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Feeling anxious? Break a sweat—and nine other ways to keep calm.
Just 35 years ago, anxiety did not exist as a diagnosis. Today, it’s the most common form of mental illness.
The most common stressors we face range from work stress, chronic illness or injury, financial insecurities, divorce, terrorism and global warming, to a lack of downtime or exercise. Add to these a prolific media marinating us in HD pessimism morning, noon and night—it’s no surprise anxiety is so widespread.
But no amount of stress, worry or anxiety can change your future. Sadly, knowing this is often not enough to alter or lessen anxiety.
What is the difference between stress and anxiety?
Stress and anxiety share many of the same physical symptoms: Stress is a state of mental or emotional tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. Anxiety is what you might feel in reaction to the stress. It consists of worry that continues after the stressor is gone.
Feeling some stress and anxiety is not only normal, it’s helpful. Anxiety leads us to take action in a threatening scenario. In a less ominous setting, stress and anxiety motivate us to get important things done like going to work, paying bills or getting a colonoscopy. When stress or anxiety becomes abnormal, it becomes a self-serving, narcissist hell-bent on your full attention.
The more stress you experience, the bigger your risk in becoming ill. Knowing your stress limit is often the difference between going home or going to jail. But you can stop, and even reverse, the negative effects of stress and anxiety.
10 simple ways to dramatically reduce your angst:
- SCHEDULE DOWNTIME. Mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories and encourage creativity. Schedule downtime to do nothing, and consider practicing some relaxation techniques. This can include simple meditative breathing exercises, or guided meditations available on YouTube or via smartphone apps. Add yoga, prayer or meditation as a daily practice. A stressful or anxious period is the perfect time to stop and spend in self-reflection and meditative prayer. The best way to get your brain and body to work at their peak is to take rest breaks.
- RADICALLY ACCEPT WHAT YOU CANNOT CHANGE. One option you have for any problem is radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is about accepting life on life’s terms and not resisting what you cannot change. You mindfully accept that you cannot control everything, and let life live you. That’s a radical idea in a world where we try our best to control everything. Negative attitudes intensify pain, deepen heartache and diminish pleasure and happiness. But you can shift your attitude and even enhance your immune system. Evidence suggests that mindful meditation has numerous health benefits, including increased immune function and reduction in psychological distress.
- LIMIT CAFFEINE AND ALCOHOL. Caffeine sets unrealistic expectations of your daily productivity and can spike anxiety. Though at low doses (200 mg) caffeine is known to improve cognitive performance, studies reveal higher anxiety levels in moderate and high caffeine consumers versus abstainers. Reports also suggest that mania can be induced by a high intake of caffeine or energy drinks. Alcohol is a depressant which slows down the brain and the central nervous system’s processes. Alcohol may help deal with stress in the short term, but long term it can contribute to feeling of depression and anxiety and make stress harder to deal with.
- GET SWEATY. Exercise is a phenomenal antidepressant and anti-anxiety tool. Channel nervous energy, stress and even depression into a regular movement. More than the physical upside, there is the social aspect of seeing regulars and friends. Movement improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression and stress, while improving self-esteem and cognitive function.
- PROMOTE GOOD SLEEP HYGIENE. Sleep problems greatly exacerbate stress and anxiety, so get to bed early and at the same time each night. Turn off the electronics to turn off your brain. Anxiety disorders and sleep problems are frequently present together, and research indicates that REM sleep may play an especially significant role in maintaining emotional well-being and psychological balance. Research also suggests people who are naturally prone to worry are especially vulnerable to the anxiety-producing effects of poor sleep.
- CHECK YOUR DIET. Some say that you can’t spell “salad” without “sad.” But there is actually a direct correlation between a healthy diet and a positive mindset. During times of stress, we often turn to traditional “comfort” foods like fast food, pizza and ice cream, which make us feel sluggish and less able to deal with stress. Moreover, stress can raise blood pressure and serum cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of a heart attack. Studies reveal that people under chronic stress tend to gain weight over time, which may be due to both stress-related endocrine changes and behaviors. Brain food, such as the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables, can improve cognitive function, and can be useful at preventing or treating a number of stress-related mental disorders.
- PLUG YOUR NOSE. By just controlling your breathing, you can slow your heartbeat and eliminate panic. Try alternate nostril breathing. This is a simple, natural breathing technique from Ayurvedic medicine that brings the body and mind into a state of balance and neutrality. Elite athletes have used it for decades to manage stress and anxiety. Close one nostril by placing your thumb gently over it. Exhale; then inhale through the uncovered nostril. Now, cover that nostril and switch sides to do one out-breath followed by one in-breath through the other. Repeat this series, alternating nostrils after each inhalation. It will likely be easier to breathe through one nostril than the other. It’s normal.
- GIVE THANKS. Being grateful by focusing on gratitude improves physical health. According to a 2012 study published in “Personality and Individual Differences,” grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier. Not only does gratitude do the obvious work of increasing how much positive emotion we feel, it just as importantly robs the negative energy that is the driving force of why we feel so bad. Cite three things for which you are grateful each day, no matter how small.
- TAKE A HIKE. A 2015 Stanford study found quantifiable evidence that walking in nature can reduce stress and lead to a lower risk of depression. By 2050, 70 percent of people will live in urban areas. Urbanization is associated with increased levels of mental illness, but it’s not yet clear why. Through a controlled experiment, participants who went on a 90-minute walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self), and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment.
- PHONE A FREUD. There is no shame in seeking help. If stress, anxiety or depression disrupts your life or daily activities, get a mental spotter. It is imperative to know when to seek professional help. The easiest index to use is if your emotions are starting to interfere with your ability to function in daily life. Make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health provider because you may need treatment to get better. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for anxiety. Self-medicating is not. You can find a trustworthy mental health professional HERE.
Remember: “A diamond is just a piece of charcoal that handled stress exceptionally well.” –Unknown
Photo credit: GeorgeRudy, Thinkstock