6 Tips for Fighting Anxiety, 1 of Which Is Really Important

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A summer Friday seems like as good a time as any to focus on relaxing. And the University of Cincinnati has released a how-to guide for freaking out less, pegged to a new study by Tom Robinette, a psychology professor there. The tips are drawn from Robinette and his colleague's anonymous survey of college students, their stress, and their coping mechanisms. No, college students aren't the world, but there's still some stuff here worth unpacking just a bit.

Here's the rundown:

IMMEDIATE ACTIONS 
UC's Keith King suggests simple ways to manage stress can also be effective.

  • Stop, pause, and breathe: "In the moment when you're stressed, you need to slow down, you pause, you take some deep breaths. Maybe you count backwards from ten. Those types of things calm everything down and slow it down." 

  • See the bigger picture: "Try to see the bigger picture. Is what you're experiencing really that big of a deal or not?"

  • Contact a friend: "Everyone has phones on them. Call your buddy and let him know what's going on so you can express those feelings and get them off you as quickly as possible."

LONG-TERM ACTIONS

  • Diet and exercise: "People who eat healthy and exercise tend to have lower stress levels. Exercise allows for some of that negative energy to get burned off. Eating healthy helps individuals avoid feeling weighted down."

  • Daily "me time": "Take time out of the day that's your time. It could be just ten minutes. Go outside and walk, just enjoy something for you. If you hate exercising, then do something you enjoy. That's paramount."

  • Remember to H.A.L.T.: "Make sure you're not Hungry, you're not Angry, you're not Lonely, and you're not Tired. If you can take care of those four things, you're significantly more likely to be unstressed."

Nothing wrong with any of this, of course (although: Are most college students really in the habit of calling friends for support these days?). But there's a bit of an unfortunate selection effect here that applies not just to these tips, but to any straightforward advice to counter anxiety: The people who are going to be most likely to follow these stress-reduction techniques are probably the ones who don't struggle with real anxiety.

I say this as a moderate, not incredibly, anxious person, but as much as  I understand the wisdom of these tips, some of them seem almost written in a foreign language. Okay, yes, in theory it's important to see the big picture. But when you're freaking out about something, turning it over and over in your head until you've examined every inch of it without discovering anything new or useful (and now it's 3 a.m.), it's hard to adopt the big-picture approach on display here. Moreover, there's a true physical aspect to anxiety as well — it's not just about your thoughts, but about how your body reacts to those thoughts (that's part of why exercise is on this list). For people who suffer from acute anxiety, this creates a pretty brutal feedback loop — brain and body in an increasingly frenetic, anxious dance.

That's why the first tip, on breathing and counting, may be the most important and universally applicable — and why mindfulness is so hot right now. The whole point of mindfulness (which I've never been able to fully get in the habit of practicing, even though I'm fascinated by it) is to not get caught up in big-picture thinking about your anxiety, but rather to simply breathe and understand your thoughts as fleeting things that don't need to impact you or your body's stress reaction.

In other words, I'm not sure it's realistic to ask everyone who is stressed out to see the big picture or call a friend or take conscious me-time every day. Breathing, though, is something everyone can do.