Tips to Kiss Your Anxiety Goodbye
I asked what you wanted to hear about and you answered - an overwhelming majority of you said you wanted to learn tips to beat anxiety. I've been a therapist for over a decade and over the years I've helped hundreds of clients who struggle with anxiety. Below, I share a few of the most effective techniques I've learned over the years to help you kiss your anxiety goodbye. If you find any of these tips helpful, give me a shout out!
Anxiety is a BIG DEAL. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, impacting 40 million, or roughly 18% of of all adults. If you’re experiencing some anxiety yourself, know that you’re not alone.
Most of us deal with anxious feelings from time to time (like before giving a big presentation, or going on a first date, or when we talk with our parents about politics), but when anxious feelings start to interfere with our daily life - in school, work, home, or relationships, we need to do something about it. Anxiety results in a bevy of troublesome symptoms, ranging from difficulty sleeping, concentrating, and digestive problems, all the way up to full blown panic attacks or phobias.
Anxiety becomes a problem when a usually very helpful part of our brain designed to protect us by warning us about threats, the amydala, starts to overreact and get triggered by things that normally wouldn’t be as anxiety-inducing. The amydala helps release stress hormones called cortisol into our body that are created to help us escape threat. When we don’t “burn off” the cortisol in self-protection (usually running away or physically fighting the threat, aka fight or flight) it hangs out in our bodies causing all sorts of trouble. Have you had trouble concentrating, gotten sick a lot, or gained or lost weight recently? That could very likely be cortisol running amok in your body, and it can be a very frustrating thing to experience indeed.
Without going full blown nerd on you, let’s just say I LOVE understanding the way anxiety works from a scientific/physical perspective and could go on and on about it, but the above is the basic gist of what’s happening. My hope is to give you a picture of what's going on in your body and brain because once you know what the dragon looks like, you're way better equipped to know how to slay it. None of the tips below are rocket science, but the truth is that usually when I bring them up to my clients, they often say things like “I’ve never thought of that before!” or “I didn’t realize that would impact my anxiety.”
(It seems too simple, but) BREATHE.
Mindfulness aka meditation is an empirically (that means scientifically) proven method for helping keep anxious thoughts at bay. This helps for many reasons. First, most people with anxiety tend to have shallow (not deep) breathing, which restricts oxygen to your brain and reduces your brain’s ability to perform all it needs to do to be healthy, including getting rid of that cortisol.
Secondly, mindfulness allows us to compartmentalize our worries and experience a sense of control over our thoughts. When we realize we can control our thinking and that it doesn’t control us, it’s a powerful thing! The trick to doing this effectively is to practice, daily. I recommend at least 10 minutes of mindfulness a day. You can try apps like Headspace and Calm to guide you through it, or one of thousands of meditation and mindfulness videos on YouTube. It may not change your life in the first session, but be patient - people often experience some relief or improvement immediately, and the more they practice, usually the better the results.
BURN, BABY, BURN
(Cortisol, that is!) Stress hormones were designed to help us survive by increasing our respiration, heart rate, and pupil dilation so we could escape threat quickly. These are GREAT things when you're trying to run away from something dangerous, but really NOT helpful if you’re just trying to live your everyday life. When you have excess stress and anxiety, it can help to expel energy and burn off cortisol by doing things that increase your heart rate and respiration, of course! Running, doing jumping jacks, dancing… all great ways to burn off that excess stress hormone hanging out in your body. Any form of cardiovascular activity can do the trick! Try for at least 20 minutes to start.
Sleep is important, and I know that you know this. But the reason it’s SO helpful for combating anxiety is that it allows your brain to get the restoration it needs to fend off stressful thoughts! Most people make common mistakes with sleep - they don’t sleep enough or go to bed too late, they don’t sleep in a consistent fashion, or they just don’t make it a priority. Not sleeping enough and trying to fight off anxiety is like preparing for a triathlon by eating donuts. Now I love donuts, but if I’m trying to run a marathon, then eating them just doesn’t make sense and it’s NOT helpful.
With sleep, consistency is key. Make a sleep hygiene plan that includes identifying the same time every day to wake up and to go to sleep, a “going to bed routine” such as dimming the lights and putting lavender essential oil in the diffuser, getting OFF your phone, and removing extraneous lights (especially sources of blue light) in your bedroom (from things like your phone, TV, etc.). If you’re not familiar with blue light, google it, and then AVOID it several hours before bed. Treat sleep like medicine. If you do, you may help prevent the need to take meds in the future.
LAUGH, and PRACTICE GRATITUDE
Both laughter and writing gratitude lists has been shown in studies to reduce cortisol. It’s nearly impossible for the brain to experience feelings of gratitude and anxiety at the same time, thanks to a little phenomenon called cognitive dissonance, which basically means that the brain struggles to hold onto two opposing thoughts or feelings at the same time. Haven’t laughed in a while? Go to a comedy club, watch some Aziz Ansari (Master of None is my personal favorite way to laugh!), or be with people whom you enjoy. (See, fighting off anxiety can be FUN too!)
What's a good strategy for writing a gratitude list? Set aside 5-10 minutes a day where you write down 3-5 things (no matter how big or small) that you're grateful for. Try to make them different each day.
Today my gratitude list consists of:
1. Portuguese bread (It's the BEST)
2. A welcoming digital nomad community here in Lisbon
3. Supportive friends back home
4. Allergy medicine (the allergy struggle is REAL, folks!)
5. The perfect cross breeze in my apartment
Now how about you give it a try! What are 5 things you're grateful for today?
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
Caffeine can make anxiety worse. So can sugar. These substances mess with your body’s natural regulating systems and can lead to mood swings, irritability, heart palpitations, and difficulties sleeping. The cleaner you eat (minimizing carbs, sugar and caffeine) the better (and less anxious) you are likely to feel. Most of us (thanks to the average American diet) are relatively addicted to carbs and sugar, which can make our brain sad and anxious. Don’t believe me? Try giving up one of these things for a week or two and see how you feel! You may initially experience a bit of withdrawal and irritability, but soon thereafter I bet you’ll be feeling like a million bucks. (PS - If you're recalling the fact that I JUST said I'm grateful for Portuguese bread, hey don't judge! Psychologists like carbs too. This one happens to like them a little too much.)
Seeing a good therapist is an effective way to help you beat your anxiety, because you’ll have someone experienced in your corner. If I break my leg, I don't second guess that I'm supposed to go to the doctor. When we experience anxiety, we shouldn't hesitate to go to a therapist. If there’s help just a phone call away, why make things harder on yourself by trying to be a lone wolf? C’mon, you’re smarter than that! Get the help. If you are unable to seek therapy for whatever reason, consider finding a support group online, share your struggles with a trusted friend, or find a good book on anxiety to help you get informed (I LOVE Mind Over Mood by Greenberger and Padesky) and stop putting so much pressure on yourself to know everything! Professional psychologists like myself spend years in school and thousands of hours learning our craft so that you don't have to struggle more than you have to when you need help.
I hope these tips help you kiss some of that pesky anxiety goodbye. Keep in mind, these are some of the most effective techniques I’ve come across in my decade as a mental health provider, and these are just a few of many. If you need support knowing what to do, ask your friendly neighborhood psychologist, or reach out to me to start a conversation to get you some support.
Hope this makes sense! Do you have follow up questions? Hit me up! Did you find this helpful? If so, let me know, or share it with a friend!
To Your Health + Delight,