In a fast-paced, high-pressure world, it’s a wonder we aren’t all constantly suffering from panic attacks and heart attacks. Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health problems, and anxiety can contribute to depression, procrastination and even anger problems. Whether you struggle with the anxiety caused by daily inconveniences such as traffic or you’re facing major life stressors such as divorce, it is possible to learn to cope with anxiety.
Most of us have heard that deep breathing and mindful thinking can help to eliminate anxiety, but these strategies can also backfire. Anxiety tends to fester when anxiety sufferers fixate on it, and when traditional anxiety remedies don’t work immediately, this can actually make anxiety worse.
One of the simplest ways to temporarily alleviate anxiety is to find a distraction that prevents your mind from wandering. Walking your dog, playing a video game or reading a riveting book can all help eliminate anxiety. Moreover, recreational activities can help to alleviate anxiety on a long-term basis, so take time each day to do something fun that completely takes your mind off of stress.
Exercise is perhaps the single most effective strategy for fighting anxiety. Aerobic exercise releases endorphins that can help you feel happier and less stressed. Over time, exercise can also help your body produce lower quantities of stress hormones such as cortisol. Because exercise improves blood pressure and pulse, it also works to alleviate the physical symptoms of anxiety and helps your body avoid reacting to stress with panic.
Anxiety isn’t just all in your head. It also takes its toll on your body. If you’re not living a healthy lifestyle, it’s easier for your brain to default to an anxious setting, causing you to feel frightened and jittery even when you’re not facing external stressors.
Some foods are especially likely to increase anxiety. Caffeine and sugar have both been shown to worsen stress, particularly among people who consume large quantities of these foods. Hunger and malnourishment are also common culprits, so take a multivitamin and take time out of your day to eat balanced meals and healthy snacks.
Many anxious people struggle with sleep, alternating between insomnia and excessive sleep. Good sleep hygiene can make it easier to sleep, and adequate sleep reduces anxiety. Wake up at the same time every day and avoid sugar, snacks and caffeine for two hours before bedtime. Try meditating, listening to soft music or reading a soothing book before bed.
Sex is also effective at helping some people sleep, so don’t use your daily stress to avoid intimacy with your partner. Instead, take advantage of the sleep-inducing and endorphin-releasing properties of sex before bedtime.
Connecting with Others
Work deadlines, family obligations and financial difficulties can all serve as distractions from relationships with other people. But connecting with others is one of the single most important things you can do to reduce anxiety and improve overall happiness. Spend a few minutes each day chatting with a friend or your spouse, and carve out time every week to do something social with people you enjoy being around.
Sometimes a momentary flash of anxiety can be physically overwhelming, and it can be difficult to find strategies to deal with this kind of anxiety. Fortunately, there are a few tricks you can use to head off momentary anxiety.
If you’re feeling light-headed, stand up and lock your knees while tensing the muscles in your legs. Release after one to two seconds and repeat until you feel better. This encourages blood flow to the head, relieving dizziness. When facing an overwhelming task list, slow down your thoughts by asking yourself what the next thing you need to do is, and focus only on that task. For butterflies in the stomach, try tensing and releasing your stomach muscles while breathing deeply.
Burns, D. D. (2007). When panic attacks: The new, drug-free anxiety therapy that can change your life. New York, NY: Morgan Road Books.
Costin, C. (2007). The eating disorders sourcebook: A comprehensive guide to the causes, treatments and prevention of eating disorders. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill.
Edited by Jody Smith