8 Relaxing, Stress-Busting Techniques to Try If Breathing Exercises Just Aren’t Your Thing

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Ask any mental health expert for tips on how to regain control in moments of anxiety or stress and, inevitably, their advice will start with three words: slow, deep breathing. Deep breathing isn't a wellness cliché; the science is clear on its ability to help reduce stress and anxiety.

But if you're wearing a mask (as most of us are required to do right now) and you start to feel anxiety or stress building inside you, breathing exercises might not be as helpful in the moment—as Sonyia Richardson, PhD, LCSW, a clinical assistant professor of social work at UNC Charlotte, recently experienced first-hand.

"I hadn’t been back out recently but I did go to the grocery store a couple of weeks ago. I remember even having my mask on, I was trying to do deep breathing because I was feeling anxious, but I was afraid to breathe," Dr. Richardson recalls, because she was so afraid of being exposed to the coronavirus while in a crowded public space. "Deep breathing was something I didn’t feel like I was able to do. I kind of felt like I was holding my breath." Instead, she decided to clench and unclench her fists to achieve a similar grounding feeling during a stressful moment.

That's not to say that breathing exercises are worthless right now—Dr. Richardson says she just waited until she was back in her car alone to take her deep breaths. And some people might be totally fine deep breathing wherever they are. But it is worth remembering that as people and their circumstances change, so should their self-care techniques. Just because one modality is right for you in one situation doesn't mean it's always the best option in another.

Thankfully, there are also other effective relaxation techniques for stress if you're unable to do deep breathing in the moment (or it just hasn't worked for you in the past). Clinical psychologist, yoga teacher, and Happy Not Perfect contributor Sophie Mort, PhD, (who goes by Dr. Soph) recently shared eight methods to try on her Instagram. Here's how they work.


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1. The 54321 technique

The first technique on Dr. Soph's list is, like deep breathing, simple and effective. "Say five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste," she writes. If you're actually able to touch and smell the items safely (say it's something in your purse or a button on your shirt, for example), do that as you move through the steps. Going through this technique gives you tangible things to focus on, which can be grounding.

2. safe place meditation

If you're in a place where you feel stressed (like the grocery store in Dr. Richardson's example above), Dr. Soph says it can help to close your eyes and visualize somewhere that you do. It could be at home in your bed, curled up with your dog. Or maybe it's walking on the beach with your feet sinking into the wet sand. "Visualize that place. Include all your senses," she says.

3. hold a piece of ice

Because ice is a sensory shock, it gives you something tangible to focus on, instead of the stressor at hand. "Focus on the way it melts in your hands," Dr. Soph instructs. By the time it's transformed from a solid into a puddle, chances are that you'll feel a whole lot more calm.

4. pick up items that are near you

If ice isn't readily available to you in the moment, Dr. Mort suggests picking up something else; whatever you have nearby, such as your keys. "Feel them in your hands. Notice the edges and any changes in texture," she says. This is another way to give your mind something else to focus on.

5. find something you enjoy touching

Dr. Soph also says holding or touching something soft or that you enjoy touching can be soothing, too. It works the same way as a child stroking their favorite blanket, providing a sense of comfort when you need it.

6. notice the sounds further away

Touch isn't the only way to redirect the mind. Dr. Soph says that sound can work too, giving the tip on noticing the sound furthest away, and then working your way inward, to sounds closer to you. You might start with sounds of a tree's leaves rustling in the wind, or a dog barking in the distance, and then the sounds in your direct proximity.

7. play music that you love

Another way to use sound to relieve stress or anxiety, according to Dr. Soph is to pop in your Air Pods and listen to something that makes you happy. ("Single Ladies" on repeat, anyone?) "Listen to the different layers of the piece," Dr. Soph says.

8. imagine the voice of someone you care about telling you that it is all okay

Dr. Soph says that sometimes it can help to hear someone else tell you that you're ok; she even recommends having an actual recording of someone you care about telling you that you're safe.

The most important thing to remember when combatting stress and anxiety in the moment is that what works for someone else might not work for you. "You do not have to stay still, you do not have to close your eyes, you do not need to be in silence," Dr. Soph writes. The key is using your senses in different ways to feel grounded.

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