If you are constantly worrying, feeling tense, or thinking negative or catastrophic things will happen, you may be struggling with anxiety. Although the exact causes of anxiety are uncertain, people who suffer from this condition often share risk factors, such as having a family member who has anxiety, experiencing trauma, or having other forms of mental illness. Fortunately, the right combination of lifestyle changes, cognitive approaches, and possibly medications can help you to reduce the symptoms and overcome your anxiety.
Incorporating Healthy Lifestyle Changes
Make Sleep a Priority
Sleep and anxiety have a complex chicken-or-the-egg relationship. A lack of sleep can cause anxiety, and anxiety can result in sleep disturbance. To gain control of your anxiety, focus on getting at least seven hours of sleep each night. Use the following tips to get adequate shut-eye:
• Allow your body to adjust to sleeping on a regular schedule.
• Go to bed at the same time each day.
• Turn off electronics 1 hour prior to bed.
• Make your bedroom environment comfortable and strictly for sleeping.
• Get your bedroom cool and dark.
• Exercise, but not in the 2-3 hours before bed.
• Develop a winding down ritual to follow nightly.
• Use aromatherapy like lavender scents to promote relaxation.
• Don't drink caffeine after noon.
• Avoid eating right before bed.
• Spend time in the sun every day.
• Quit smoking (nicotine can affect sleep).
• Don't drink alcohol in the 2 hours before you go to bed.
Get Daily Physical Exercise
In addition to maintaining overall physical health, exercise can have a profound impact on mental well being. Physical activity generates endorphins, which are the body's feel-good chemicals. As a result, engaging in exercise regularly can relieve stress and distract you from worries.
Doctors suggest getting approximately 30 minutes of exercise each day of the week. If you can't do it all at one time, it's okay to break it up into 10-minute blocks. Walk, jog, row, or bike - it's up to you. Just choose an activity that you will commit to.
Eat a Balanced Diet
You may not understand the connection between what you eat and how you feel, but it's definitely there. Certain foods and beverages like refined sugar or caffeine may worsen anxiety. Instead, drink plenty of water and eat healthy meals with a balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean protein.
Base your diet around fresh produce, fish, beans, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and healthy oils, which support mental health. However, cut out processed foods and treats, which can negatively affect your mental health.
Prebiotics and probiotics are both essential to your gut health. While you can take supplements, you can also find food sources. Eat fruits and vegetables that are high in fiber to increase your consumption of prebiotics. For instance, eat asparagus, tomatoes, mango, onions, apples, and bananas. For probiotics, eat yogurt with live or active cultures, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso soup, kefir, tempeh, and kombucha.
There are heaps of research connecting caffeine to increased anxiety. Caffeine has been found to increase anxiety, depression, and hostility. Avoid caffeine in soda, coffee and tea (go for decaf), and even chocolate.
Reduce Your Consumption of Alcohol and Other Depressants
You might drink alcohol to ease anxiety but find that it eventually worsens your condition. Look for a healthy outlet to stress and anxiety, such as listening to music or calling a friend, rather than turning to drugs or alcohol.
Take Care of Yourself
When battling a mental illness such as anxiety, you might become so focused on getting better and fulfilling responsibilities that you forget to practice regular self-care. Follow a routine to make sure you take care of your basic needs every day, like eating regular meals, bathing, and brushing your teeth. Additionally, do something for yourself every day to relieve stress. Make it extra special so that you have something to look forward to daily.
Clean your living space weekly so it doesn't get too messy. Additionally, pay your bills each month on a set day. Give yourself something to look forward to each day, whether it is a talk with a friend, a dip in a hot bath, your favorite cup of (decaf) tea, or your favorite sitcom. Set this aside as "me time." Do whatever you need to do to de-stress, there's no one right answer for everyone.
Practice Deep Breathing Exercises
Deep breathing is one way to reduce anxiety. When you breathe deeply, that sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax, and your brain controls your body. Use the following steps to practice deep breathing:
1. Sit upright, with your back straight. You can sit in a chair, or sit on the floor with your legs
crossed, whatever feels more natural.
2. Place your arms on the arms of a chair or resting on your thighs. This removes the burden from your shoulders and aids in relaxation.
3. Inhale slowly through your nose. For a count of four seconds, breathe deeply through your nose. Your lower belly should expand with the breath.
4. For one to two seconds, hold the breath inside your chest.
5. Release the air. Exhale all of the air out of your lungs through your mouth. You should hear a "whoosh" sound as it leaves your mouth. Notice your belly deflating as you release the breath.
6. To avoid hyperventilating, wait a few seconds before taking a new breath.
7. Repeat. Do this entire sequence again for about five minutes. About six to eight cycles of breathing per minute is considered effective at relieving anxiety. Nonetheless, you should find your own natural breathing rhythm that makes you comfortable.
Deep breathing should not be saved for only when you are experiencing anxiety. Practice this exercise daily to manage the symptoms of anxiety and fend off stress.
Restructuring Your Thinking
Recognize Faulty Thought Patterns
Cognitive distortions are unhealthy or irrational thoughts that worsen feelings of anxiety or depression. Consider the most common cognitive distortions below and see if you can spot these patterns in your own self-talk.
• All or nothing (or black and white) thinking: Viewing situations in absolute categories
- something is good or bad, right or wrong, with no subtleties, complexities, or gray areas.
• Mental filter: Exaggerating the negatives while minimizing the positives.
• Jumping to conclusions: Assuming someone else's negative reaction is because of you; predicting the future to be negative.
• Magnification or minimization: Either maximizing or minimizing the importance of a situation.
• Overgeneralization: Seeing a negative event as a part of a nonstop pattern.
• "Should" statements: Judging yourself or others by what they "Should," "Ought," "Shouldn't," "Have to," or "Must" do.
• Emotional reasoning: Reasoning based solely on your emotions - "I feel stupid, so I must be."
• Discounting the positives: Diminishing the value of your accomplishments or positive attributes.
Question the Validity of Cognitive Distortions.
To eliminate negative self talk, you have to notice yourself taking part in these cognitive distortions, and then make a conscious effort to challenge these self statements.
- First, you notice negative self-talk: "I can see everyone watching me and I know they think I'm awkward."
- Next, you challenge this thinking with one of the following questions:
- What would I say to a friend who said something like this?:
- What evidence do I have that this thought is true?:
- What evidence do I have that this thought is not true?:
- Am I confusing "possibility" with "certainty"?:
- Is this thought based on how I feel rather than on facts?:
Aim to Reframe Negative Thoughts
The primary focus of cognitive restructuring is to notice when you are having unhelpful thoughts, challenge the reality of these thoughts, and transform them into thoughts that are neutral or life-giving and positive. Reframing negative thoughts is one way to think more realistically and reduce anxious feelings.
For example, the statement from above, "Everyone is watching me and thinks I'm awkward," can be transformed to lift your mood instead of lowering it. Try to reframe it into something like, "I have no idea how others perceive me; it could be bad or good. But I know who I am, and I'm proud of it."
Designate a "Worry Time" to Half an Hour Each Day
Complete the exercise daily at this designated time. Choose a time away from your usual bedtime so that worries and anxiety don't interfere with your sleep.
Identify and Postpone Worries
Become aware of your worrying by noticing how it makes you feel. If any thoughts you are having create tension in your body, a pounding heartbeat, wringing of the hands, or other signs you are anxious, label them as worries. Then, as you go through your day, when you start to feel anxious and notice yourself worrying, identify what you are thinking about.
Write the worry down on a worry list, if necessary, and remind yourself that you can think on it later. Try to clear your head and continue on with your daily activities.
Go over your worries at the designated time.
During your worry time, don't just think about what's been bothering you over the course of the day. Grab a pen and your worry list, and strive to problem-solve each worry.
Research on stimulus control therapy shows that the four-step process of identifying worries, setting aside a time to deal with them, catching and postponing worries throughout the day, and brainstorming solutions is the best method for reducing worrying.
Acknowledge the power you have to control worrying and negative thinking.
Early on, trying to postpone worries may seem impossible. However, after much practice, you will find that you actually can decide when and where you want to worry. Therefore, worries don't have to lay claim on your entire day.
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