It took me over two decades of dealing with chronic worry to learn there is no one-size-fits-all-magic-pill solution for anxiety. I’ve also learned, however, there are research-based methods that do work well for many people (including children) in a variety of situations.
For long-term relief, I always recommend cognitive behavioral techniques to manage worry. For short-term relief, I’ve put together a list of eight ideas to add to your toolkit for yourself and your kids when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. I recommend picking one that sounds good to you and trying it out for a week. Feel free to comment below with more techniques that have worked for you.
1. Breathe. We often think of the mind as a control center that commands the body. For example, if I want to type on a computer, my mind sends out multiple signals that culminate in having my fingers type on a keyboard. Here’s the thing we forget: This process works in reverse—the body can also communicate with the mind.
Try this: Rapid and shallow breathing are often part of the anxiety response, so deliberately alter your breathing to be deeper and slower. For sixty seconds, breathe in deeply through your nose, and then exhale fully through your mouth. This kind of breathing sends a message from your body to your mind that there is no present danger so it can enter the rest-and-digest mode. Practice when you’re calm to train your nervous system to relax quickly.
2. Drink water. About 60 to 75 percent of our bodies are composed of water, as is a whopping 85 percent of our brains. Water helps deliver vitamins and nutrients to their proper destinations, helps eliminate waste, and helps our systems function properly. Unfortunately, it’s often reported that many people are chronically dehydrated. In fact, by the time you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. And research shows that even mild dehydration can affect mental well-being and increase anxiety. Water helps. One study showed students who took a drink into their testing hall scored nearly 10 percent better than those who did not.
Try this: At the onset of feeling anxious, grab a glass of water. For kids big and small who don’t like to drink water, be creative and make it fun! Fill a bottle of water and, once it’s empty, pin a sticker on a board or do a silly dance. You can also try infusing your water with fruits and vegetables; try flavored sparkling water; set an alarm to drink at the top of every hour; put water in a funny cup; or drink water on a particular cue (e.g., each time you enter a certain room).
3. Hug a loved one. A hug, or even holding hands with a loved one, can melt stress away. Studies show that hugging both slows the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and releases good hormones such as oxytocin (a.k.a., the “cuddle” or “love” hormone responsible for social bonding). Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the University of Miami Medical School Touch Research Institute, says, “The gentle pressure of a hug can stimulate nerve endings under the skin that send calming messages to the brain and slow the release of cortisol.” As an added bonus, studies also show hugs can act as a protective force against illness.
Try this: If you’re feeling anxious, find someone you trust and give them a good, long hug. Try a sixty-second hug. This allows enough time for the release of that beneficial oxytocin hormone.
4. Be mindful. Research shows that 47 percent of the time, we’re actually thinking about something other than what we’re doing. This research also reveals that thinking about the past or future is more likely to trigger anxiety than focusing on the present.
Try this: Focus on the present with a quick mindfulness exercise involving your senses. Answer the following questions in your mind or in writing.
- Touch: What can you feel under your fingertips right now? Tell me about the texture.
- Smell: What can you smell with your nose? Is it a smell you recognize?
- Sight: What do you see with your eyes? Describe it in detail.
- Sound: What do you hear? Tell me about the faintest noise you hear.
- Taste: What do you taste right now?
5. Witness love. An interesting study asked participants to view pictures representing love and support. Then the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure how the brain responded. It turns out viewing pictures of others’ being cared for can soothe anxiety. And for those who are especially anxious, the pictures of love and support can be even more effective.
Try this: Carry pictures with you or on your phone that remind you that you are loved and cared for. Have a variety of pictures, old and new, so you don’t grow too used to this intervention.
6. Reframe stress. A little stress in your life is okay. In fact, there is something known as eustress (good stress), and studies show that awareness of this type of stress can help lower levels of cortisol and even boost productivity. In other words, your mindset regarding stress influences how your mind and body react to it.
Try this: Find the silver lining in your stress and verbalize it. For example, if you’re about to take a test, you can say, “Hey, a little stress is actually helping me on this test. My body’s giving me a little burst of energy and extra focus.”
7. Keep it real. From an evolutionary perspective, the stress response is a built-in protection mechanism. Stress or worry is what kept the cave person attuned to the saber-toothed cat lurking in the bush. And to make sure we were really paying attention, the mind often exaggerated the object of the worry (e.g., mistaking a stick for a snake). This tendency to magnify what might go wrong remains with us and is a common cognitive distortion. Research shows that one of the best ways to bring yourself back from a distorted reality is self-disputation.
Try this: When you have an anxious thought, ask yourself this question: Is this statement true? Then take a minute to write down supporting and negating evidence about the thought.
8. Laugh. The benefits of laughter are well documented. In fact, there is an entire field dedicated to the science–Gelotology–pioneered by William F. Fry of Stanford University. Here are some of the majors findings from the science: laughter can relax muscles, improve respiration and circulation, stimulate the production of endorphins (natural pain killers), and decrease stress-related hormones. These benefits validate that adage that laughter is the best therapy.
Try this: According to, Dr. Madan Kataria, the founder of Laughter Yoga, the body cannot distinguish between fake and real laughter. He also says, “You don’t have to wait for anything to happen—no jokes, no humor, no comedy required. Laughter is a choice.” If you’re feeling anxious, try one of his exercises for one minute: clap in rhythm while playfully squealing ‘ho-ho-ha-ha-ha’.
Get many more short and long-term anxiety relief tools for kids at www.gozen.com.