Anxiety is a growing issue for millions of people – both in the US and around the world.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) estimate that around 31% of US adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some stage in their life – and the World Health Authority (WHO) indicate that 1 in 13 people worldwide suffer from this often-debilitating condition.
If you or loved one experience anxiety, you’ll already know how difficult it can make life.
The thing is, anxiety is highly treatable – but despite this, only a fraction of people who suffer actually seek or receive treatment.
Here at Athena, our library includes books by the foremost authorities on mental health, nutrition, exercise, sleep, happiness, stress, and a variety of careers – and anxiety comes up in virtually all of them. There’s no quick fix for anxiety – but our enormous reading list has put us in a good position to gather information on combating anxiety from some of the foremost minds on the subject.
This guide is exactly that; a variety of tried and tested ways to understand and reduce anxiety. For some people, many of the approaches we discuss will work – and for others, perhaps just one or two will have a positive effect.
Your life and experience with anxiety are unique to you – but at the core of the problem, there are similar biological, chemical processes playing out. Here, we’ll look at exactly what’s happening when you experience anxiety – and explain a handful of proven ways to tackling anxiety problems.
Anxiety is an enormous subject – but you don’t need a PhD to get to grips with what you’re feeling.
Unlike a physical ailment, no doctor or therapist will be able to sit down with you, check your heart rate and blood pressure and quickly tell you exactly why you’re anxious. They may be able to take an educated guess based on talking to you – but ultimately, no one else in the world has experienced the things you have.
This makes your mind and anxious experiences individual.
As such, significantly different things could inspire anxiety in you compared to someone else. The idea of relaxing on by the ocean might be your idea of heaven – but for someone else, the sound of the waves or the feel of sand under their feet could be enough to bring on a panic attack.
So, how do you know what brings on your anxiety if there’s no definitive list of ‘anxious experiences’?
The key is to start to build a picture of what anxiety is for you.
Why do you get anxious?
Sure, there are standard answers; going to the dentist, having an interview, driving on the highway – but anxiety is usually much more complex than the worry you experience facing a one-off event.
There are actually different types of anxiety, including:
What’s more, anxiety often crosses over with depression; the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that around 50% of people with depression will also be diagnosed with anxiety at some point in their life. Also, around two-thirds of people with an eating disorder will also suffer with anxiety.
Taking a look at the different types of anxiety and surrounding conditions can sometimes be helpful, especially if it helps you identify certain symptoms you experience – but don’t get too hung up on trying to diagnose yourself.
Well, a diagnosis is really just to help medical professionals decide on a course of treatment and support. In terms of your day-to-day life, it’s often better to focus on what brings your anxiety on. There’s certainly some merit to exploring the roots of anxiety in time – but it’s usually more immediately important to manage any life-limiting symptoms.
For some people, slight chemical or hormonal imbalances mean anxiety is completely random – but more often than not, anxiety is triggered by something we think or something that’s happening in the world around us.
The brain is incredibly complex – and there are trillions of connections that link sensory experiences with memories and emotions. Have you got a smell that reminds you of being younger? Maybe hearing a certain song can immediately bring a set of feelings flooding back?
These connections in our brain happen thousands of times a second – and the vast majority of the time we’re not immediately conscious of them. If you’ve ever found yourself in a bad mood for no apparent reason, the chances are, something has inspired that bad mood – even if you can’t put your finger on what it is.
This is almost always the case with anxiety too.
Anxiety is an immediate response to anything our brain deems to be a threat – whether imagined or real. This response comes on extremely quickly – and what triggers it is different from one person to the next.
To get a good understanding of this anxious response, it’s helpful to rewind the clock a few hundred thousand years – to a time when there were far more immediate, deadly threats in the world.
Imagine for a second you’re taking a stroll across a stone-age prairie. You round the corner and see a sabre-toothed tiger facing you. In that moment, your ability to stay alive relies on fighting or running – and evolution has given us a set of tools to handle either of those survival tactics.
In less than a second, adrenaline courses through your veins. Your heart starts to beat faster; you begin to shake, your breath becomes shallow and rapid, your pupils dilate, your senses become heightened, and there’s a good chance you’re sweating; regardless of the heat.
This fight or flight response to danger is what we now call ‘anxiety’ or a ‘stress response’.
In times of immediate physical danger, everything we’ve just described can help to save our lives. The most primal part of our brain senses the danger and stimulates the release of stress hormones – which increase our heart rate – sending the blood any oxygen our muscles need to help us fight or run. We shake uncontrollably as the blood surges around our system – and we become hyper-aware of everything around us.
Now, the stress response we’ve talked about is useful should you ever come across a mountain lion – but in truth, most of us are lucky enough not to face many immediate threats to our lives today.
This doesn’t stop our brain being alert to perceived threats around us though – and without some rigorous training, our automatic system doesn’t distinguish serious physical threats from more minor, often imagined threats. As an example, this anxious stress response is common in people who are going to the dentist – despite the fact there’s usually very little justification for fighting or running away when you go for a check-up.
This is where anxiety gets personal too.
If you’ve experienced anxiety in the past, your brain and body have almost certainly reacted in the ways we’ve discussed. Now, that anxiety could have been perfectly justified – or it might have been an overreaction – but either way, it created a connection in your brain that linked an experience with an anxious response.
So, guess what happens next time you experience something similar?
That’s right – on some level, your brain decides that the anxious response is the right one – flooding your system with stress hormones. After all, you survived that last visit to the dentist, didn’t you?
Although there are rare instances where anxiety might help to keep you alive today, in the overwhelming majority of cases, you’re getting ready for a physical threat that will never come.
For some people, getting anxious about socializing or eating around other people is a trigger. For others, personal finances can be a source of incredible anxiety. The events of 2020 have led many people to be incredibly anxious about health and trying to stay safe – but equally, there are plenty of people who get legitimately anxious about anonymous disputes on social media.
Of course, in cases where people have PTSD, a previous trauma has highlighted the fact that terrible traumas can occur – and it can sometimes feel like that threat follows you everywhere you go.
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to anxiety – what makes one person anxious might be trivial to you, and visa-versa.
The key to tackling any problem is fully understanding what you’re up against – and anxiety is no different.
Developing a strategy to understand and deal with your anxiety should start with you trying to identify instances when you feel the symptoms.
So, start by asking yourself: “What does anxiety feel like to me?”
Again, there are no right or wrong answers. It might be that you just need to leave a situation, feel some of the physical symptoms we’ve talked about, or even go straight to an unhealthy coping strategy. Getting into the habit of noting down how you feel is really useful – even if it’s just on your phone’s notes app or using a diary as a daily journal.
Over a couple of days, the information you record might not mean a great deal – but over weeks and months, you might see patterns emerging. Does your anxiety appear when you go to certain places? Spend time with certain people? Eat certain things? When your bank balance runs low? When you’ve spent a lot of time alone? When you’re at work?
The possibilities are endless – but if you can start to notice when you’re becoming anxious, or factors that might contribute towards your anxiety – you can start looking for ways to calm yourself down and get back into a more relaxed state.
For some people, bouts of anxiety come and go within 20-30 minutes. For others, periods of heightened anxiety can hang around for days or even weeks.
As such, we’ve put together a series of strategies that will help you manage your feelings – whether you’re looking for immediate relief from anxious symptoms or hoping for more long-term ways of managing your condition.
We’ll take a look at breathing exercises to reduce feelings of anxiety, dietary changes that you may find helpful to ease your symptoms, and some exercise tips that experts believe can make a big difference.
Elsewhere, you might find tough meditation, eating, and workout plans that people have put together based on their experiences of tackling anxiety – but we’ve tried to avoid this extreme approach. Anxiety rarely needs enormous changes to your routine – so instead, we’ve put together a series of helpful topics and points that virtually anyone will be able to build into their day.
We’ve already talked in some detail about why your rate of breathing might change significantly when you’re experiencing anxiety – and the truth is, your breathing can really work against you if you don’t control it.
In moments of panic, your breath can become shallow as your body tries to get as much oxygen into your system as quickly as possible. This is a two-fold problem though: Not only is it an inefficient way of getting the oxygen you need – not being able to catch your breath can lead to further feelings of panic.
Without some breathing strategies in your anxiety toolkit, you might find you have to wait for feelings of calm to return naturally – but there are better ways.
Here, we’ve listed eight simple breathing exercises that will help you get back in control and significantly reduce the symptoms of anxiety when they strike:
You might have heard people suggest “take a few deep breaths” when you’re anxious – but this can sometimes be counterproductive.
When you’re anxious, your breath isn’t the only controlling factor – and since the rest of your body is expecting quick breaths, taking slow, deep breaths can actually cause you to hyperventilate. This happens because you’re exhaling more oxygen than you’re taking in – and it can cause you to become light-headed, or possibly even pass-out.
As such, it’s far better to find somewhere quiet to sit or stand and spend a few minutes concentrating on controlling your outward breath. These steps can help:
This is a great way of getting control back over your breath – and since you need to focus on counting the breaths in and out, it’s also a really useful way of switching your concentration to something less anxiety-inspiring too.
When you find yourself anxious and short of breath, it can feel like an enormous effort to try to get back in control of your breathing – especially if you’re trying to make your chest rise and fall.
Because of this, it’s sometimes helpful to find a breathing method that requires very little physical effort – and this is where understanding how to breath from your diaphragm can be invaluable.
Here are four steps that can help you practice this useful technique:
It might not seem like a big difference – but this is the way we tend to breath when we’re sleeping, and it can help to relax your brain and slow your thoughts very quickly. A series of recent studies into abdominal breathing suggests that 20-30 minutes of this practice could significantly reduce the long-term symptoms of stress and anxiety.
A big part of our flight or fight response is the significantly increased awareness that it brings. If you’ve ever noticed that being anxious can make you irritable – it’s usually because you’re noticing far more than you ordinarily would, or picking up on otherwise trivial things that suddenly become difficult to ignore.
This is another survival strategy – but it can make it very difficult to ‘switch off’ and begin to relax again.
This is when ‘breath focus’ can be invaluable. Here are the steps you should take to practice this method:
Don’t get frustrated if you become distracted – just keep trying to bring your focus back to your breathing. In time, it becomes much easier. This is a practice that’s worth trying every day if possible – then, should you need it when you become anxious, it’s a method you’re already familiar with.
Also known as “Resonant breathing” – coherent breathing is the practice of matching how long it takes to inhale and exhale.
By making sure you balance you in and out breaths, you significantly reduce the chance of hyperventilating, helping you get back in control of your breath.
To try coherent breathing, follow these steps:
Balancing your breath ensures you’re also balancing the amount of oxygen in your system – helping to regulate the anxious symptoms you’re experiencing. Again, like the ‘breath focus’ exercise, you might want to envisage the anxiety leaving your body with each breath – helping you take your mind off any recurring anxious thoughts.
It’s unlikely that you’ve given much thought to which nostril you’re breathing through most prominently – so this is what makes alternate breathing such an effective exercise for distracting your mind from anxious thoughts.
To give alternate nostril breathing a try, follow these steps:
Why does alternate breathing work to ease anxiety? Well, it’s all down to the unconscious processes that are involved with breathing. Inhaling and exhaling usually requires no thought or effort whatsoever – so by opening and closing your nostrils, you had some conscious thought to the process; keeping your thoughts on the process, rather than any anxious feelings.
As you’ve read through this list, you might have tried a few of the techniques – or you may have come across them elsewhere, before now.
It’s important to remember that you shouldn’t expect to become a breathing expert the first few times you try these methods. They’re generally referred to as ‘breathing practices’ – because when trying them, you’re doing exactly that; practicing.
Working on getting these breathing practices right is as much an important step as actually being able to do them – changing your focus from your anxiety to your breathing is a really important factor.
Don’t worry if you struggle with them to begin with. Trying them all until you’ve got one or two that feel right; then just keep practicing. It’s a good idea to try the ones you choose daily – even if you’re not feeling anxious. That way, should you find yourself experiencing a stress-response, you’ve got a go-to strategy you’ve become at least a little familiar with.
Eating might feel like a fairly basic biological function – we eat, take energy from our food, and that energy helps us going about our day. In reality though, food influences a huge range of processes in our bodies – not least hundreds of different hormone responses.
As we already know; on a very real, immediate biological level, stress hormones are responsible for virtually all of the anxiety symptoms we feel – so it’s probably no surprise to find that controlling the food that triggers hormone responses can also go a long way to controlling anxious feelings.
So, which foods can help to regulate anxiety? And which foods should anxiety sufferers avoid?
Let’s start by taking a look at the main offenders.
Take a scientific look at why some food types and ingredients are linked to anxiety:
We know, sugar’s almost always the main offender when you read any health-related information – but sugar’s proven to have negative effects for people who suffer with anxiety.
To understand why sugar is such bad news, it’s useful to get a quick understanding of what it does to your body.
Your body is not designed to handle the amount of sugar you get from candy, doughnuts, regular soda, or thousands of other sweet treats. Your body maintains a natural, healthy blood sugar level, but when you consume these types of food, you effectively ‘overdose’ on sugar – and your body rapidly produces a hormone called insulin to purge it from your system.
Insulin signals to your liver, muscles, and fat-storing tissues that they need to absorb the excess sugar (known as ‘glucose’ when it’s in your bloodstream) – but the processes makes the body work extremely hard, causing significant highs and lows; hence the terms ‘sugar rush’ and ‘sugar crash’.
As your body fights to get back to natural glucose levels, you can expect feelings of worry, irritability, sadness, fear, and often a raised heart rate.
If you feel like cutting sugar from your diet might help to ease anxiety – consider limiting the following food types:
As if cutting sugar out of your diet wasn’t already a big ask, reducing alcohol is also shown to ease anxiety levels.
Now, this might not feel like it makes sense – after all, we know a drink or two can help you feel relaxed – and a few more might make you forget your worries completely.
The trouble is, alcohol actually does the opposite on a biological level.
Firstly, alcohol actually has a negative impact on both hydration and sleep. Alcoholic drinks cause you to flush water from your body – a big factor in hangovers. What’s more, alcohol prevents you from entering REM sleep – so even if a nightcap makes you fall asleep quicker, it reduces the quality of your sleep through the night.
Poor hydration and a lack of sleep can significantly increase the onset of the symptoms of anxiety – but it’s not just during the night that the problems occur.
Alcohol is also shown to negatively impact the production of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is one of the brain’s most powerful ‘feel-good hormones’ – and even small variations in how much your brain produces can have significant effects on anxiety and depression.
As long as your doctor agrees, drinking in moderation (1-2 servings of alcohol per day) is generally acknowledged as being safe – but if you find yourself regularly consuming more than this, you might want to consider easing off and see if it improves your anxiety symptoms.
A dry-aged steak, blue cheese sauce, and a glass of wine – sounds great, right?
Well, potentially not if you’re considering anxiety triggers.
The problem lies with a substance produced when natural bacteria begin to break down the foods during the ‘aging’ or ‘maturing’ type processes. While this is instrumental in turning grapes into wine and making your steak particularly tender, it also produces ‘histamines’ – something that we more commonly associate with allergies and intolerances.
Now, histamine intolerance isn’t a problem for everyone – but if you find that you experience anxious feelings after consuming aged, cured, or fermented foods, it might be worth exploring in a little more detail. Common histamine intolerance reactions can include mild anxiety, headaches, fatigue, and digestive issues – and more serious reactions can include heart palpitations, light-headedness, and more severe feelings of anxiety.
Some foods to look out for include:
White carbohydrates are so-called because simply because they tend to be white or very pale – think white bread, pastries, white flour, pasta, pizza dough – etc.
There are entire books written on the science of carbohydrates – but in quick and simple terms, these ‘white’ carbohydrates are generally highly refined; which means the grain used to make them has been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients. With these beneficial parts of the grain gone, your body can quickly break the remaining carbohydrate down into glucose.
Remember glucose? That’s the main offender we talked about in the ‘Sugar’ section above.
In effect, eating these ‘simple’ carbohydrates impacts your body in the same way as eating candy; you’re likely to see a short spike in energy, followed by a crash – where you’ll feel sleepy and fatigued. It’s not at all uncommon for these crashes to bring on feelings of worry and anxiety too.
For a long time, trans fats have been linked to obesity and heart disease – but there’s an increasing body of evidence to suggest they also increase the risk of anxiety and depression.
Trans fats are artificially-created fat molecules that are used primarily in the manufacture of fast foods. They’re a cheap and easy way of improving a product’s shelf life and enhancing flavour.
Wondering where to look for trans fats? Try looking at the labels of:
There are plenty more of course – and they’re sometimes referred to as ‘partially hydrogenated oils/fats’ or ‘esterified fats’.
Our brains rely on naturally-occurring fats to maintain their cell structure – leading to good brain health and the absorption of essential nutrients like vitamin A, D, E, and K. The trouble is, trans fats are absorbed in the same way – but they do more harm than good. Studies have suggested that even moderate levels of trans fats could reduce the production of the feel-good hormone serotonin – as well as adversely affecting the natural structure of the brain; particularly around areas that deal with memory and hormone production.
Typically, we use caffeine to perk us up – whether that’s to put some gas in our tanks when we first get out of bed or to counteract the mid-afternoon lull after a sandwich at lunch. This way of using caffeine is bad news – for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, you might want to think about why you need that ‘pick me up’.
Chances are, it’s because of a sugar- or carbohydrate-related blood sugar crash. The coffee might make you feel a little less like you need a nap – but your body is still going through the process of levelling out your glucose levels, even if your coffee is keeping you somewhat focused. This means you still get the anxiety-causing effects of the sugar or carbs.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s still that well-documented caffeine rush to think about – which can very easily become nervousness, irritability, and a general feeling of anxiety. Caffeine is also another ingredient shown to decrease the production of serotonin – contributing to a depressed mood and a more negative state of mind.
Remember, caffeine isn’t just in coffee either – it’s in plenty of sodas, energy drinks, health supplements, and often added to headache/flu medications too.
Don’t panic. No one’s suggesting you should wake up tomorrow to a new reality that doesn’t include any sugar, caffeine, alcohol or fried foods.
For some people, a few evening drinks or that daily morning coffee won’t be a problem – our message is really to just consider these things if you suffer with anxiety.
In much the same way that a symptoms journal can be a great way of building an understanding about your anxiety triggers, a food/drink diary can help to pinpoint any dietary issues that might be linked to your anxiety.
Eating and drinking is something that so many of us do on autopilot. Do you remember exactly how much wine you had with dinner or how many chips and beers you enjoyed during the game? Have you ever stopped to consider your trans fat intake? Could you say for certain how many grams of sugar there are in that doughnut?
There’s no shame in not being ultra-savvy when it comes to your food intake, few of us are – but if anxiety is a problem you’re struggling to get to grips with – monitoring your intake of these main offenders is a great idea.
· Why not try cutting back on sugar for a week or two and see how it makes you feel?
· Maybe cut a couple of coffees or energy drinks out of your day?
· Perhaps you could start finding snacks that don’t have quite so much trans fat?
There’s no right or wrong – just understand that food can enormously impact your mood and anxiety level; so try experimenting and recording to see if you can ease your symptoms.
So, we’ve looked at some foods that are thought to negatively impact people who suffer from anxiety – but what about anxiety-reducing foods?
The good news is, there are plenty of them – so if you do decide to cut back on some of the foods/ingredients from the list above, there are some beneficial alternatives to replace them with.
Let’s start with the good news; chocolate is still on the menu!
Not only does dark chocolate generally contain far less sugar than milk chocolate, but it also contains ‘flavanols’ - types of antioxidant that are thought to improve blood flow to the brain, which scientists suggest makes it easier for anxious people to adjust to stressful situations.
In a 2012 study, a group of individuals who consumed 74% cocoa dark chocolate twice a day over a 14-day period showed reduced levels of cortisol – one of the stress hormones produced when we’re anxious.
Of course, it’s also worth considering that chocolate is often right at the top of peoples ‘feel good’ foods list – triggering the dopamine-producing ‘reward centres’ in your brain. This is the same reaction milk chocolate triggers – but with less sugary guilt involved.
If you’re planning on cutting back on anxiety-inducing coffee, green tea might be the ideal replacement.
Countless studies have been carried out charting the benefits of green tea – and it’s generally ‘L-theanine’ that’s considered to be the key ingredient. L-theanine is a type of amino acid – the tiny organic compounds that combine to make proteins, and it’s widely considered that it helps to suppress the stress hormone cortisol.
Although a lot of findings about L-theanine are theoretical for now, scientists think that it’s responsible for calming overexcited nerves – reducing an anxious person’s tendency to move towards that fight-or-flight response.
It’s a common myth that all green tea is caffeine-free – but it’s not. Green tea doesn’t contain as much caffeine as coffee – but there are plenty of brands on the market that are decaffeinated, so opt for one of those if you’re lowering your caffeine intake.
If you like to have a snack nearby, swapping chips or popcorn for a handful of nuts could help you ease your anxiety.
Nuts have naturally high levels of vitamin E – and scientists often associate lower levels of vitamin E with increased anxiety-like behaviours. What’s more, Brazil nuts contain high levels of selenium; an antioxidant that’s thought to reduce inflammation – which is often increased when an individual experiences heightened anxiety.
It’s worth going easy on the nuts though. Although both almonds and Brazils can help anxiety – they’re both quite high in calories, and too much selenium can cause side effects. Stick to a handful of almonds and 3-4 Brazil nuts as a snack each day.
Turmeric is often touted as a natural wonder-drug – and while some of the benefits claimed might not stand up to scientific scrutiny, it seems its anxiety-reducing properties could.
Before you go spooning heaps of turmeric powder onto your next meal – it’s actually a specific component of turmeric that offers the benefit; curcumin. Like the selenium in Brazil nuts, curcumin has anti-inflammation properties which have been observed to reduce the symptoms of anxiety in test groups.
You’d need a lot of turmeric powder to get a beneficial dose of curcumin – so if you’re not a fan of the curry-like taste, it’s a good idea to look for a supplement that will help add a meaningful dose of curcumin to your day.
If you’re used to having a nightcap to help you fall asleep, chamomile tea might be a great substitute.
Chamomile is a herb that grows naturally in western Europe, India, and western Asia – although it’s recently been introduced to the US and grows abundantly in many areas. It’s an extremely popular herbal tea ingredient, and anecdotal evidence suggests it can help settle an anxious mind – especially when you’re trying to sleep.
Chamomile tea is naturally free from caffeine, so if you’re hoping to do away with those caffeine-related jitters, it can be an ideal substitute for coffee.
Fish oils have been a popular health supplement for a long time – but it’s only more recently that the benefits of oily fish have been noted to reduce anxiety.
The key ingredients in oily fish are thought to be EPA and DHA – or ‘eicosapentaenoic acid’ and ‘docosahexaenoic acid’ to use their full names. EPA and DHA regulate neurotransmitters to help promote healthy brain function, as well as reducing inflammation – both important steps in easing the symptoms of anxiety.
It’s also worth mentioning that salmon and sardines are on a very small list of foods that contain vitamin D. Vitamin D is created by our bodies when we’re exposed to sunlight – but doctors often suggest supplementing it for people who live in areas with limited sun or for those who spend most of their time indoors. Although supplementing vitamin D isn’t shown to directly ease anxiety – a lower than ideal level can lead to a low mood and fatigue.
When we looked at foods and ingredients that might contribute to anxiety, we said that there’s no need to suddenly stop consuming them completely – and that same ‘in moderation’ approach is useful here too.
You don’t have to build a whole new diet around salmon and sardines or drink gallons of green tea – they’re just things to experiment with and see if they contribute to changes in your anxiety symptoms over time.
If you regularly eat steak, try substituting it with a salmon fillet. If you consume a lot of hot drinks, pick up some green tea or chamomile tea bags when you’re next at the store.
You might be looking at these lists of foods and considering a huge life overhaul that means you’ll never eat pizza or doughnuts again – but be careful; don’t set yourself up to fail.
It’s useful to change one thing at a time, so you get an indication of what works for you. If you stop eating white carbs and sugar at the same time as giving up coffee and alcohol, you won’t get a feel for which of those changes is the most important one for you. Again, understanding how your anxiety responds to different foods is a useful piece of knowledge to have.
Aim to change one small thing at a time. A series of small changes over days and weeks add up to meaningful dietary changes that could have lasting effects on your anxiety over the course of months and years.
Can exercise really help you to become less anxious?
According to numerous studies, it most definitely can – and it’s something of a multi-pronged attack on anxiety symptoms.
Before we get started, don’t panic about changing your lifestyle to become a fitness fanatic. Unless you really love the idea, we’re not going to suggest you hit the gym five times a week or sign up for a marathon next month – this level of effort is way beyond what most experts suggest is helpful. In fact, psychologists studying the relationship between anxiety and exercise believe that a 10-minute walk is likely to have just as many benefits as an intensive 45-minute workout.
Exercising on your terms is the key. As such, we’re not going to dig deep into the benefits of endurance sports or Olympic weightlifting – we’re going to explore realistic ways to add a bit of extra exercise and movement to your life.
Anxiety can be so overwhelming because it often hits you from a variety of angles. There are the worrying or repetitive thoughts, the physical symptoms, and the feeling that the anxiety you’re experiencing is impossible to escape.
The good news is exercise addresses each of these problems in one shot. Take a look at some of the ways it can help:
Sometimes, just being able to move your mind onto something else is the first step in breaking the cycle of anxious thoughts or behaviours. This is where exercise can work wonders.
By stepping out for a walk, going for a gentle swim or cycle, or just playing catch with your child or grandchild, you’re focusing on something other than the immediate worry that’s dominating your mind.
The fight or flight response to anxious thoughts causes a surge of adrenaline through your body – which causes tension in your muscles; readying you for physical effort.
The best way to get rid of the tension – by doing exactly as nature intended; some physical effort.
If you feel like anxious thoughts or symptoms can hang around for a long time, getting even slightly physical is a great way to purge the adrenaline and other stress hormones from your system.
Increasing your heart rate with some cardiovascular exercise has a significantly different effect when compared to increasing your heart rate through worry or panic.
When your rate rises through exercise, you actually change your brain chemistry slightly – increasing the production of important anti-anxiety feel-good neurochemicals like serotonin and dopamine. These are natural antidotes to the feelings of worry that you’re experiencing – and even just gentle exercise is enough to start their production.
Although feelings of anxiety might seem completely uncontrollable – the frontal region of the brain, when active, helps to control the primal fight or flight stress-responses that are causing the anxious feelings.
The best way to activate this frontal region of the brain? You’ve guessed it – exercise.
Earlier, we talked a little about how anxious responses to situations can seem almost ‘hardwired’ into our brains. The more we react with anxiety, the more our brains use anxiety as a go-to response.
When we react to anxiety with some exercise, we build different, more positive responses to anxious feelings. In simple terms, our brain reacts as less of a victim to anxiety – and as more of problem-solver. The more these positive responses occur, the more likely our brain is to head straight for these positive unconscious coping strategies when faced with real or imagined threats.
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to exercise. If it involves moving and it causes your heart rate to increase, you’re going in the right direction.
Of course, there are plenty of other things we can do to add meaningful movement to our lives without necessarily being considered traditional exercise:
With so many benefits relating to anxiety, exercise really should be in every anxiety sufferer’s toolkit of strategies – but it absolutely must a strategy you use on your own terms.
Let’s face it, we all know we’d see a world of benefits if we ran 10k every day – but that’s not likely to fit into most people’s routine. In fact, between time, effort, the right equipment, the right location, and a host of other reasons – there are thousands of perfectly legitimate reasons the average person can’t add a daily 10k run into their schedule.
So, what’s the answer if you want to exercise to reduce anxiety?
There are actually a few. Check each of these boxes and exercise will become an effortless part of your life:
When it comes to exercise, it’s infinitely better to aim for a 15-minute walk every day and actually achieve it, rather than to promise yourself that you’ll cycle 50 miles and never get around to it.
Start small – and if you feel capable of working up to going longer or faster, then do it when you’re ready.
Exercise doesn’t have to feel like a punishment; in fact, it’s important to find something you enjoy doing so you’re keen to come back to it again and again.
If you struggle to get motivated, see if you can find an activity partner – you’ll be less likely to skip sessions, and you get to add some meaningful social time to your exercise too.
You might decide to track your exercise and heart rate using one of the many fitness trackers on the market today. If you do – don’t worry too much about hitting your optimum heart rate right away.
Get used to the habit of exercising before you start trying to get towards maximum heart rates and quickest times.
It’s a fact; there are going to be days where you really cannot face exercising – and that’s completely fine.
Whatever your reason for not feeling up to it – the last thing you need to do it beat yourself up about it. Remember – exercise isn’t a punishment; it’s something that you’re engaging with to make yourself feel better. Have some low-effort options up your sleeve so you can still feel like you’ve been active. Walk the dog, walk to the store, clean your car – it’s all positive movement – but it doesn’t necessarily need your running trainers every day.
Part of the reason exercise is so useful for anxiety is because it’s a great distraction from whatever’s causing you to worry. So, how exactly does distracting yourself from a distraction work?!
Well, the effort of exercise directs your body towards a different set of biological functions – so rather than reacting to the anxious feelings, it’s pedalling, jogging, walking, or generally doing something healthier than getting tense and shaking. That said, there’s nothing to say you will relish every moment of your exercise – so why not combine it with doing something you enjoy?
Listen to music as you walk, watch your favourite box-set as you use a stationary bike, listen to an audiobook as you run. There’s a world of distractions in the palm of our hands – so make them work for you!
If you’re in the midst of an anxious moment, it can feel like anxiety is something that will never go away.
Sadly, this is a conclusion that millions of Americans come to every day, week, month, and year. Millions of people simply resign themselves to the fact that anxiety is here to stay and that there’s nothing that can be done about it.
This is quite simply not true.
Anxiety is the most common mental wellbeing issue in the US today. It’s also one of the most treatable.
You might manage to take some steps towards feeling better with the strategies we’ve talked about here. Then again, you might decide that you’d rather talk to a doctor or a therapist about what you’re feeling. Whatever you decide to do, taking action – even just a tiny step – is going to take you a little closer to living a life where those gut-wrenching, panic-inducing feelings of anxiousness are reduced or gone.
When you do take action, it can be enormously helpful to talk to a friend or family member about what you’re doing.
If you choose to talk to someone, remember that anxiety isn’t a strange, mental weakness – it’s a common symptom of how our brains interact with the world we live in. There’s a good chance the person you talk to will recognize the anxious feelings you’re experiencing. The fact is, there are likely to be more people suffering from anxiety at any one time than there are people suffering from a common cold.
Whether your first step towards a less-anxious life is one that involves some new breathing strategies, a different approach to diet, a bit of physical exercise – or a mix of all three; you’re not alone. The first step doesn’t have to be a huge one – even changing one thing can be a significant move towards an anxiety-free life.