Feelings of anxiety are extremely common and even natural up to a certain level. This emotion comes to signal that there is some kind of stake for you in the game, so it works to keep you alert, stir you up, and motivate you to act.
The adaptive mechanism of anxiety can, however, become deregulated and start to interfere with your life in unhealthy ways. Fear can become constant, intense, overwhelming and may go haywire, up to a point where you are not able to control your worries anymore. At this point, you have probably crossed the border and are in the land of anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders can be very different and each one of them may be approached differently. The good news is there are also many effective treatments available and things that you can do yourself to reduce anxiety levels and regain control over your life.
Even if you worry a lot, chances are you don't necessarily have an anxiety disorder. An unhealthy and stressful lifestyle can well increase your likelihood of feeling anxious. The following tips will guide you to make slight changes or introduce new habits into your routines so that you can reduce general feelings of anxiety.
Reduce mental load and stimulation
An overcrowded schedule, even if you include pleasant activities, can fire up your stress levels and cut off the time you normally need to recharge your batteries. Think twice before taking up new tasks and consider delegating responsibilities.
Spending each afternoon or evening out on the town, going to the movies, parties, and any other stimulating activity, even though enjoyable, will drain your energy and take a toll on your stress levels.
Introduce about 30 minutes everyday for literally doing nothing. In other words, don't go on Netflix as soon as you step in the house or play video games. Instead, try some incense sticks or aromatherapy oils, prepare yourself a hot cup of tea with your favourite flavours, dim the lights, put on your fluffiest pajamas or blanket and just lay down. Enjoy the silence and let your brain take some rest from processing information.
Moving your body might be one of the most widely recommended activities to improve your mental health and well-being. Researchers show that this may be just as helpful as medication or psychotherapy for managing some forms of anxiety.
Ideally, try aiming for 30 minutes of exercise everyday to help your body regulate stress and tension.
When anxious, it might be difficult to gather yourself up and start exercising. However, it may be easier to introduce physical activity into your everyday routines and then gradually start engaging in more active hobbies. Some ideas for doing this might be:
- Walk or ride the bike to school or work, instead of using a car or public transport
- Climb the stairs instead of using the elevator
- Go hiking
- Join a dance class or just go out dancing
- Do some fun sports with friends, such as volleyball and tennis in the summer, or skiing and ice skating in the winter
- Start practicing a specific sport such as swimming, martial arts, bouldering
Relax your mind and body
Learn to unwind by practicing some breathing exercises or relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. These regulate the ability of your body to switch from worrying to feeling safe.
There is plenty of science supporting the effectiveness of meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, to clear your mind. Your mind is like a sponge that absorbs information through your senses and our way of living today provides a lot of stimulation - commercials from TV, advertisements everywhere on the streets, news on the radio, and so on. All these stick to your mind. Mindfulness meditation works like a mental shower. Just as you need to shower to clean your body from the dust and dirt accumulated during the day, you also need to clean your mind from the debris of every day.
Yoga is a useful practice as it brings together breathing practices, meditation, and physical activity. It has also been shown to relieve anxiety.
Enough sleep is also important for well-being in general and for anxiety relief in particular. Sleep, similar to meditation, is thought to be the janitor of the brain. Researchers suggest that during sleep, the brain eliminates some chemical residues to make space for a new round the next day.
To have a good quality sleep, make sure you follow some basic sleep hygiene guidelines:
- Listen to your internal clock - go to bed when you feel tired and don't go to bed if you don't feel tired
- Stick to a schedule for waking up and going to bed every day
- Reduce light and souds as much as possible before and during sleeping
- Keep a cool temperature in the room
- Make sure your bed is comfortable
- Relax your mind as much as possible before bedtime and avoid mentally stimulating activities, especially using your laptop or smartphone
- Avoid alcohol and cigarettes two hours before going to bed
Go easy on caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol
These substances only lead to higher anxiety, so consider reducing or cutting them out completely, if possible.
Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants, which can increase anxiety levels. Contrary to the popular belief that cigarettes help you relax, science says that this feeling is an illusion. Nicotine is highly addictive, which means that when you take a break from it, craving and tension starts to build up. This tension is further relieved by smoking another cigarette and the cycle continues. Therefore, cigarettes only relax the tension that they caused in the first place.
Alcohol slows down your mental activity, and while it may feel relaxing at first, drinking only messes up with your brain and breaks down your power to think clearly through worries and fears.
Imagine conquering your fears
When worry takes over, it is usually because we imagine the most frightful scenario and how awful it will be when it happens. However, most of these images we form lack an important part of reality: that of how we will cope with a horrible event.
Ask yourself: "Will there be professionals to support me when it happens?", "Do I have friends or family who can provide advice or practical help?", "Will I not be able to use Google to find answers?", and so on. Take stock of these resources you have available so you know you will have a solution if it comes to it.
So next time when you find yourself in a scary scenario, complete the picture in your mind by adding in the part in which you find a way out of the darkness.
Know your anxiety
Anxiety is often like a cloud that hovers above our heads and waits for the first opportunity to instill doubt or turn uncertainty into threat. This often makes us feel powerless because we have no idea when anxiety will rear its head.
An effective way to gain a sense of control over your anxiety is to keep an eye on it. This means studying its moves and understanding how it works. Start by noticing moments in which anxiety kicks in. Notice circumstances which make anxiety higher or lower.
Look for patterns and write them down. Writing things down at this point is important, since your mind is vulnerable to being affected by anxiety. Any attempts you may have to gain control may be derailed by the workings of fear.
Reading about how anxiety works generally, may help as a starting point. However, each person experiences anxiety in a different way, therefore understanding your own is crucial.
Knowing your anxiety can be extremely helpful in putting things into perspective, making a plan for change, predicting when anxiety might show up, and deciding when it's time to act on your plan.
Connect with people
Having a strong support network is the single most important asset that builds our resilience to mental health challenges. It can be a life saver concerning anxious feelings as well.
Reach out and talk to friends or loved ones about feeling anxious. Understanding that you are not alone in this is crucial for staying hopeful and finding a meaning to continue fighting. Loneliness and isolation are extremely painful and add up a lot to the existing burden.
Consider volunteering or helping out in the community. This not only helps you make new connections and build a sense of belonging. Giving back and doing good things for others also makes you feel useful, which research again shows to be a great contributor to your well-being.
Find support groups for people who deal with anxiety. Meeting people with similar experiences, especially if they are at different points in their process, can be reassuring and empowering. Getting in contact with people who are recovering from an anxiety disorder instills hope and gives you an opportunity to get useful advice on how to manage yours. At the same time, being a role model for people who are just starting to get a grip of their anxious feelings can give meaning to your struggle.
There are a lot of things you can do by yourself to reduce your anxiety long term. However, in some cases, worries and fears can become so overwhelming that a more particular approach to treatment is needed.
If you are starting to feel the anxiety in the body, check with your doctor first. Anxiety can be caused by a medical condition, certain prescription drugs, recreational drugs, or supplements. Ruling out a medical cause is necessary for an effective approach to treatment. If anxiety still persists, talk to a mental health specialist such as a psychotherapist or psychiatrist.
A mental health professional will asses your overall condition and will be able to suggest appropriate directions for treatment. The most common approaches to treatment are psychotherapy, medication, or a combination between the two.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the go-to psychological treatment for anxiety, and highly backed up by science. It is a type of talking therapy in which a trained specialist supports you in understanding the interplay between thoughts, feelings and behavior in the context of your anxiety. It helps you reality check, change unhealthy thinking patterns, and learn to gradually confront the experiences that usually scare you, so that you can gain a sense of control over them.
Together with the therapist, you will build healthy strategies for coping with anxiety symptoms, often including relaxation techniques.
CBT is not a quick fix. You will also need to put some work into it, to transfer and practice in your daily life the things you learn in therapy. The results also show only after a few months, but on the other side, the strategies you learn are for life.
Medication is usually recommended in the beginning of psychotherapy, if symptoms of anxiety are so severe that they prevent you from engaging in the intervention. It can also be prescribed when psychological treatments have not helped.
Most anxiety issues appear because of unhealthy life circumstances, thinking patterns, and lack of problem-solving skills. There is still no pill that teaches us how to solve problems, which means that medication can only act on relieving the symptoms. However, as long as we don't learn these life skills, the anxiety will come back, making medication only a short term aid.
Medication may also have unpleasant side effects. If you are considering this treatment, discuss it in detail with a mental health specialist. Get informed on the risks and benefits of different types of medication and how long you will have to take them before you make a decision. Also, make sure you keep in touch with your doctor to monitor your progress and change the dosage or type of medication if needed.
Keep in mind that anxiety and its corresponding disorders are highly manageable and treatable. Most people suffering from anxiety respond very well to therapy and can learn to manage it in about three to four months. Practicing a few of the self-care strategies will definitely boost this process.