His stomach twists. He can feel his airway constricting and hear his heart pounding in his ears. Terry frantically scans the room for the nearest exit, intent on getting back to his car before panic sets in. Settling into the familiar scent of his car, he senses his body shaking, and he gasps as he tries to slow his rapid breathing and regain emotional control. What just happened? Terry’s mind races back to his trigger–a respected coworker’s comment about a subpar project Terry helped with last year. Insecurity and anxiety had instantly enveloped Terry, triggering a cascade of fear and panic that manifested in many of his dreaded anxiety symptoms. Ranging from mild to severe, anxiety symptoms are beginning to dictate who Terry speaks with, where he goes, and how he plans his day.
Occasional anxiety is not out of the ordinary for most people, but for those suffering from anxiety disorders, frequent, often excessive anxiety, fear, panic, and even terror haunt daily life. These unhealthy feelings easily disrupt day-to-day living and affect quality of life. Anxiety can be caused by many factors, from adverse childhood experiences, abuse, trauma, and even stress. This common mental health condition can trigger many emotions and unrealistic thoughts, further leading to anxiety.
An emotion, thought, stress, or an experience can trigger anxiety. Our bodies naturally respond to stress or perceived danger triggers by releasing stress chemicals, such as adrenaline, which is often associated with a quickened pulse and rapid breathing. Those with anxiety experience even greater emotional and physical responses to triggers. Often, the feelings and thoughts experienced are magnified from the actual danger one experiences and can cause individuals to avoid places or situations for reasons others may deem irrational. Anxiety has numerous forms, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Common symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feeling nervous
- Feeling helpless
- Feeling restless or on edge
- Feeling week or tired
- Difficulty concentrating
- Troubles falling or staying asleep
- Muscle tension
- Increased heart rate
- Sense of impending panic, danger, or doom
- Experiencing gastrointestinal troubles
It can be helpful to discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider, just to rule out any underlying physical health problems. If your symptoms are congruent with an anxiety disorder, you then have more information to work with as you seek to rid yourself of these unwanted, unhealthy symptoms. Your healthcare provider may want to try medication or have you see a therapist for cognitive behavioral therapy. Additionally, they may recommend important lifestyle and coping strategies that can help you combat your anxiety.
We believe that lifestyle plays a significant role in managing and overcoming anxiety, which is why we want to share our recommendations with you as you seek to make anxiety a thing of your past.
Here are our top 9 tips for managing anxiety:
1. Evaluate and Manage Your Sleep Cycle
When did you last evaluate your sleep? A conservative estimate states that half of individuals with anxiety experience sleep disturbances, and, unfortunately, disrupted sleep further exasperates anxiety in a vicious cycle.[i] If you are having difficulty falling asleep at night, experiencing early morning awakenings, or feeling the drain of sleep-deprivation, chances are that it is time to evaluate the many factors influencing your circadian rhythm–your sleep-wake cycle. In addition to a pharmacological approach to managing sleep, there are numerous natural approaches to improving your sleep cycle, from sun exposure and light therapy to limiting screen time and trying different sleep aids. Learn our top tips for improving your sleep in this helpful article.
2. Give Your Brain the Best Nutrients
Not surprisingly, what you eat directly influences your mind, for better or worse. When faced with stress and anxiety, eliminating foods that impair the brain and loading up on what boosts its performance becomes a key lifestyle intervention for anxiety recovery. Many aspects of the western diet contribute to poor physical and mental health outcomes; we recommend eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages, refined, processed grains, confectionaries, fast food, large quantities of meat and animal products, and any foods rich in fat. Incorporating brain-enhancing nutrients is also imperative for giving your anxious mind a boost toward optimal functioning. These key nutrients are needed for peak mental performance: specific protein building blocks, amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan, folate, iron, B vitamins (think green leafy veggies!), and plant-based omega-3 fatty acids. Even if you are not prepared for a complete diet overhaul, begin by removing one unhealthy food each week and incorporating at least one brain-enhancing food. Check out the hyperlinks above for more tips and tricks for a diet that will help you combat anxiety!
Avoiding certain stimulants is also important for improving anxiety. Moderate to high doses of caffeine can increase anxiety and irritability. [ii] Consider cutting back or eliminating caffeine completely as a specific intervention to reduce anxiety. Also, while alcohol at first may act as a sedative, it increases anxiety and makes coping with stress much more difficult. [iii]
3. Make Physical Activity a Priority
Exercise has long bene touted as an effective anti-anxiety modality. Evidence supports a dose-response relationship between exercise intensity and improved anxiety symptoms. [iv] Simply put, that means that the more rigorously you work out, the fewer anxiety symptoms you will experience. Jogging, working out at the gym, and even a simple, brisk walk will all help your body immediately ward off stress and combat anxiety. The bottom line is, if you are feeling anxiety or panic setting in, start moving. Whenever possible, go outside and exercise in the fresh air and bright light. We recommend spending at least 60 minutes each day engaging in some sort of physical activity–and it doesn’t have to all be at once to still experience a benefit for your mental health! As you engage in physical activity consistently and intentionally, you will experience many mental and physical health benefits.
4. Employ Relaxation Techniques
When your heart is throbbing or you’re facing a crisis at work, relaxation is often the farthest thing from your mind. Thankfully, relaxation techniques can be practiced during times of lower stress to make employing them while anxiety more likely.
Relaxation techniques are therapeutic exercises used to reduce tension and anxiety, both physically and psychologically. They are designed to help increase feelings of calmness and decrease feelings of stress. These techniques can lower heart rate, reduce muscle tension, and slow breathing. Several techniques that you can employ include diaphragmatic breathing, prayer, Pilates, progressive muscle relaxation, massage, art or music therapy, aromatherapy, and hydrotherapy, amongst others.
Let’s look more closely at progressive muscle relaxation:
With progressive muscle relaxation, you will focus on slowly tensing and then releasing different muscle groups in your body. Find a quiet area where you can focus then begin by squeezing your toes for 5 seconds then gently releasing the muscles for 30 seconds; move on to tighten and release the muscles of your lower leg. Gradually work your way up your body to your neck and head muscles, repeating the process of tensing and releasing the muscles. This exercise helps you become more aware of the physical sensations of muscle tension and relaxation. It can reduce overall tension and stress in your body, allowing you to intentionally relax, especially when you are feeling anxious.
5. Reframe Anxious Thoughts with CBT
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is first-line intervention for anxiety disorders and targets irrational, distorted thoughts and behaviors that maintain anxiety over time. [v] CBT promotes more rational, helpful, and adaptive thinking and behaviors to reduce distressing emotional experiences using both cognitive and behavioral interventions. This highly structured psychotherapy often only needs a limited number of sessions with a therapist before you can independently employ CBT skills to manage anxiety. CBT empowers you to catch and change anxious thoughts before they spiral into further anxiety as well! It is an effective modality for anxiety and related disorders, including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and prolonged grief. Discover how you can begin using CBT yourself here.
6. Take Time to Journal
Journaling can help you effectively consolidate stress, distorted thinking, and anxiety on to a page and out of the mind. We suggest combining this type of journaling with CBT exercises for the most effective form of journaling for your mental wellbeing. Expressing gratitude through journaling is another healthy practice to boost the mind and combat both depression and anxiety. Focus on identifying 3-5 different things each day that you are grateful for, being specific and intentional when possible. As you focus on the positive things in your life, you will gain a greater perspective of what is really taking place around you, which can improve your stress and anxiety.
7. Work with a Therapist to Identify Triggers
Anxiety can leave us feeling like a smoothie – everything is all turned upside down and we cannot make sense out of our thoughts or our triggers. A good therapist can not only help you identify triggers, but also help you create helpful, rational reframed thoughts and provide pointed therapy modalities to function when you face triggers in the future. We recommend finding a therapist whose primary modality is cognitive behavioral therapy.
8. Supplements for Better Brain Chemistry
Lifestyle interventions like diet, exercise, and changing thinking patterns collectively influence brain chemistry. As we make positive adjustments, our brain chemistry naturally begins shifting, enabling us to combat anxiety and respond to triggers. Some individuals still benefit from additional supplementation for improving brain chemistry. At Nedley Health, our medical director, Neil Nedley, MD, works with patients with anxiety disorders daily and has several top-supplement recommendations. These are suitable for adults and children ages 6 and over (children under 12 should take half an adult dose; and all children should consult with the pediatrician before beginning supplementation). Always consult with your primary care provider before adding a supplement or changing a medication.
Dr. Nedley’s top anxiety supplement recommendations:
9. Invest in Social Connections
Did you know that how you perceive your social connections directly impacts the effectiveness of your anxiety interventions? [vi] If you have family and friend relationships that support you, you are more likely to have less anxiety. Rather than withdrawing when feeling anxious, work on conscientiously staying connected. This may involve reaching out to someone you trust and letting them know that you need support. If you do not readily have social connections, consider a church family or community support group as you build relationships.
You are not doomed to a miserable existence riddled with anxiety symptoms. Through lifestyle and specific modalities, you can overcome these symptoms, experience freedom, and regain your ability to face conversations, activities, and your thoughts with renewed confidence. Whether you tackle your symptoms on your own and employ the strategies of this article or our online class, work with a therapist or your doctor, or enroll in a medically supervised outpatient recovery program, anxiety recovery is within your grasp!
Please contact us first before publishing this article (but feel free to share it!).
[i] Chellappa, S. L., & Aeschbach, D. (2022). Sleep and anxiety: From Mechanisms to Interventions. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 61, 101583.
[ii] LA Pohorecky. (1981). The interaction of alcohol and stress. A review. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1981 Summer;5(2):209-29.
[iii] Dour, H. J., Wiley, J. F., Roy-Byrne, P., Stein, et al. (2014). Perceived Social Support Mediates Anxiety and Depressive Symptom Changes Following Primary Care Intervention. Depression and Anxiety, 31(5), 436–442.
[iv] Lundin, K., Bergh, Y., Eggertsen, R., et al. (2022). Effects of Exercise on Symptoms of Anxiety in Primary Care Patients: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Affective Disorders, 297, 26–34.
[v] Curtiss, J. E., Levine, D. S., Ander, I., et al. (2021). Cognitive-Behavioral Treatments for Anxiety and Stress-Related Disorders. Focus (American Psychiatric Publishing), 19(2), 184–189.
[vi] Richards, G., & Smith, A. (2015). Caffeine Consumption and Self-assessed Stress, Anxiety, and Depression in Secondary School Children. Journal of Psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 29(12), 1236–1247.