Anxiety comes in all shapes and sizes and there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to managing it. Although medication can be effective, it’s not without potential side effects and is generally preferred as the ‘last resort’ option. Most of us have had some sort of brush with anxiety, but for those whose lives are deeply affected every day, there is hope. There’s still a lot we need to learn but anxiety has spent quite a bit of time under the research spotlight recently. As a result, we’re becoming wiser about the way anxiety works and ways to manage anxiety without medication. Here are 15 of them:
Decisions … Just because there’s a right one, doesn’t mean there’s a wrong one.
You’re probably someone who cares a lot – a lot – about doing the right thing. You don’t want to hurt anybody, be misunderstood or say the wrong thing. This makes you a pretty awesome person to be around. It also means that when it comes to making decisions, you might struggle a little.
Understand that often there isn’t a right or wrong decision, or a better or worse one. They’re just different. Each option will have things for and against. Each will gather momentum when you commit. Whatever happens, you’ll be okay. It’s very likely anyway that by the time you’re ready to make a decision (or perhaps well before then), you will have put so much thought into which way to go that whichever option you choose, it will be a good one. It’s impossible to predict everything that could possibly happen once a decision is made but what you need to remember is that you are strong, intelligent, considerate and you would have been so sensitive to all of the issues. Just take a step in the direction you feel strongest about. If you’re so stuck between two options, neither will be a wrong one.
Hearts love omega-3 and so do heads. In one study, 68 medical students who received 2.5 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids each day for 12 weeks showed less exam anxiety than students who were given a placebo for the same duration. Omega-3 can be found in supplements or naturally in flaxseeds, walnuts, edamame, salmon, sardines and grass-fed beef, all of which are excellent sources.
Anxiety is triggered by thinking about the future, and the things that might go wrong. Mindfulness trains the brain to stay in the present moment. It’s been shown to cause measurable physical changes in the body and brain. Research from Harvard has shown that, among other things, it can relieve the symptoms of anxiety. If you haven’t tried mindfulness before, start with 10 minutes a day. Sit comfortably and pay attention to whatever is happening in the present moment. Pay attention to your breathing, the sensations against your skin, what’s happening in your body, what you can hear. Don’t work too hard to make sense of things. The point is to experience without judging or analysing.
Unfriend. Unfollow. Un-him. Un-her.
If there’s anyone in your life or in your social media circles who sets you to feeling bad, move them along. You just don’t need it – or him or her. You don’t have to explain (unless you want to) and it doesn’t need to make sense. It’s enough that it happens. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with either of you. It’s just the way it is. Just don’t keep putting yourself through it. If you need permission, here it is.
Make time to play.
Well this is something we could all use … Play is so important for us grown-ups but we tend to squeeze it out of our day. Anything that makes you smile, laugh or takes you away from the pace of the world for a while will be so good for you. If you’re wondering where to start, think about what you liked to do when you were little. Is there a way you can incorporate this into your life now? Otherwise try games, sports (in an organized team or in the backyard), painting, colouring-in or anything that will get you laughing (funny YouTube clips or Instagram accounts are always a winner).
Shhh. Let you speak.
You’re likely to have incredible insight. The people who know you probably already know this about you (and love it about you!) and you need to know it too. Because of the way you think about things, sometimes overthink about things, and because you are so sensitive to what’s happening to people, between people and generally out there in the world, you are brimming with remarkable clarity and wisdom. The problem is that although you’re the one who should be speaking (because you’re the one that makes them go, ‘hmmmm’), you’re likely to be the one who won’t be. You aren’t the sort of person to say things for the sake of it or to speak before you’ve considered. And considered. And considered. And consid-… Because of this, you’re probably the least likely in the bunch to offend or say something silly or irrelevant, yet you’ll be the one who will hold back from talking … just in case. Often, probably always, whatever you’re thinking (and stopping yourself from saying) is exactly what needs to be said.
Get yourself some blissful zzzz’s.
During sleep the brain sorts through any emotional issues that are left over from waking time. This is so important if you struggle with anxiety. Your brain has enough to deal with. Love it up by giving it the opportunity to start each day as fresh as possible. As well as this, the more rested you are, the easier you’ll find it to deal with stressful situations that could trigger your anxiety and ambiguous or neutral situations that could be misread by your super-sensitive (and very protective) brain as negative or harmful to you.
Hug it out. Go on.
Friends, family, partner, pets – hug and be hugged because it’s lovely and it helps. Hugging releases oxytocin, which is the bonding, ‘feel-good’ chemical. There’s no better way to feel safe, secure and close to the people (or pets) who love you.
Breathe. (Yes. You’ve heard it all before. But maybe not like this.)
Harvard cardiologist, Dr Herbert Benson, discovered that in the same way the fight or flight response is hardwired into us, so too is what he called the relaxation response. When triggered, the relaxation response instantly and automatically sends out neurochemicals that neutralise the fight or flight response. One of the ways to elicit the relaxation response is through controlled breathing:
Breathe in through your nose to the count of three and out to the count of three. Keep doing this until your breathing is under control. Take a short pause between out and in breaths and make sure your breathing is deep and comes from your belly. Your belly should rise when you breathe in.
Another technique is the 4-7-8 breath. This breathing technique was developed by Dr Raymond Weil. Weil notes that, ‘Breathing strongly influences physiology and thought processes, including moods’. Here’s how it works:
• For the duration of the exercise, hold your tongue against the ridge just behind your upper front teeth.
• Exhale completely and make a ‘whoosh’ sound as you do it.
• With your mouth closed, inhale through your nose to a count of four.
• Hold your breath for seven.
• Exhale through your mouth with a whoosh sound for a count of 8.
• This is one breath. Repeat this three times – a total of four breaths altogether.
Know that you’re stronger than you think you are.
There’s that part of you that tells you that you’re not ready enough, not good enough, not strong enough, not clever enough, not whatever enough. It does this to keep you safe. It’s there to hold you back from doing anything that might fall you, embarrass you, humiliate you, or cause you to be misunderstood. But here’s the thing – it’s sensitivity meter is on hyperdrive.
Give it too much say, and it will work so hard to hold you back from being hurt, that it will hold you back from life. You are so much stronger than you think you are. Having to live with anxiety is not easy, but you’re doing it. If you’re strong enough to do that, you’re strong enough to deal with what might happen if you risk a bit more. You will be fine. You’re a survivor. The worst that could happen is unlikely to happen and even if it does you’ll be okay. Experiment with tiny steps and believe the times that it works well. If it doesn’t, put it down to a learning experience – we’ve all had plenty of those.
Research has found that feeling warm may alter neural circuits that control mood, including serotonin circuits. Time in the sun (safely of course!), a sauna or spa, a warm bath or a hot shower, sitting in front of the fire, snuggling up with a heat pack in bed, or warming from the inside out with a cup of tea, or anything else that gives you that ‘warm, fuzzy’ feeling – may all work to reduce anxiety. No harm in trying this one!
Essential oil from lavender has been found to have anti-anxiety effects. A German study found that Silexan, a pill containing an essential oil produced from lavender flowers was as effective as Lorazepam, an anti-anxiety drug, in reducing anxiety symptoms in people with Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Lavender oil can be used in a number of different ways. Spray it around the room, put a little oil on your wrist or at night put a little oil on your pillow for happy zzz’s.
Understand your triggers.
It’s likely you’ll have a pretty good idea of what your triggers are but it’s also likely that you’ll tend to overlook the things you do well – and there will be plenty.
Try this. At the end of each day, write three things that have stressed you out or frustrated you about the day. After a while, see if there’s a pattern that you haven’t been aware of. A person? A situation? A time of day or night? Next – and this is important – write three things you’ve done well. Stay with them for a couple of minutes and feel what it’s like to celebrate them.
Don’t let yourself get hungry.
We’re all prone to mood changes when hunger sets in – whether it’s anxious, cranky, lethargic. Keep your blood sugar from dropping by having a quick snack handy for when you need it.
Research has found that exercise has incredible benefits for anxiety. It changes the way people view the world, tending them towards seeing the environment in less threatening, more positive way. Princeton researchers found that exercise may have this effect by reorganising the brain so it’s more able to cope with stress, specifically by strengthening the mechanisms that prevent young neurons from firing. (Young brain cells are generally more excitable than older ones). We also know that exercise releases endorphins – the feel-good chemicals which can increase feelings of well-being and happiness, improve sleep and reduce stress.
Five minutes of exercise can be enough to start the anti-anxiety effects and frequency is more important than intensity or duration. You’re much better off going for a 15-20 walk each day than to do two intense cardio workouts each week. Otherwise, try for 30 minutes three to five times a week. If you’re having trouble getting motivated, just put your shoes on and then decide whether or not you’re going. Once that’s done, just commit to five minutes – you can do that – then after five minutes you can decide on whether or not to keep going for another five. See where this is headed?
There’s no ‘cure’ for anxiety but it can be managed and its intrusion into your life toned right down. You deserve that. Not everything will work for everyone and you might have to experiment and try different combinations of ideas. Anything you can do to take the edge off will make a difference.
Above all else, know what a survivor you are. Anxiety is hard. Really hard. You can’t deal with something like that day in and day out without enormous strength and courage. You’re doing it, which is why you’ll always be more capable, stronger, braver and better than you think you are.