The Range Of Results You May Get From Techniques And Lifestyle Changes Meant To Directly Reduce Your Upsetting Emotions
One way to reduce distressing emotions like anxiety, sadness, and anger is to use techniques or make lifestyle changes which lower their volume, either in the moment or over time. For example:
- Calming exercises, like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or soothing visualizations
- Grounding techniques, meant to help recenter you in the present moment if you're getting caught up in an intense bout of anxiety, rage, or despair
- Exercising more often
- Improving your diet and sleep
- Starting a meditation practice
- Cutting out substances, like caffeine and alcohol, that may be harming your mood
- Trying psychiatric medication or mood boosting supplements
These tools may not address the root cause of someone's panic attacks, depression, or explosive outbursts, but they provide relief from the symptoms and allow them to function better day to day, and that's still very meaningful.
No mental health treatment approach always works. If someone tries commonly recommended things like exercise and meditation, and they don't make much difference, they can worry their problems are extra-severe and possibly hopeless. I wrote this article to give you a more realistic sense of what may happen if you try a bunch of relaxation techniques and lifestyle adjustments. I want to emphasize you're not a lost cause if they don't single-handedly fix you.
Like with any other approach I find these in-the-moment tools and broader changes work on a case-by-case basis. When you get anxious for one reason, it may respond well to you pausing to take some slow breaths. If you get nervous over something else, breathing may not do much, but another method does the trick. You shouldn't think of any tool in terms of "This doesn't solve every last one of my problems, so I won't use it at all."
Whatever mix of hands-on tools someone uses, the possible results below assume they're using or implementing them properly, and giving them enough time to take effect. Of course, they may not work very well if you do them wrong, call it quits early, and so on.
You've just moved to town, don't know anyone, and are anxious at the thought of trying to make new friends. You're tense and worried about it on and off throughout each day. You're too scared to go out and try to meet people. You felt fairly confident in your old city, but these days you feel like you don't have enough to offer.
You learn some relaxation exercises and practice them every day. You start going to the gym in the morning before work. You cut down on caffeine and stop eating so much junk food.
Within a few weeks you notice your mood is much better. You stop feeling so wound up and insecure. The thought of putting yourself out there and trying to build a social life doesn't spook you anymore. Over the next couple of months you attend a bunch of local meet ups and events. You're usually not apprehensive, but when you are you can quickly calm yourself with some slow, deep breathing. With your nerves more or less gone, it's not long before you start to put together a social life.
You can get this result if your anxiety is fairly mild (even if it doesn't always feel that way). If it's not that intense to begin with, some simple relaxation skills or healthy lifestyle changes may be all you need to get it back to zero.
This outcome can also happen if whatever's bothering you is a shorter-term stressful event. It's not that you have to do the hard work of digging up and healing all these old traumas. You just need a way to take the edge off during a life transition you ultimately have the ability to cope with.
You're jittery and insecure about making friends in your new town. You put a bunch of relaxation skills and lifestyle changes into place. After a few weeks you can tell they haven't totally eliminated your anxiety, but it's not as bad as it used to be.
You're still quite nervous at times, but whereas before you sat around your apartment, too scared to try to meet anyone, now you can go out. It's not the most comfortable process, but you get through it. There are times where your breathing exercises bring you down from 8/10 anxiety to a more manageable, functional 3/10, but you don't get the total relief of complete relaxation.
You eventually make new friends, and your anxiety largely dissipates as the original problem you were stressed about is resolved. However, it pops up again in the future whenever you find yourself feeling lonely and like you need some new blood in your social circle.
So-so result #1
You start using a mix of calming techniques and lifestyle adjustments. You feel like they're making things maybe 20% better. It's not enough to allow you to get out of your comfort zone and make the needed changes in your social life, but at least you're somewhat less stressed day to day, or you can calm down from a bout of intense emotion a little more quickly. If nothing else maybe the stuff you've implemented is keeping you from sinking any further. This is a mediocre outcome by itself, but every little bit helps, and maybe some other treatments can be added on top of that 20% improvement and finally turn things around.
So-so result #2
The tools you use feel like they help a fair amount, but over time it becomes clear they're limiting your long-term progress. You're using them as a band-aid, a crutch, or a safety behavior. You can use them to be a bit more comfortable in your status quo rut, or you can seemingly make a bit of progress with them, but hit a dead end sooner or later. You're leaning on them as a replacement for doing harder types of work with a better potential payoff, like gradually facing your fears or processing your old traumas. You could employ these tools in service of those better goals (e.g., to tolerate your nerves during an exposure), but at the moment you're not using them that way.
You try a bunch of these tools, but as far as you can tell they're making no difference, at least for the particular issue or situation you're using them for. Your anxiety, depression, or rage are too strong. Like the intro to this article said, this doesn't mean nothing will work for you, but at least now you know this particular mix and implementation of techniques, lifestyle changes, or healthy habits isn't going to pan out.
You're practicing a particular relaxation technique and it backfires, and triggers an emotional meltdown. One possibility is something about the way you breathed, relaxed your muscles, or whatnot reminded you of a past trauma, and you had a horribly unsettling flashback.
It may have been that you have a type of anxiety that gets set off when you focus too much on certain body sensations, and a relaxation exercise made you pay too much attention to your breathing or heartbeat. Relaxation exercises are usually helpful, or harmless, but on occasion the bodily sensations they create or ask you to attend to can set off a bad reaction. Sometimes it's hard to know this will happen ahead of time.
Psychiatric medication occasionally backfires as well. Some people have no or minimal side effects. Some experience more unpleasant ones, and may even find them worse than the mental health problem they're trying to treat. Self-medicating with substances like alcohol or cannabis may also go wrong. Someone may have a horrible panic attack while they're stoned, or have health or relationship problems from drinking too much.
It's clearly difficult and demoralizing when something you hoped would help blows up in your face like this. It's frustrating when you have to take extra time to recover after an especially bad experience. But again, just because one approach didn't go well doesn't mean you're beyond repair. There are other options.