If you live with anxiety, you’re far from alone. Nearly one in five adults deals with anxiety. Even more adults -- about one in three and most of them women -- have coped with those feelings at some point in their life.
Some people need medicine or talk therapy to relieve their anxiety. But there are also steps you can take on your own, without a prescription, to ease your symptoms. If your doctor recommends medication, these tips won’t replace it. But they can give you a little extra help.
Take a Look at Your Diet
Go easy on the sweets, including sugary drinks, which contain simple carbohydrates. Instead, choose whole carbohydrates, such as oatmeal, quinoa, or whole-grain cereal. They may boost serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood, which can have a calming effect.
Limit (or Eliminate) Caffeine
While it might provide a quick pick-me-up, caffeine-loaded beverages can leave you feeling jittery and make it difficult to sleep. Ideally, avoid caffeine entirely or at least cut back to very little. And drinks aren’t the only place you’ll find caffeine. Some medications, including certain over-the-counter headache medicines, contain the stimulant. If you want to get all the caffeine out of your medicine cabinet, tell your doctor about everything that you’re taking, including any herbal medicines or supplements.
Getting more exercise can exert powerful anti-anxiety effects, sometimes kicking in as soon as five minutes after you start. Fit in exercise wherever you can. Shorter, more frequent sessions, such as regular 10-minute walks, may work just as well against anxiety as longer workouts. For good health -- both for your heart and your mind -- it’s important to get at least 150 minutes of exercise weekly. Haven’t developed a regular habit yet? Find a buddy to walk with, or sign up for a class that meets several times a week.
There are many ways to relax your body and your mind. Deep breathing exercises reduce the shallow breathing that often comes with anxiety. You can learn how to control how much air you pull into your lungs and how deeply you breathe. Another technique is progressive relaxation. Here, you tighten and then relax various muscle groups. After practicing these regularly, you can better tap into your body’s built-in relaxation abilities.
Some studies show this mind-body practice can reduce anxiety. You’ll have to figure out which type works best for you. But in general, meditation requires you to find a comfortable position in a quiet place. Then you practice focusing on something specifically -- whether that’s a word or an image or even your own breathing -- while trying to release other nagging thoughts and distractions.
Get More Zzz’s
If you have anxiety, one of your greatest frustrations might be getting to sleep or staying asleep once you nod off. That’s a problem, because too little sleep can make anxiety worse. So make sure you stay away from sleep-disrupting habits, such as caffeine. Set a regular sleep schedule that includes going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. And keep the television, computer, and other screens out of your bedroom. In short, try to stack the deck in your favor to achieve at least the recommended minimum of seven hours each night.
When You Need More Help
If your anxiety gets in the way of your ability to enjoy your life, talk to you doctor.
Not sure if you need professional help? Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you find yourself irritable too often?
- Do you fret too much about everyday stressors, such as health or finances?
- Do you have trouble concentrating?
- Do you toss and turn when you need to fall asleep, or do you sleep fitfully?
- Do you tremble?
- Do you have a lot of muscle tension?
Doctors can prescribe medication. Or, you might prefer to talk with someone. With the help of a therapist, you can learn different ways to think about and react to stressful situations without fueling your own anxiety.
Don’t cope with anxiety alone. Spend more time with loved ones and ask for their support. Above all, be patient. Just as anxiety snuck up on you, it might take some time to nudge those troublesome feelings away.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “Exercise for Stress and Anxiety.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “How Much Sleep Do I Need?”
Cleveland Clinic: “Caffeine and Headache.”
Harvard Mental Health Letter: “Sleep and Mental Health.”
Mayo Clinic: “Coping with anxiety: Can Diet Make a Difference?”
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Anxiety at a Glance,” “Meditation: In Depth,” “Relaxation Techniques for Health,” “Terms Related to Complementary and Integrative Health.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “Anxiety Disorders: Overview,” “Any Anxiety Disorder,” “Generalized Anxiety Disorder: When Worry Gets Out of Control.”
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: “Top 10 Things to Know About the Second Edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.”