Managing Anxiety: How To Stop Stress From Taking Over
Dealing with occasional feelings of stress or worry is natural. Many of us face moments when anxiety can escalate and may seem difficult (or even impossible) to manage. Fortunately, there are evidence-based practices that we can implement to help cope with stress. In this article, we discuss the difference between anxiety and worry and investigate strategies that can help you manage stress, including professional resources such as mental health therapy.
Worry or anxiety?
Occasional bouts of anxiousness is a natural component of human life that serves an evolutionary purpose in helping us prepare for threat or danger. However, for some individuals, anxious feelings do not subside, interfering with their ability to accomplish simple tasks and enjoy life in general.
Anxiety disorders (i.e., general anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, or panic disorder) can cause a variety of symptoms that may occur in everyday life and with no discernable cause. These symptoms can greatly impact a person’s life and can be unhealthy. In these cases, this anxiety may need to be addressed in partnership with a professional.
Symptoms of anxiety can include the following:
- Sense of impending danger without a discernable cause
- Feeling nervous or helpless
- Shortness of breath
- Hyperfocus on a panic trigger
- Constant and/or irrational worry
9 strategies that can help you manage anxious feelings
The following strategies to manage anxiety may be used by anyone, whether you have an anxiety disorder, or are simply dealing with a stressful situation. If you do find that you are dealing with an overwhelming amount of stress and worry, however, the final strategy (seeking the help of a mental health professional) may be the best place to start.
1. Stay active
Physical activity can be a good way to reduce stress and promote health. Staying active does not necessarily mean hitting the gym; it can be any kind of enjoyable exercise done on most days of the week. Take a walk outside, do a yoga routine in your living room, or sign up for a dance class. There is a connection between being active and improved mental health, and exercise is a proven stress-reliever in addition to providing other physical benefits. Exercise does not have to be unenjoyable. Try a new activity, like bowling or ballroom dancing, that is fun and raises your heart rate at the same time. Hiking through nature or beautiful spaces are alternative forms of exercise that can calm the nerves and produce a lingering effect of relaxation.
2. Relaxation techniques/breathing exercises
Research has suggested that relaxation techniques (including mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises, and visualization) can actively help to reduce stress and promote overall relaxation.
An example of one of these techniques is 4-7-8 breathing, a relaxation practice based in the yoga tradition. To do this simple exercise, find a comfortable place to sit. Close your eyes and exhale until your lungs are completely empty. Next, take a deep breath in through your nose, counting to four. Hold that breath for seven seconds. Finally, exhale for eight seconds through your mouth. You may choose to do several rounds or block off a period of several minutes. This method of breathing has been shown in studies to help alleviate symptoms of sleep deprivation while lowering blood pressure and heart rate.
Mindfulness is a body-mind technique that was founded in Buddhist meditation traditions. Similar to other relaxation techniques (such as yoga, breathing exercises, or visualization), mindfulness meditation is designed to bring your mind into the moment. Practicing mindfulness has demonstrated a significant positive effect on stress and is often used in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy.
3. Eat healthy and balanced meals
Eating a whole-foods and balanced diet can help improve your health and your mood. Research studies have shown that a poor diet can adversely affect your mood and increase symptoms of anxiety. For example, there have been some links found between eating foods like fish, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and reduced anxiety symptoms. In some studies, magnesium deficiency has been shown to increase symptoms of anxiety. Therefore, eating magnesium-rich foods like leafy greens, nuts, and seeds may help.
A healthy diet typically involves avoiding processed and fast foods high in refined sugars, carbohydrates, and unhealthy oils. Alternatively, eat whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and rich in healthy oils, such as essential fatty acids. In changing your eating habits, you may notice that you have more energy and an improved outlook on life.
4. Stay social
Psychology experts have long acknowledged the importance of having a solid, reliable support system for the maintenance of mental health and general well-being. Whether your support system is comprised of a spouse, loved ones, or close friends, this social reinforcement can help you to achieve health goals and build resilience against setbacks.
However, when you are feeling anxious, there can be a tendency to isolate yourself from others. This type of behavior can exacerbate anxiety symptoms. If you feel you are avoiding social contact, try to stay active with your friend group or any hobbies you enjoy. Strong social connections can improve both your mental and physical health.
5. Avoid harmful self-medication
Many people who have mental health disorders will use substances to help cope with the associated symptoms that can often be difficult to manage. However, despite the apparent immediate effects of these substances (i.e., alcohol, cigarettes, or illicit drugs) to soothe anxiety, self-medicating can make anxiety worse. Concomitantly, substance use is typically associated with other negative impacts on health. If you currently believe you may have a substance use problem, you can reach out to your healthcare provider, or find a support group to help.
6. Keep a journal
Journaling can be an excellent way to manage anxious feelings. By capturing your thoughts on paper (or on a digital platform), you can gain greater insight into potential triggers, and may even choose to discuss them with a licensed therapist to determine a course of action. Just the action of writing can be therapeutic.
For example, a current peer-reviewed article revealed that journaling is a beneficial non-pharmacological tool that can be useful in managing the symptoms of mental illnesses, including anxiety-related disorders. The two main types utilized as an adjunct to mental health therapy included expressive journaling and gratitude journaling. With expressive journaling, you can spend 10-20 minutes writing down your deepest thoughts and feelings to help you work through the complexities of your emotional journey. A gratitude journal is a positive addition to this method, as you spend the same amount of time recording the positive aspects of your life.
7. Identify what you need in this moment
When you are in the midst of overwhelming anxiety, you may find you are unable to reach the place of calm to try out mindfulness or find the energy to exercise. In these moments, forcing yourself to do something that does not serve you in that moment can be unhelpful. Instead, pay attention to what was happening before you were flooded with anxious feelings. You can come up with a plan ahead of time and determine which action may help in those moments. With this plan in motion, you can gain greater control over negative emotions.
There is no one-size-fits all for when you are feeling anxious, but you can adapt certain strategies. For example, if you are experiencing anxiety and know you are unable to practice seated meditation, try a walking meditation instead. You can also call a close friend or write in your expressive journal to release the feelings.
8. Practice healthy sleep hygiene
Getting proper sleep (for most adults this will look like 7-9 hours of uninterrupted slumber), can be beneficial to mental health. However, one of the symptoms of anxiety is sleep issues, so effective sleep may not be the easiest to accomplish. In this case, consider the following to get better sleep:
- Avoid looking at close screens (like a tablet or phone) at least two hours before bed.
- Use your bedroom for sleeping and sex only; train your body not to think of it as a place to hang out or do other activities.
- Start dimming lights a couple of hours before bed.
- Avoid heavy meals or alcohol before bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoon/evening hours.
If you have trouble sleeping even after incorporating better bedtime habits, you may want to seek assistance from a sleep specialist. Your primary care provider can refer you to one.
9. Talk to a therapist
If your anxiety becomes overwhelming, or begins to interfere with daily activities, it may be time to seek help from a mental health professional. A licensed therapist can help you to identify your anxiety triggers, work with you to find effective coping strategies, and help you to establish healthier lifestyle habits to manage symptoms.
Online therapy for anxiety
For those managing anxiety, the idea of making appointments and going to a physical office may add to the emotional load. An individual may avoid reaching out for help because of this added stress. Online therapy is an increasingly popular choice for getting mental health care due to its availability and convenience. By using an online mental healthcare platform like BetterHelp, you can meet with a licensed therapist from the comfort of your own home or office. Further, any homework or follow-ups can be done through video chat, text, or online chat room, making it a convenient choice for those managing symptoms of anxiety.
Research shows that online therapy can be just as effective as in-person therapy. For example, a current study examined the effectiveness of virtual cognitive behavior therapy for anxiety disorders in adults. Researchers found that therapist-led online CBT showed no significant difference in outcomes for anxiety than in-person therapy. In conclusion, the study authors reported online therapy to be an “efficacious treatment for anxiety in adults”.
What does anxiety feel like?
In the context of an anxiety disorder, anxiety may manifest as persistently nervous energy, a sense of dread about otherwise innocuous tasks or events, difficulty getting a full breath, or chronic muscle tension. In an anxiety or panic attack, someone might feel like they’re having a heart attack or be overcome by an overwhelming sense of doom.
Why do I feel anxious for no reason?
Even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder, you may feel anxious from time to time seemingly without a cause. In reality, your feelings of anxiety are possibly the result of:
- Skipping meals. Jitteriness and other physical symptoms of low blood sugar can mimic anxiety symptoms.
- Junk food. When you do eat, perhaps you eat foods that make your blood sugar drop more rapidly than others. A piece of white bread, for instance, will more starkly affect your blood sugar than a piece of brown bread. That spike and drop may make you feel worse.
- Not enough sleep. Insufficient sleep can predispose you to stress and can exacerbate preexisting anxiety.
How can you fight anxiety?
Anxiety management starts with staying healthy—maintaining your energy levels through sufficient sleep, avoiding alcohol and other substances, and eating nutritious foods.
Identifying triggers and working through them with the help of a therapist, psychiatrist, or other mental health worker can also ease anxiety over time.
Are there any foods that get rid of anxiety?
While there are no foods that will cure anxiety, regularly eating certain foods such as unrefined grains and vegetables may ease symptoms and reduce your risk of further anxiety. Fermented foods may reduce symptoms in those with social anxiety specifically.
What vitamins or supplements help with anxiety?
Do probiotics have any effect on anxiety?
Given that generalized anxiety disorder demonstrably alters one’s gut microbiome—which produces the bulk of our serotonin—it’s little surprise that researchers have investigated probiotics as a potential treatment.
One study found that a course of probiotics in combination with an SSRI was more effective than the SSRI alone. Another found that probiotic supplementation can reduce depressive and anxious symptoms. However, more research is required before anyone can make a solid recommendation regarding which probiotics people should try.
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