If you suffer from stress or anxiety, you probably already know that it can affect your hands. Some people’s hands begin to shake when they become anxious. Others turn to coping behaviours like nail biting, hand wringing, or picking at their skin, which may be a relief in the moment but are generally unhelpful – and sometimes even harmful.
Though, luckily, there are many things you can do with your hands to help alleviate anxiety and stress, both in the short and long term.
Here are eight things to do with your hands when you feel anxious.
1. Try The Calming Hand technique
Most of us know that breathing exercises can help with stress and anxiety – but it can be difficult to remember the different techniques – particularly when you’re feeling panicked.
Therefore, one of the best things to do with your hands when you’re anxious is to practise the Calming Hand; a simple technique that’s recommended by the NHS and mental health professionals.
By using each finger as a prompt for different breathing and relaxation techniques, the Calming Hand makes it easier to recall breathing exercises, particularly when you’re out and about.
Taking deep breaths helps to slow your heart rate, steady your blood pressure, and distract you from negative feelings. Plus, squeezing your fingers provides a feeling of comfort and control.
To try the Calming Hand technique, follow the steps below:
- Recognise: Hold your thumb firmly while recognising your feelings of anxiety. Remind yourself that the feelings by themselves are not dangerous, and you can control them.
- Sigh out: Move on to your index finger, drop your shoulders, breathe in, and then sigh out while letting your upper body relax.
- Inhale: Continue to the middle finger, then inhale slowly.
- Exhale: Move to your ring finger, then exhale slowly (ideally for longer than you inhale).
- Stretch and relax: When you reach your little finger, stretch your hand out to create tension, then release while breathing deeply. Repeat until you feel calmer.
2. Learn cross stitch
If you enjoy getting creative, there’s good news: using your hands for creative and artistic pursuits is a great way of managing anxiety.
Cross-stitch is particularly effective for this. Not only is the repetitive motion of the stitching soothing but it can distract you from feelings of anxiety and help you focus on the task at hand. Plus, doing something productive makes you feel like you’ve achieved something.
A study by the Home Sewing Association found that people who do cross-stitch experience lower blood pressure and a decrease in heart rate. And although many crafts were shown to help lower stress levels, cross stitch was the most effective at lowering cortisol.
The rhythm of cross stitch acts like a form of meditation, helping you relax on both a short-term and long-term basis – while following a pattern helps to keep your brain healthy and active.
3. Practise hand reflexology
Reflexology has been used to treat anxiety and stress-related conditions for more than 5,000 years. By applying pressure to certain areas of the hands or feet, it’s believed that the body enters a state of homeostasis, where all systems are in balance.
Although there’s no concrete scientific evidence that reflexology can treat medical conditions, a 2017 study found that it significantly reduced anxiety in cardiology patients.
To try hand reflexology to reduce your own symptoms of anxiety, use your thumb to firmly draw an arc-shaped line from the bottom of your other thumb, over your palm, and down to your heart line (the top line across your palm). Then, draw a line from the inside of your thumb knuckle to the edge of your thumb pad, then move across the bottom of your hand until you reach the other side.
For maximum benefit, try working on both hands for five minutes a day. To see this hand reflexology technique in action, have a watch of the video below.
4. Squeeze stress balls
Most of us are familiar with stress balls – and because they fit in your pocket and are inexpensive, they’re one of the most popular methods of dealing with anxiety.
There’s not currently enough clinical evidence to say that stress balls definitively help to alleviate stress – but the general consensus is that they’re helpful in stressful moments.
When you’re feeling anxious, you’ve usually got a lot of negative energy running through your body and nowhere for it to go. And while squeezing a stress ball won’t address the causes of anxiety, it can release some of that energy, helping you feel more calm and relaxed.
You can buy different strength stress balls too; the harder the stress ball, the better it is for releasing that anxious energy.
But there are other reasons to turn to a stress ball! Research shows that they may also help relieve arthritis pain, improve concentration and creativity, strengthen muscles, enhance emotional stability, lower blood pressure, boost positive energy, and even improve sleep.
5. Turn to knitting and crochet
Other artistic pursuits that can help alleviate anxiety include knitting and crochet. Just like cross stitch, the repetitive hand motions of these crafts help create a relaxed state of mind, and can also lower heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. There are many studies that support the healing nature of these hobbies, with research showing that knitting can reduce fear and boost happiness.
Because they’re portable and less fiddly than cross stitch, knitting and crochet are good activities to do with your hands when you’re on the move. If you’re on public transport, for example, you can easily knit and crochet – and because these crafts rely on muscle memory, you’re still able to pay attention to your surroundings while enjoying the sense of calm that these activities impart.
6. Give Jin Shin Jyutsu a try
You may not have heard of Jin Shin Jyutsu but there’s a good chance it might help you deal with feelings of stress and anxiety.
This Japanese healing practice aims to balance the body and restore a sense of harmony, and it does that by applying pressure to certain points – just like acupuncture, except you use your hands instead of a needle.
According to practitioners, putting pressure on certain parts of the body calms the nervous system and mind, helps energy flow better, and allows the body to function properly.
A 2014 study found that nurses who practised Jin Shin Jyutsu reported lower stress levels and improved motivation and gratitude, and a 2020 study also found that Jin Shin Jyutsu practitioners had decreased stress levels.
To try Jin Shin Jyutsu, fold the fingers of one hand around the index finger of your opposite hand so that it’s tucked in your palm. Then, hold your finger tightly for one to two minutes, closing your eyes if you wish to.
To find out more about using Jin Shin Jyutsu for anxiety, check out this article by Spirituality Health, or have a watch of the video below.
7. Learn origami
Folding and tearing paper or tissues is a common sign of anxiety – and if you’re prone to doing this when anxious, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s a far more effective way to play with paper.
Origami is a paper-based art form that dates back to first-century China. It’s been practised in both China and Japan for over a thousand years, though it’s only in more recent years that it’s been used to treat anxiety in the West. Hospitals, prisons, and schools now encourage people to practise origami to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and other psychological conditions.
It takes time and practice to master origami but following patterns helps to calm the mind, and the simultaneous mental and manual exercise relaxes the body and boosts self-esteem. Because you only need paper and your hands to do it, origami is also a healthy way to cope with anxiety when you’re on the move.
To find out more, you might want to read our article; An introduction to origami.
8. Stretch and squeeze therapy putty
Though it first became popular in rehabilitation programs for people recovering from surgery, injury, and strokes, more recently, therapy putty has become a common coping mechanism for people struggling with anxiety.
While squeezing and stretching the putty is designed to strengthen your hands and fingers, it’s also an outlet for nervous energy – just like stress balls.
Because therapy putty is more pliable than stress balls, you can do pretty much anything with it – wrap it around your fingers, squeeze it as hard as you can, poke it with your nails, and fidget with it. Aside from being an outlet for anxious energy, playing with therapy putty helps distract you from negative thoughts and the physical feelings of anxiety.
To find out more about the best therapy putties for anxiety and stress, check out this article by Life Savvy.
Whether it’s exercises that remind you of breathing techniques, creative pursuits that work to distract you, or actions that release nervous energy, there are many things you can do with your hands when you feel anxious.
Although none of these techniques addresses the cause of anxiety, they can be really effective ways to handle your emotions and help both your brain and body feel calmer.
Next time you feel anxious, you might want to try all of these hand techniques and see which ones work best for you. You might find that something as simple as squeezing a stress ball or playing with therapy putty makes the biggest difference – or perhaps getting lost in an artistic pursuit calms your mind the most. Who knows, you may end up developing a rewarding and therapeutic new hobby!