By Brittany Doohan
Most people feel anxious once in awhile. It’s normal to have sweaty palms before a big presentation at work, or endure a few sleepless nights when making an important life decision, like buying your first home.
Anxious feelings can even be helpful in many scenarios — they’re a part of your body’s normal “alarm system,” alerting you to dangerous situations. But if your feelings of anxiety are frequent, persistent and pervasive, they can start to interfere with your ability to function in daily life and can even make simple tasks difficult.
If you suspect you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, something that affects 18 percent of the U.S. population, talk to your doctor. He or she will help you decide on a treatment plan (usually a combination of medication and therapy) that’s right for your specific diagnosis. However, when it comes to managing mild anxiety, lifestyle changes can also make a big difference in helping you find relief. So keep calm and read on for seven tips to help ease anxiety symptoms naturally.
Exercise is essential for a healthy body — but it’s just as important for a healthy mind.
When you're anxious, your brain triggers a “fight-or-flight” response, raising your body’s stress hormones to combat the perceived threat. Exercise helps to reduce these stress hormones and, as a bonus, increases production of endorphins, your body's natural mood elevators and painkillers.
Vigorous exercise (enough movement to work up a sweat) also helps to relax your muscles, which can help keep you calm, said Sara DeLong, MD, a specialist in psychiatry and associate clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco. When you’re anxious, your shoulders tend to hunch and your muscles tense up, signaling to your brain that you’re anxious. Exercise helps to reverse that tension.
“[Exercise] sends a message to your brain that it’s going to be okay,” said Dr. DeLong. “It allows you to cope better with whatever the problem is at hand.”
Most experts recommend shooting for at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity six days a week for a host of health benefits, including reduced stress and anxiety.
Feeling anxious can wreak havoc on your diet. Whether those long, tense hours at work or worries at home cause you to skip meals or binge on unhealthy foods, what you’re eating — and how often you eat — directly affects your mood and energy levels, and may actually be perpetuating anxiety symptoms more than you know.
Skipping meals can send your blood sugar plummeting, causing your body to produce hormones that narrow your arteries and increase your blood pressure. But soothing yourself by eating a candy bar or another sweet treat isn’t the answer either: Foods heavy in refined sugar cause blood sugar levels to spike and then drop. Those blood sugar imbalances can cause you to feel jittery or nervous, trigger headaches, fatigue and nausea, and increase your heart rate, among other symptoms.
Eating a well-balanced diet can improve your mood, fight fatigue and give you the fuel you need to tackle your day. This means getting a good balance of fruits and veggies, whole grains (these complex carbs are thought to be essential to the production of serotonin, a mood-boosting, calming brain chemical), and lean proteins (which can help to provide energy). And be sure not to skip any meals during the day.
Relaxing with a glass of wine, a pint of beer or a shot of whiskey when you’re feeling anxious may have a calming effect at first — but using alcohol to reduce anxiety symptoms can worsen those symptoms in the long-term.
“When the alcohol is wearing off, people can have rebound anxiety,” said Dr. DeLong.
That’s because alcohol acts as a stimulant when you first imbibe, but as your blood alcohol levels drop, you’re left feeling down, fatigued, confused or depressed — all feelings that may exacerbate any existing feelings of anxiety.
Alcohol can be even more dangerous if you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Research not only shows that people with anxiety disorders are more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, but that abuse can also trigger or worsen an anxiety disorder or anxiety attack.
Women should have no more than one alcoholic drink per day and men should have no more than two per day, according to the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. If you’re having serious problems with anxiety, however, Dr. DeLong recommends eliminating alcohol from your diet completely.
Your morning cup of coffee can give you that energy boost you need to get through your hectic day. But too much caffeine can mimic anxiety symptoms.
“When [people] eliminate caffeine from their diet, they are really surprised how much it was making them feel anxious,” said Dr. DeLong.
Here’s why: Caffeine suppresses a chemical in the brain responsible for slowing down nerve cells and making you drowsy. This speeds up nerve activity and fools your brain into thinking it’s alert. This spike in nerve activity can make you jittery or nervous, elevate your heart rate and make it more difficult to get a good night’s sleep.
For most adults, a normal dose of caffeine (between two to four cups of drip coffee a day) isn’t harmful. But try not to prep for that nerve-wrecking work presentation by ramping up your coffee intake — and don’t suddenly decide to quit cold turkey, either. (If you regularly drink several cups of a coffee a day, suddenly decreasing the amount of caffeine in your system can cause headaches and may leave you feeling ill). If you’re looking to cut back on caffeine, gradually decrease the amount you drink until you feel good to go without any, or aim to bring your caffeine intake down to less than 100 mg a day, the equivalent of a single cup of coffee.
When you start to feel anxious, you tend to take quick, shallow breaths from the top of your chest — or you may “forget” to breathe altogether.
These stilted, interrupted breaths disrupt the carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the body, which can cause dizziness, increased heart rate and muscle tension, all of which worsen anxiety. When you feel anxiety begin to surface, fight back by taking a few deep breaths to activate the relaxation response, or “rest and digest” part of your nervous system that slows your body down and inhibits the fight-or-flight response to stress. Taking a deep breath can have an immediate effect on the PH levels in your blood, which lowers your blood pressure.
“When you engage in deep breathing, your brain realizes it doesn't need to be stressed," said Joanna A. Robin, PhD, an instructor of psychology at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, part of the Columbia University Medical Center. To retrain your breath, put your hand on your abdomen and inhale slowly through your nose. As your abdomen fills up with air (your chest should rise very little), exhale very slowly through your mouth. Repeat until you start to feel calmer.
Regular anxiety means that your body is constantly activating its fight-or-flight stress response. Actively focusing on relaxing your mind and body can help to counteract that stress, said Dr. DeLong. This can be achieved by practicing relaxation techniques such as yoga or progressive muscle relaxation.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that involves actively contracting and relaxing all of the muscles in your body one by one. After you’ve contracted a muscle, you’re better able to relax it. As you work your way through your whole body, you are able to achieve full-body relaxation.
Yoga can also serve as an effective way to fully relax your muscles and increase the body’s ability to respond to stress more flexibly by increasing heart rate variability (high HRV indicates that the body is relaxed and that the parasympathetic, or “rest and digest,” system has been triggered), according to Harvard Medical School.
Negative thoughts often come hand-in-hand with anxious feelings. As your anxiety worsens, these thoughts can escalate and interfere with your ability to think logically. For instance, you may be nervous about a meeting at work, and you may begin worrying that you’ll have nothing to contribute, which may lead you to doubt your overall work performance. This, in turn, might cause you to lose sleep, making it difficult to focus during the day and causing you to underperform — reinforcing your original negative thoughts.
Instead, look more closely at what’s causing your anxiety and then actively try to change the way you behave toward or react to those triggers. This can help keep any anxious feelings in check.
Dr. DeLong suggests cognitive behavioral therapy — a type of therapy that looks at how thoughts, emotions and behaviors are interconnected, and how, by changing one, you can change the others. CBT can help you “stand back” and see the anxiety-inducing situation, like that work meeting, in a more realistic light. By asking yourself questions (Have I actually gotten any negative feedback from my coworkers or boss? Have I been falling short of standards?), you may realize that there is no evidence to support your worry. You can then better understand that the likelihood of that situation actually taking place is less than you initially feared.
When it comes to managing anxiety, only you and your doctor can decide what combination of treatment is right for you. But incorporating these lifestyle changes into a successful treatment plan can help you overcome your anxiety and stay healthy long-term.
“Focusing on lifestyle changes builds a foundations for managing anxiety for the rest of your life,” said DeLong.