If you’re like40 million adults in the U.S., you’ve experienced anxiety at some point in time.
And for most of us, we tend to view anxiety as 100% destructive. Which is why many of us search for ways to reduce anxiety.
But... is anxiety completely bad?
Well... it depends.
For one, Amy Jacobsen, PhD, cognitive-behavioral therapist, would disagree. She likes to use the metaphor of anxiety as an alarm within the body.
Just as a mechanical alarm alerts us to something, anxiety as an internal alarm signals us to be aware of potential threats.
Unfortunately, sometimes our internal alarm goes off when it shouldn’t, like on an early Saturday morning when we have no plans.
(Ugh, literally the worst.)
And ofter our body sends out several (thousands) false alarms, it can be difficult over time to distinguish between true alerts and ...not-so-true alarms.
It’s up to us to determine what is a true threat and a false threat. If you want to learn more about this subject, there are literally hundreds of resources available to you.
For those who learn by reading, check out books like The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety, a book chock-full of mindfulness exercises. For you crazy superhero auditory learners, try the Mindful podcast. And for my visual learners (visual learners unite, holla!), you may want to check out Crash Course on YouTube to learn more about anxiety triggers and origins.
Once you’ve mastered the ability to filter between true and false alarms, then what?
What do you do with the pseudo-alerts that are threatening to overturn your life?
That’s where this article comes in!
Below are seven effective, science-backed ways to manage and reduce your anxiety (from here on out, I’m using the word anxiety in the negative, unhelpful, false sense).
Without further ado, let's dive in!
1. Deep Breathing (aka “Natural Tranquilizer”)
The famous 4-7-8 exercise, also known as the Relaxing Breath Exercise, was created by Dr. Andrew Weil, MD, Havard medical school graduate.
Here are the steps:
1. Put the tip of your tongue just behind your upper front teeth and keep it there
2. Exhale forcefully through your mouth (do it loud and proud!)
3. Closing your mouth, inhale through your nose gently for 4 seconds
4. Hold your breath for 7 seconds
5. Repeat Step #2, but exhale for 8 seconds
6. Steps #3 - 4 count as 1 breath, repeat the cycle 3 more times (or 3 more breathes) for a total of 4 times/breaths
7. Repeat at least twice a day.
*Note: make sure you are inhaling quietly through your nose and exhaling audibly through your mouth.
The science behind this breathing technique is that it is a “natural tranquilizer” for the nervous system.
Primarily responsible for sending and receiving chemical messengers from the brain, the nervous system also handles high stress levels. By minimizing the nervous system’s activity, you can reduce your anxiety levels.
For many people with anxiety, long sleepless nights are as frequent as breathing.
But you’re in luck!
This deep breathing technique is great for both calming the mind as well as for falling asleep.
2. Yoga / Tai Chi
Yoga and tai chi are great exercises for reducing anxiety.
Whether you prefer high-intensity or low-intensity exercise routines, both have the same relaxing, anxiety-reducing effect.
If you prefer holding poses for minutes at a time, check out yoga. If you’re more like me and are always on the move, tai chi might be the one for you!
And if your anxiety stems from chronic pain*, Ted Jones, PhD, a psychologist and pain expert, recommendsgentle exercises, like swimming, walking, and low-intensity yoga.
Others, like Nobel Prize-winningDr. Elizabeth Blackburn, recommend T’ai Chi, Qi Gong, or chair yoga to reduce high-stress levels, thereby reducing anxiety levels.
Even a short walk can beextremely beneficial for those with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or social phobia.
*Note: if you suffer from chronic pain, check out ourblog post on coping with chronic pain.
3. Know Thyself
When you feel the anxiety creeping in, threatening to suffocate you, take a second to write down what you are feeling and when it happened.
Did something happen to trigger this anxiety episode? Were you ruminating on past or future events? Were you in a situation that scares you?
Writing down your feelings on paper can make them feel a little less daunting. And you might even realize what your trigger points are.
But don’t stop there!
Take a step further to dig deeper and discover why it’s a trigger to get to the root of your fears.
For many of us, anxiety or scary situations prevent us from doing what we need to do or even the things we want to do!
But avoiding the situation only makes it worse in the long run. The Mental Health Organization in the UKstates that “Exposing yourself to your fears can be an effective way of overcoming [your] anxiety.”
How will we ever know if a situation would have worked out or not if we never expose ourselves to it? And even if the situation goes sour, is there anything we can learn from it so it doesn’t go bad the next time? We’ll never know until we try!
Once you discover your fears and trigger points, set small, achievable goals for yourself and tell someone else so they can keep you accountable.
(Accountability is the spice of life. At least according to me!)
I also find it helpful to surround myself with role models who I want to emanate.
I (an introvert) deal with social anxiety, especially at parties where I don’t know anyone (my heart is pounding a little just thinking about it). But if I know in advance about a party, I usually invite (with the host’s permission obvi!) one of my friends who is an extreme extrovert and always the center of attention. Seeing her at ease in a social gathering then puts me at ease.
And that’s when I can really start to enjoy myself and turn a scary situation into a super fun experience that I would have missed out on completely otherwise!
Know your limits and don’t put yourself in an environment that is far beyond your tolerance, especially early on.
If you know suffer from generalized anxiety disorder with chronic anxiety (or even if you have sporadic anxiety), talk to your doctor or a counselor to get to the root of the issue.
Life was not meant to be lived in fear!
4. Visualize the Enemy
Even if you’re not a visual learner, it can be helpful to visualize a problem to conquer it. Separating anxiety from yourself and seeing it as a distinct entity can help you kick it to the curb.
See your anxiety as an opponent bent on manipulating and controlling you.
When viewed in that light, many people rally and are like “heck nah, I will not be manipulated!” This is especially helpful for competitive, more fighter-like personalities.
Others prefer to see their anxiety as a sniveling coward who is working double-time to find every little danger and threat in the world AND make it appear that those dangers are out to get you.
For my Lord of the Rings fans, think of Gríma Wormtongue, the (dirtbag) chief advisor to King Théoden of Rohan.
5. Learn to Relax
It may sound simple...
...but many people struggle with relaxing (ask most any college student and they’ll tell you the same!). Learn when and how to take a time-out.
Talking a walk, exercising, participating in your fav hobby, writing, reading, meditating, hanging with friends, cooking, whatever it is for you, make time for it and don’t. feel. guilty!
Even if you have to pencil it in your schedule, it is important to do what you love. Volunteering in your local community is also a great way to take a break from everyday stress and give back at the same time! #MultitaskingForTheWin
6. Eat the Right Foods
Did you know that certain foods can biochemically calm anxiety? Here’s a science-backed list of some anxiety-reducing nutrients!
This study has evidence to suggest that mice that consumed a magnesium-deficient diet had higher anxiety levels than those that consumed a diet rich in magnesium.
Look for foods like leafy greens, almonds, seaweed, and avocados.
Anotherstudy suggests that foods containing high amounts of zinc block anxiety-inducing symptoms.
Found in beef, egg yolks, cashews, legumes, and shellfish.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
Omega-3 fatty acids arethought to reduce inflammation and contain anxiolytic properties.
Salmon, walnuts, chia seeds, and eggs are all omega-3 rich.
B vitamins, particularly B6, seem to be especially helpful in reducing anxiety for women.
Found in whole grains, leafy greens, avocados, almonds, and seeds.
Enhancing your diet withantioxidants can reduce your anxiety symptoms.
Look for berries, black & pinto beans, apples, plums, walnuts, kale, spinach, broccoli, and spices like turmeric and ginger.
There isevidence that foods rich with probiotics are especially helpful for those with social anxiety.
Look for products like kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, plain yogurt, and kombucha.
L-theanine is an amino acid thatrelaxes the mind and contains anxiolytic properties.
Green tea, nuts, whole grains, and broccoli are great sources of L-theanine.
Research on supplements is iffy at this point in time. Especially since herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA, it can be hard to know all the effects and symptoms of supplements.
Furthermore, most studies regarding supplements have not been evaluated for long-term use.
So proceed with caution.
However, according to the Mayo Clinic, there are somepotential supplements that could reduce anxiety when taken in the rightconcentrations for the rightlength of time.
○ Chamomile tea: shows promise but could increase the risk of bleeding, especially when used while taking blood-thinning medication.
(Also, proceed with caution if allergic to ragweed, marigolds, or daisies as these are in the same plant family.)
○ Lemon products: seem to be well tolerated by most people, but can occasionally cause nausea and abdominal cramps.
○ Lavender products: like lemon supplements, lavender generally has few side effects, but some experience headaches, constipation, and sleepiness with consumption.
○ Passion flower: there are several clinical trials suggesting the health benefits of passion flower for anxiety. Some participants experienced mild dizziness and drowsiness, but most tolerated it very well.
Always talk to your doctor before starting a new medication or supplement, as some can interfere with each other and create harmful secondary reactions or negate a health benefit.
Aromatherapy is another current hot topic and frequently is touted for its variety of health benefits. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of research to back it up. However, if you personally like a particular scent or have a scent associated with a pleasant memory, it could potentially work for you. At the very least, it’ll make your place smell nice!
If these techniques are not sufficient in calming your anxiety, consider seeking out a professional.
They have years of experience and education to back them up so they can create the best treatment plan personalized for you.
Once again, life is not meant to be lived in fear!