Two Body-Based Techniques for Coping with Anxiety

Guest post by Stacey Leibowitz-Levy, PhD, editor @

deep breathingA large component of the experience of anxiety is based in bodily experiences. The physiological sensations of a racing heart, sweaty palms, muscle tension and shortness of breath (among others) can be profoundly debilitating. I recently spoke about the underpinning skill of awareness in managing anxiety and also identified anxiety management strategies. While bodily techniques were identified, the focus was on thought-based strategies. This article focuses on two core body-based techniques for coping with anxiety.

Deep breathing and progressive relaxation techniques are both body-based skills that help to control anxiety levels by evoking the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the opposite of the anxiety response. Regularly practicing these techniques will build your physical and emotional resilience, heal your body, and boost your overall feelings of joy and contentment. The body’s natural relaxation response is a powerful antidote to anxiety and serves a protective function by teaching you how to stay calm and collected when encountering anxiety provoking events.

Deep Breathing

This simple yet powerful technique focuses on full, thorough and focused breathing. It is simple to learn, can be applied anywhere at any time, and is a speedy and effective method for getting anxiety levels in check. Deep breathing is the cornerstone of many relaxation techniques, and can be used in combination with other relaxation strategies such as progressive relaxation and visualization. All you really need is a few minutes and a place to stretch out. The key to this approach is to breathe deeply from the abdomen, allowing as much fresh air into your lungs as possible. By taking deep breaths from the abdomen, rather than shallow breaths from your upper chest, you inhale more oxygen. The more oxygen you get, the less tense, short of breath, and anxious you feel. So the next time you feel anxious, take a minute to slow down and breathe deeply:

  • Make yourself comfortable and place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  • Breathe in through your nose and feel the hand on your stomach rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
  • Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
  • Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale sufficiently so that your lower abdomen rises and falls.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is another effective and widely used strategy for anxiety relief. It involves a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body.

With regular practice, progressive muscle relaxation gives you an intimate familiarity with what tension and complete relaxation feels like in different parts of the body. This awareness helps you spot and counteract the first signs of the muscular tension that accompanies anxiety. As your body relaxes, so will your mind. You can combine deep breathing with progressive muscle relaxation for an additional level of relief from anxiety:

  • Loosen your clothing and get into a comfortable position.
  • Take a few minutes to focus on your breathing, breathing in through your nose and out in slow, deep breaths through your mouth.
  • When feeling more relaxed, focus your attention on your feet. Become aware of the sensations in your feet.
  • Tighten and relax the muscles in your feet, repeating this three times.
  • Continue breathing deeply and slowly.
  • Now shift your attention to your calves, following the same sequence of muscle tension and release.
  • Continue to breathe in and out while moving slowly up through your body – thighs, abdomen, back, neck, shoulders and face – contracting and releasing the muscle groups as you proceed.

Take the time to practice these techniques. The more you practice the more effective you will become, and the more accustomed your body will be to the sensation of relaxation as opposed to anxiety. Initially practice these techniques outside of situations or spaces where you are feeling high levels of anxiety. This will allow you to familiarize yourself with the sensations of relaxation without having to counter anxiety. Once you are familiar with this stage, you can then start to try implementing these techniques in more actively coping with anxiety. By giving your body the tools to cope with anxiety, you create an alternative possibility of replacing anxiety with a sense of control, calm and relaxation.

Dr. Stacey Leibowitz-Levy is a highly-experienced psychologist with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology and a PhD in the area of stress and its relation to goals and emotion. Dr. Stacey has wide ranging skills and expertise in the areas of trauma, complex trauma, anxiety, stress and adjustment issues. Stacey enjoys spending time with her husband and children, being outdoors and doing yoga.

Related Online Continuing Education (CE) Courses:

Anxiety: Practical Management TechniquesAnxiety: Practical Management Techniques is a 4-hour online continuing education (CE) course that offers a collection of ready-to-use anxiety management tools. Nearly every client who walks through a health professional’s door is experiencing some form of anxiety. Even if they are not seeking treatment for a specific anxiety disorder, they are likely experiencing anxiety as a side effect of other clinical issues. For this reason, a solid knowledge of anxiety management skills should be a basic component of every therapist’s repertoire. Clinicians who can teach practical anxiety management techniques have tools that can be used in nearly all clinical settings and client diagnoses. Anxiety management benefits the clinician as well, helping to maintain energy, focus, and inner peace both during and between sessions. Course #40-12 | 2007 | 41 pages | 30 posttest questions

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Professional Development Resources is approved by the American Psychological Association (APA) to sponsor continuing education for psychologists. Professional Development Resources maintains responsibility for all programs and content. Professional Development Resources is also approved by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC); the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB); the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA); the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA); the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR); the Alabama State Board of Occupational Therapy; the Florida Boards of Social Work, Mental Health Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy, Psychology & School Psychology, Dietetics & Nutrition, Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, and Occupational Therapy Practice; the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker & MFT Board and Board of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology; the South Carolina Board of Professional Counselors & MFTs; and by the Texas Board of Examiners of Marriage & Family Therapists and State Board of Social Worker Examiners.