Almost everyone feels anxious at some point in their lives. For some people, anxiety occurs regularly, even daily. Anxiety disorders are common as over 40 million¹ adults in the US suffer from some type of anxiety disorder.
Research has shown that distracting yourself² from feelings of anxiety can help to curb them. Actively distracting yourself takes your mind off of the anxiety you are experiencing. For this technique to be most effective, you need to choose to distract yourself, rather than someone else distracting you.
It can be difficult to think of things to do as a distraction when you are already feeling anxious. Below is a list of distraction strategies you can implement that have been shown to reduce anxiety.
You can do many of these strategies anywhere and anytime you start to feel anxious. It may be a good idea to note down the strategies you find particularly helpful so you can remember to use them if you are out and about.
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A distraction strategy is simply an activity that takes your mind off your current emotions. Instead of putting your energy into your worries and increasing your anxiety, you can focus on other things instead to give your mind and body time to calm down.
Distraction strategies help lessen anxiety when it is bad, but they are best when used alongside other treatments. If you experience anxiety regularly, you should talk to your doctor about treatment options to best manage your anxiety in the future.
Below are some common symptoms of anxiety, but know that anxiety looks different for everyone. Some people may experience more, or more severe, symptoms than others. It is important to know the early signs of anxiety so you can take action to distract yourself before it worsens and feels unmanageable.
Common symptoms include:
Hyperventilation (rapid, shallow breathing)
Feeling lightheaded or faint
1. Get some exercise
Exercise,³ especially aerobic exercise⁴, such as cycling, swimming, or running, is one of the best ways to relieve anxiety. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, which are the feel-good hormones in your body that help to reduce anxiety.
2. Watch funny videos
Many people find that using social media⁵apps to watch funny content helps to lessen anxiety. However, it is important to notice whether social media is a positive distraction or is actually worsening your anxiety. Some people also find that their anxiety is lessened when they reduce their time⁶ on special media.
Research has shown that problem-solving⁷ is an effective way to reduce anxiety. To do this, you can write down what is on your mind and get it all out on paper. Next, read what you have written and pick one thing that you can try to fix or change that will help to reduce your anxiety. Select just one thing at first, as trying to change too much too soon may become overwhelming.
4. Spend time with friends and family
Spending time with people you care about and enjoy being around is a great way to distract yourself from anxiety. Immerse yourself in conversation or do fun activities together. Not only will this help with your anxiety, but your friends and family will enjoy spending time with you, too.
You don’t have to be an avid writer to experience the benefits of writing down your thoughts and emotions when you’re feeling anxious. Just grab a piece of paper or notebook and write down everything that comes to mind. Don’t worry about making it neat or coherent. If you find that journaling helps with your anxiety, consider taking a little notebook with you when you go out so you can use it whenever you need to.
If you don’t feel like writing down your feelings, another method of journaling is to write down positive things. Try making a list of the things you are grateful for or that make you happy to take your mind off the anxiety and promote happy thoughts.
Yoga⁸ is a great way to reduce anxiety. If you are new to yoga, there are plenty of beginner-friendly videos online to get you started.
Meditation⁹ is also effective in reducing anxiety symptoms. There are lots of guided meditation videos and information online, as well as meditation apps you can use on your phone to access wherever and whenever you feel anxious.
8. Practice breathing techniques
Pranayama¹⁰ is the practice of breath regulation, a core concept of yoga. Breath regulation has been shown to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress. Your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is activated when your body is in a calm, resting state. However, when you are anxious, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) takes over and triggers the fight-or-flight response. This causes your body to perceive that your life is in immediate danger. When you focus on taking slow, deep breaths, your body can shift back to the PNS and deactivate the fight-or-flight response.
9. Get outside in nature
Getting outside and spending time in nature have been shown to relieve anxiety.¹¹ You could go for a walk, or even just sit outside and enjoy the fresh air. If you can’t get outside, close your eyes and visualize yourself sitting on a beach or in a forest, for example.
10. Watch a movie or TV show
Watching a movie or TV show you enjoy is a great way to distract yourself from your anxiety. Research has shown that watching cartoon movies¹² helps to relieve anxiety in children.
11. Play a game
Whether you love video games, board games, or puzzles, playing a game will help to distract you from your anxiety.
12. Relax your muscles
Applied relaxation¹³ and progressive muscle relaxation¹⁴ are anxiety-relieving techniques taught by trained therapists. However, you can do these yourself at home or out in public. There are many videos available online that teach you these helpful techniques.
Another way you could relax your muscles is by taking a warm bath or shower.¹⁵
13. Listen to music
Research¹⁶ has shown that listening to music helps relieve anxiety, so put on your headphones and zone out to your favorite music.
Essential oils,¹⁷ such as sweet orange and grapefruit oils, promote relaxation and relieve anxiety by activating certain systems in the body to release endorphins. The two most common ways to use aromatherapy for anxiety are an essential oil diffuser or hand cream or roll-on oil containing the essential oil.
15. Make a scrapbook
While online scrapbooking can also offer anxiety-relieving benefits, the most therapeutic way is to make a physical scrapbook. All you need is a book, some glue, some photos that make you happy, and maybe some fun stickers. As a bonus, you now have a book of photos that make you happy that you can look at any time in the future when you feel anxious.
16. Do some coloring
Not just for children, coloring in is a great way to reduce stress and anxiety in adulthood. There are lots of coloring books in stores made specifically for teens and adults who experience anxiety. They contain calming patterns and distract you from your emotions in the moment.
17. Take a nap
Taking a nap may help to reduce your anxiety. You could even use a weighted blanket. The weight from these blankets helps put your body into resting mode, making it easier to relax.
18. Clean your room
Not only will cleaning your room distract you from your anxiety, but having a clean, clear space may also help you feel more organized and clear out your mind too.
19. Read a book
Sometimes, getting away from a screen and picking up a good book can help reduce anxiety as your mind will be distracted by diving into the story and immersing yourself in the characters’ world.
Living with anxiety disorders can be very difficult, but you can use many distraction techniques to help relieve anxiety symptoms.
If you experience anxiety often, it is important to speak to your doctor about longer-term treatment to help prevent anxiety symptoms in the future.
Anxiety disorders | NAMI
Clinical aromatherapy (2020)
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