10 alcohol-free ways to soothe your anxiety

Catherine Gray | January 2024 | 8 minutes

Author Catherine Gray shares what works for her when it comes to relieving stress without adding alcohol to the mix.

Boy, have our Great British anxiety levels shot up over lockdown.

The ONS have released data that showed almost half of us reporting ‘high’ levels of anxiety between 20 and 30 of March; over double that recorded towards the end of 2019.

This creates a challenge for the newly sober, the trying-to-drink-less, and even the long-term alcohol-free, because if you’re anything like me, one of your biggest drinking triggers was / is: anxiety.

So, what to do? Here’s how I’ve been rolling.

I box-breathe

My ‘fight or flight’ instinct is activated by feeling trapped and powerless, and I know that the main physical symptom that arises from that is – shortness of breath. So, I box breathe, to cue my body into calming down. In for four seconds, hold for four, out for four, hold for four, repeat. It’s magic.

I watch ASMR

Otherwise known a ‘Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response’, if you stick ‘ASMR’ into YouTube, what you’ll get will strike you as absolutely bonkers. Someone whispering about working in a coffee shop, another stroking velvet scrunchies, another unpeeling stickers. But try it and you’ll see – it’s peculiarly relaxing.

I name my emotion

My favourite mindfulness app, Buddhify, taught me the power of naming an emotion. Anxiety has facets within it, it is multi-dimensional. Sometimes my anxiety is fear, sometimes it’s panic, sometimes shyness… and so on. When I name an emotion, I gain some objectivity from it, and feel less consumed by it.

I exercise daily

It’s well documented that when we’re anxious, our cortisol levels tend to rocket, and it’s also widely known that moderate exercise can bring this cortisol back down. I‘ll often catalogue this mental shift from stress to calm by numbering my wellbeing out of ten before a run (say a five) and then afterwards too (finding it’s always at least 2 notches higher)

I absorb myself in a task

It’s tempting to spend hours staring at our phones right now and doing the bare minimum of work (my screen time has gone bananas, and is now an average of five hours a day), but does that make you feel good? It doesn’t, for me. So, while I’m definitely not mothering sourdough loaves or creating watercolour masterpieces, I am setting myself small tasks I can immerse myself in, like reading a book about screenwriting, or painting the legs of a vintage desk.

I listen to feelgood music

Whale sounds or waves don’t do it for me. But easy listening, happy music does. So, I made you lot a Sober Spring Chilled playlist. Warning: it is not highbrow. And I pretty much ignore all recent music.

I remember that their mood is not my responsibility

If you’re living with housemates, a partner, or your kid/s in lockdown, in micro-close quarters as these, it can be very easy to take their moods personally and thus feel anxious about it. But when you’re cranky, is it all to do with them? Nope.

I read good news, as well as bad

There is so much bad news right now, that I am conscious to cap my reading of it at around an hour a day, and finish up my news-reading with some good news too. I like The Guardian’s ‘antidote’ section. There are many pictures of animals, such as ducks waddling through resplendently empty French squares, or lions lounging like playboys on deserted safari park roads. This pleases me.

I try to turn my phone off at 8pm

There’s a balance to be found between forgiving ourselves that our phone-staring has spiralled (mine’s doubled in lockdown), but also recognising that it has been shown to have a negative effect on sleep. When I keep my phone on past around 8pm, I stay up later, then I get less sleep… then I am more anxious. So.

I treat my anxiety as I would a frightened animal

My reaction to anxiety used to be utter rejection. I would be angry with it/myself, shove it away, and tell myself I wasn’t allowed to feel it (‘You are so lucky, stop with your first world problems!’), which only served to make it worse. Of course it did.

Now, I personify my anxiety as a petrified bird (a blue tit, maybe). And how would you treat such a bird? You wouldn’t shout at it, right? Hell no! So, I talk lovingly to it (in my head, most of the time), I tell it that I understand why it’s scared, and reassure it that everything is OK in the here-and-right-now, and that it can safely have a snooze. It works, for me.

What would your anxiety animal be? And how would you talk to it?

Good luck with it teetotal champs. And remember this: it’s utterly, fantastically normal to be feeling more anxious right now.

Photo by: David Yeo