appointment with a chiropractor will help balance the body and calm the mind.

44. Visiting a bookstore or library. Bookstores induce quietude. Take your time. Sit and read. Look at a coffee table book of beautiful photos. Pick out a book to enjoy later to remind you of this peaceful feeling.

45.  Inducing awe. Visit a city aquarium, a zoo or solarium. Use a telescope to view the night sky. Go sailing or kayaking on a sound or mighty river. Immersing oneself in something wondrous and bigger than oneself can feel freeing and transformative if only for a day.

46.  Avoiding driving a car in heavy traffic. If you must, find a job closer to home or taking a less stress inducing route.

47. Avoiding political discussions. They rarely change another’s mind and only upset everyone involved. Vote your choice, let others vote theirs’ and leave it alone.

48.  Wearing comfortable clothes. Recheck your shoe size annually. Feet grow as we age and wearing shoes or any piece of clothing that is too small will make us feel up tight.

49. Gently letting go of memories and expectations. Bid them farewell with love. Live in the present moment. Right now, you are perfectly safe.

Morgan Randall LMHC has a masters in applied behavioral science from Bastyr University and is a licensed mental health counselor with an independent practice in Mount Vernon WA. For more information, call 360.202.2722 or visit

November 2nd, 2013 | Permalink

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