Anxiety Disorder Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques can be helpful for anxiety disorders.

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Anxiety disorder relaxation techniques are an important part of many behavioral treatments for anxiety disorders and specifically for social anxiety disorder (SAD). For example, if you have a fear of public speaking, part of your treatment may involve practicing deep breathing and muscle relaxation while imagining giving a speech.

While relaxation techniques often form part of a more comprehensive treatment plan, these are strategies that you can also practice on your own at home. Four strategies in particular that have been used are diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic training, and guided imagery.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing, is the practice of expanding your diaphragm as you breathe, so that your stomach rises and falls, instead of your chest. During an anxiety attack, you are more likely to take shallow breaths, which contributes to symptoms of anxiety.

By practicing how to breathe slowly and deeply while in a relaxed setting, you will be better able to call upon this method of relaxation during times of stress. Deep breathing also forms the foundation upon which other relaxation techniques are built, so it is an important concept to master.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Have you ever noticed the feeling you have after a really intense workout? Your muscles have been fatigued to the point that your body is totally relaxed.

This is the objective of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). Alternating between tense and relaxed muscles helps to induce full-body relaxation. During this practice, you will be directed to tense and relax various muscles throughout your body.

PMR can also be paired with imaginal exposures in which you picture yourself facing feared situations and learning to relax as you do so.

Autogenic Training

Autogenic training describes a technique similar to meditation, in which you repeat a series of statements to yourself about different parts of your body. The repetition of these statements is believed to influence the functioning of your autonomic nervous system, which includes your heart rate.

Guided Imagery

Have you ever wished you could escape to a tropical island or hole up in a log cabin? If you don't have the time or means to actually live out your fantasy, give guided imagery a try. This technique involves using all of your senses to imagine yourself in a relaxed setting. Your body, in turn, enters a relaxed state.

Be careful, though, you may become so relaxed that you fall asleep! It is best not to practice this technique when you have to be somewhere soon. Try it out at night before you plan to fall asleep.

Research on Relaxation for Anxiety

A 2017 meta-analysis of 50 studies (2801 patients) compared relaxation training with cognitive and behavioral treatments for anxiety. Results of that study showed that there was no significant difference between relaxation and cognitive and behavioral therapies for generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias. 

In addition, a 2018 systematic review with meta-analyses exploring the effect of relaxation therapy with people with anxiety disorders showed that relaxation therapy was effective for this group to reduce negative emotions as well as symptoms of depression, phobia, and worry.

Putting Relaxation Into Practice

Once you've chosen a relaxation technique, be sure to set a time to follow through. Though you might feel like you "don't have time to relax," that is probably a sign that you need to make time for some relaxation. By incorporating a daily or weekly practice into your life, you might actually find that you start to look forward to the feeling of calm that it brings.

A Word From Verywell

If your social anxiety is severe and you have not already sought help from a mental health professional, this should be your first step. However, if you are just looking for some additional support, the use of these self-help strategies may be helpful to reduce your symptoms.

Set aside a regular time of day to practice these relaxation techniques, so that it will become a habit. Over time, you should notice that it becomes easier to calm yourself when in stressful or anxiety-provoking situations.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."