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Americans are under a lot of stress, but there are ways to manage it

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A new survey by the American Psychiatric Association finds that nearly 40% of respondents across the country rate their mental health as only fair or poor. More than half say they're feeling anxious about the uncertainty of the coming year. And a significant number of respondents said their New Year's resolutions would include efforts like exercise and meditation to better manage their psychological well-being. So today, to close out this week's series on anxiety, NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee shares some tips and tools to help tame anxiety.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Think back to the times you felt extremely anxious. Maybe your heart was racing, you were breathing fast, completely unable to focus on whatever you were doing before your anxious thoughts spiraled into a canyon of dread and doom. Psychiatrist Dr. Jessi Gold has some tips to help calm you in those intense moments.

JESSI GOLD: And so what we often tell people in those situations is to use tools called grounding, meaning you're really focused on where is my body in space? Where are my feet? Where are my hands?

CHATTERJEE: Anything that can pull your attention away from your racing, anxious thoughts and toward your body and your five senses. Gold, who's at Washington University in St. Louis, says there are other tricks as well.

GOLD: Some people also like to just look around their room and name, like, five things they can see, four things they can hear, three things they could touch, like, kind of down the senses, and that can be helpful. I'm a big, like, stress ball person, too, so anything that you can kind of grab and ground yourself in what you're doing.

CHATTERJEE: She says another way to calm down in the moment is to change your body temperature quickly by doing something physical, like running up and down the stairs or holding an ice pack to your neck and face. And if you're brave enough to do this, try taking a cold shower.

GOLD: Which I've personally done, and it's pretty miserable, but it can help you kind of get out of really strong feelings pretty quickly.

CHATTERJEE: That kind of brief discomfort to the body helps it relax the way deep breathing does. Psychologist Elissa Epel is at the University of California, San Francisco, and the author of the new book "The Stress Prescription."

ELISSA EPEL: It turns out that our body loves short shots of stress and is not just more relaxed but more rejuvenated from a cellular level after stress.

CHATTERJEE: It's why we feel relaxed after a high-intensity workout. And Epel says doing these things on a regular basis also improves mood and makes us more resilient to stress in the long run.

EPEL: So, for example, hot saunas can help with anxiety and depression. Cold showers or ice immersion, they also can help with coping with anxiety and stress.

CHATTERJEE: And when it comes to other long-term strategies, here's one thing you need to know about anxiety. Psychologist Krystal Lewis is with the National Institute of Mental Health.

KRYSTAL LEWIS: What I always say is uncertainty is a breeding ground for anxiety. And so these past few years, we've been experiencing a lot of that.

CHATTERJEE: Lewis says one way to counter the impact of all the external uncertainties is to focus on aspects of life that you can control.

LEWIS: It might be something in your household, parenting with your children. Anything that you can do to build up your routine and create a schedule can be helpful and just give you this sense of efficacy that there are certain things that you're able to control during these tough times.

CHATTERJEE: Even doing little jobs around the house can help. Psychologist Lynn Bufka is with the American Psychological Association.

LYNN BUFKA: Decluttering, getting the dishes done or things that help our environment feel more orderly can sometimes help our mental state feel less overwhelmed and distressed. Because, first of all, that could happen because we're demonstrating I do have some agency, I can take care of some things.

CHATTERJEE: Bufka says studies show that seeking out nature is also very helpful, and you don't have to drive to a park and hike several miles to do that.

BUFKA: You could have a houseplant. You could take care of a houseplant. Sometimes taking care of something and seeing it grow reminds us that change can happen and that good things can happen.

CHATTERJEE: And when the world around us feels shaky and uncertain, Bufka says, it's just as important to acknowledge that times are tough, and there are things that are beyond our control. Learning to acknowledge and let go of those worries is also key to calming an anxious mind. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee
Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.