8 Dos and Don’ts of Living with Anxiety, According to Experts
How to worry less and feel more like yourself
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You feel stressed about a presentation at work and can’t seem to shake imposter syndrome. Your friend blows up your phone seeking reassurance about her relationship. Your mom hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks because she can’t stop worrying.
As a rule, worry doesn’t discriminate. But how it plays out is unique to each of us. “Stress tends to be more specific to an external pressure that you’re aware of, and it’s shorter-term,” says Juliet Lam Kuehnle, a clinical mental health counselor and author of Who You Callin’ Crazy?! The Journey from Stigma to Therapy. Although stress can occasionally trigger feelings of anxiousness, Kuehnle continues, anxiety tends to be longer lasting and typically involves “anticipatory worry of some future event.”
The experience of anxiety can either be related to a specific identifiable situation or it can be more generalized. But the one constant is fear in response to uncertainty, says Robyn McKay, PhD, psychologist, and executive coach in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Although occasional anxiety happens to most of us, chronic anxiety is less common yet more debilitating, causing you to become so preoccupied with the future that you find yourself unable to be experience what’s happening in the present. At work, for instance, you might notice that you’re unfocused, less productive, and lacking in creativity. Anxiety can also make it difficult to connect with friends and family, develop intimate relationships, and appreciate life, says McKay.
Although you can’t control what happens to you, there are some everyday contributors to anxiety that you can influence in an attempt to soothe your emotional state. If you think you might suffer from chronic anxiety, seeking out a board-certified therapist can provide helpful insights and ensure that you don’t struggle through your fears alone.
8 Unexpected Dos and Don’ts to Minimize Anxiety
1. Do Stay Hydrated
You already know (and have been told a mind-numbing number of times) that adequate water intake is essential for your physical well-being. But quelling your anxiety may be another compelling reason to reach for your water bottle.
According to a study in the World Journal of Psychiatry, subjects who drank five or more glasses of water a day reported lower ratings of anxiety and depression than those who drank less than two glasses a day. Although more research is needed, it can’t hurt to keep your water glass or bottle in sight at all times. If you still forget to sip, set an alarm for every 30 minutes as a reminder.
2. Don’t Tell Your Brain to Stop Worrying
Chances are you’ve seen the meme that says, “Never in the history of calming down has anyone calmed down by being told to calm down.” The same advice applies to how you talk to yourself.
Telling yourself to turn off your negative thoughts is “like asking your nose to stop smelling or your ears to stop listening,” says McKay. By trying to stop the thoughts, you draw even more attention to them, making it harder for your brain to disregard whatever incited your anxiety.
A better approach to disrupting negative thoughts is by focusing your attention elsewhere, says McKay. What type of distraction works best will be unique to you. One way to quiet your fears about the future is to become intensely absorbed in your present, whether that means watching your coffee brew, losing yourself in a book, journaling your thoughts, or focusing all your attention on what the other person in a conversation is saying.
Another way to focus your awareness to what you’re doing is to move your body, which also brings other anti-anxiety benefits.
3. Do Get Physically Active
Your body can’t discern the difference between an actual threat and something that you perceive as a threat. That means whenever you become anxious, your sympathetic nervous system automatically activates, your body goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode, and your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing to accelerate. It’s the exact same response whether you barely averted a car accident or were asked a question in a Zoom meeting while you weren’t paying attention.
Although you can’t change your physiological response, you can learn how to lessen the severity of it, Kuehlne says. Regular exercise can help. A study from the Journal of Affective Disorders found that moderate and strenuous exercise, including aerobic activity and strength training, helped ease symptoms of anxiety in those who were suffering from chronic anxiety. A study in JAMA Psychiatry also found improved symptoms in those subjects with generalized anxiety disorder who practiced yoga.
In terms of how much exercise you “should” be doing, any amount of moving your body is better than none. That could mean letting loose in a dance party of one in between meetings, a class at the gym or yoga studio, or an all-day hike.
4. Don’t Get Sucked into Doomscrolling
No is telling you to quit social media. But according to a recent study, when college students limited their social media usage to 30 minutes a day, their anxiety levels decreased.
“Anyone who experiences anxiety is likely to be affected by the scroll,” McKay says. But the researchers specified that the results were less about the specific amount of time spent online and more about being aware of how you’re interacting with social media and making some effort to limit yourself. That includes being choosy about who you follow, which means lessening your exposure to sensationalized news reports and beautified accounts that only show the “Instagram version” of life.
Also, consider using social media for good, McKay says. Post or share things that inspire you or use it as a place where you can catch up with your friends.
5. Do Eat More Plants
The relationship between food and your mood is not news—and something that’s probably been apparent to you since you were a kid. But recent research published in the Annals of Medical Research suggests a surprising correlation between a predominantly plant-based lifestyle and anxiety.
Researchers surveyed hundreds of individuals on their emotions and found that vegans and vegetarians experienced significantly lower self-reported levels of anxiety and depression than omnivores. No further distinction was made regarding the specific intake of subjects.
It’s well known and supported by science that certain vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals reduce anxiety, which means if you choose to reduce your consumption of meat, emphasizing unprocessed food will do more for your longterm mood than seeking out the temporary high from consuming junk foods.
6. Don’t Overindulge in Alcohol
Hangovers happen. Maybe you were out with friends and lost track of how many beers you had. Or you knew it might catch up with you but you figured the night would be sufficiently memorable to offset any side-effects.
But sometimes the morning after screams at you with more than a headache. Hangxiety, short for hangover anxiety, is the name for the sense of uncontrollable worry many suffer after a night of drinking. The science behind it is complicated, but according to a study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, the body’s drive to regulate itself after being intoxicated “can lead to increased anxiety during withdrawal.”
The only known cure to hangxiety is prevention. When it isn’t an option to cut out alcohol entirely, curtail your consumption. Then pay careful attention or even journal about how much you consume and how you feel the next day. You might be surprised at the patterns you notice and your ability to discern your optimal cutoff.
7. Do Schedule Worry Time
Instead of adding to your anxiety by trying not to fall into worry, what if you indulged your negative thoughts? Setting a scheduled time each day to worry affords you a degree of control over the part of your brain that insists you consider each and every “what if.”
You can try journaling about your negative thoughts during this scheduled time, says McKay. “Literally writing down what you’re worried about helps shift your perspective on what you’re anxious about,” McKay says.
Another approach is mindfulness meditation, in which you deliberately bring your attention to your breath as you sit quietly. When your thoughts bombard you—which they will—try to simply observe them rather than spiraling into your reaction to them. Then bring your attention back to your breath. Repeat.
Your scheduled worry time can also include time spent in a therapy session.
8. Don’t Skimp on Sleep
No one operates at peak emotional capacity when they’re not sleeping well. But those who are prone to anxiousness tend to be especially sensitive to the effects of insufficient sleep, making it more likely that you’ll experience those unwanted symptoms, of anxiety, according to the Sleep Foundation.
Not only can getting less sleep negatively influence your mood, but anxiety can cause you to get less sleep, creating a particularly frustrating cycle. It’s generally recommended that adults sleep between seven and nine hours a night, although your sleep needs are as unique to you as your anxiety. It can help to understand some of the most common misconceptions about sleep.