This One Simple Exercise Can Help Ease Your Anxiety

Therapists recommend this easy technique to help soothe your distress.

With everything that's going on in the world right now, it's not surprising that there's been a major uptick in anxiety and depression. In April, a federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress spiked 1,000 percent compared to April 2019, as nearly 20,000 individuals reached out, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Similarly, Talkspace, an online therapy company, reported a 65 percent increase in clients since mid-February, when the coronavirus pandemic first hit. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released guidelines on how to cope with stress among the COVID-19 pandemic. But while mental health is a big hurdle to overcome, there are small things you can do to manage feelings of fear or isolation. In fact, one simple exercise can help ease your anxiety significantly: concentrating on positive memories.

For some people who suffer with trauma, therapists use "resource installation," a technique that is part of an eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) program. Basically, instead of trying to push away distressing experiences, patients are asked to zero in on a few happy, sensory memories where they felt strong, safe, and supported. At the same time, they're told to close their eyes and move them back and forth, rhythmically, like what happens when you sleep. The theory goes that these eye movements cement good memories in your mind, according to The New York Times.

"We all have resources within us, such as memories of comfort and safety, experiences of being powerful and courageous," writes Laurel Parnell, PhD, an expert in EMDR, in her book Tapping In. "These memories, qualities, and images are stored in our body-mind network and can be accessed, activated, and strengthened."

Woman suffering from terrible headache massaging temples

There are three main ways to do this. The first is to focus on positive personal experiences where you felt self-acceptance, courage, compassion, or any other empowering trait you might have. You can also use a peaceful symbol or dream that resonates with you. The most effective method, however, is to reminisce on soothing memories or loved ones. Then, close your eyes and consider all the senses of the scene, person, or symbol: What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What emotions do you feel?

As you process everything, start shifting your eyes back and forth like a metronome. It may help to slowly tap your fingers in time with each movement. Do this for a few sets, or until the image is clear in your mind and you feel calm. Though it's not required, journaling afterward can be beneficial as well.

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This mental exercise goes hand-in-hand with studies that have found an important connection between nostalgia and happiness. Think of it as a kind of time travel to the past—we feel comforted and less lonely when we reflect on joyous life events with people we love. And for more tools that can wipe away your worries, check out these 7 Free Anxiety Apps to Help You During the Coronavirus Pandemic.

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