Anxiety can creep up slowly and become a steady, unwelcome companion to your day. Or it can steamroll in and take away your ability to do the things you want to do. Sometimes – in fact, often – it’s an unpleasant combination of both.
Whichever way it’s affecting you, if you’re reading this you’ve probably decided that it’s time to intervene and start managing your anxiety differently. So the first thing you need to know is that there are many, many scientifically-proven, medication-free things you can do now in order to combat anxiety.
Read on to discover:
(1) a variety of activities and lifestyle choices you can incorporate to help you manage anxiety naturally; and
(2) three natural activities to try when you need immediate relief from anxiety.
Part One: Activities And Lifestyle Choices You Can Incorporate To Help You Manage Anxiety Naturally
1. Incorporate Mindfulness Meditation
Serotonin is your body’s natural mood stabiliser. It’s thought to regulate anxiety and happiness and low levels of serotonin have been associated with depression.
Countless studies have now shown that meditation can boost serotonin levels in your body. As little as 10 minutes per day can contribute to an increase, helping you control stress, decrease anxiety and achieve a greater capacity for relaxation. If you’re new to meditation, you’ll find lots of apps that can help you get started. To learn more about the best meditation apps available, check out our article on this topic here.
2. Get Active
Fact: Just 20 minutes of exercise has been proven to stimulate the release of the feel-good chemical neurotransmitters endorphins and endocannabinoids. Exercise reduces stress, boosts feelings of self-esteem and improves sleep quality.
So however you want to do it, start making exercise a part of your day. There are so many ways to get moving – take the time to find what’s right for you. You could try going for a walk on your lunch break, doing exercise videos at home, going for a swim or setting up an exercise bike in your lounge room. Whatever it is, work towards making it a regular part of your week.
3. Prioritise Sleep
Being sleep deprived changes the way you physically respond to stressors. But what does that mean, exactly?
Evidence suggests that with less sleep your body is more likely to have a higher-anxiety response to external cues. Researchers from Manchester University found that people who go to bed later and sleep for shorter periods experience more repetitive negative thoughts than those who get more sleep. So…
- Create a regular bedtime: Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Work out your optimal bedtime then set an alarm for when it’s time to head to bed in the evening so that you don’t get distracted and stay up later.
- Be consistent with your pre-sleep routine (commonly referred to as ‘sleep hygiene’): It doesn’t take long to train yourself to associate particular activities with sleep. Maybe it’s a cup of tea, a warm shower or ten minutes of reading.
- Avoid screens (including phones): This has been well-documented: avoiding light from screens for thirty minutes prior to sleep will help you to get to sleep faster and aid you in getting a better quality sleep.
4. Get Amongst Nature
Have you heard of the Japanese practice of ‘forest bathing’? A recent study showed that people who went for a twenty-minute walk in a forest setting had lower levels of stress hormones afterwards than those who did the equivalent twenty-minute walk through an urban environment. Now, we’re not all spending our days next to a forest, but if you’re in a built-up area, find a park or a tree-lined street and get some outdoor time with mother nature.
5. Brighten Your Day With Sunshine
Increasing Vitamin D levels has been shown to decrease symptoms of anxiety and an easy, natural way to increase your vitamin D is to take a short 15-minute break in the sunshine. Obviously you don’t want to overdo it and risk getting sunburnt, but exposing your arms and legs to the sunshine for short periods can work wonders for your Vitamin D levels and therefore your mental health too.
6. Use Warmth
Anecdotally we know that warm baths, time in the sauna or relaxing in the sun can make us feel calm and relaxed. Now there’s evidence to back that up: studies firmly suggest that the sensation of warmth may alter neural circuits that are responsible for controlling cognitive function and mood. So a warm bath at the end of the day, curling up in front of the fireplace or a trip to the sauna are all good things to do to help stabilise your anxiety.
7. Try Out ‘Small Acts of Bravery’
If your anxiety has distinct triggers (for example driving in heavy traffic, talking with strangers or public speaking) it can be tempting to entirely avoid those situations. While this can provide short term relief, it can add to anxiety in the long term.
To combat this, experts recommend a process of small acts of exposure to the stressor carried out in a structured way that you can feel comfortable with. This is sometimes managed by a professional and takes the form of ‘self-exposure therapy’; but, it is also something you can do on a small scale for yourself. Experts agree that the way through anxiety is by learning that what you fear isn’t’ likely to happen and that, if it does, you’ll be able to cope with it. So, these ‘small acts of bravery’ can go a long way in helping you understand and manage your triggers.
8. Nourish Your Body For Good Mental Health
We know you know that eating well is important. But how does it impact on your mental health?
Studies in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that subjects who had a diet high in processed foods had a 58% increased risk for depression (and those whose diet contained more whole foods had a 26% reduced risk). That’s a strong argument for providing your body with fresh, nutrient-dense produce and making sure you’re achieving a balanced diet.
But let’s look even closer at diet and how it can be used to combat anxiety. While diet alone can’t be considered a cure for anxiety, experts suggest you keep these things in mind:
- Sugar swings: Sugar acts as an adrenal stimulant – therefore, you need to be consuming healthy foods and eating at regular intervals across the day. Keeping your mood stable while experiencing highs and lows in blood sugar can be really challenging.
- Omega-3s: Make sure your diet is rich in omega-3s (which you’ll find in fish like salmon, anchovies and sardines, as well as mussels). If you wish to, you can ask your doctor about taking it as a supplement too: a recent study of students found that those who took 2.5 milligrams a day of mixed omega-3 fatty acids for 12 weeks had less anxiety before exam situations than those taking a placebo tablet.
- Vitamin C: Foods rich in Vitamin C help to regulate and lower the stress hormone cortisol, so make sure you’re taking in a lot of fruits like strawberries and citrus, as well as veggies like dark leafy greens, Brussels sprouts and broccoli.
9. Chamomile Tea
Chamomile tea contains two chemicals that actively promote relaxation: apigenin and luteolin. There are compounds in chamomile that bind to the same brain receptors as drugs like Valium. A study from the University of Pennsylvania found that patients with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) who took chamomile supplements for eight weeks had a significant reduction in anxiety symptoms compared to those in the study who took the placebo. So relaxing with a chamomile tea through your afternoon is a great idea.
10. Keep A Handwritten Diary
This seems too simple, doesn’t it? But a recent Australian study has revealed a clear correlation between regularly handwriting notes, thoughts, ideas, feelings or memories and an increase in experiencing relief from anxiety, fear and worry. So make time in your day to jot notes in a journal, to write about an experience you’ve had or a favourite topic (maybe a book you’ve been reading or a place you’ve just visited) and know that you’re combating anxiety while you’re doing it!
11. Aromatherapy with Lavender Essential Oils
Research out of Germany suggests that Silexan, a pill containing an essential oil from lavender, can be as effective as lorazepam in reducing anxiety symptoms for those suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Lavender essential oils come in many forms, not just tablets, and you may want to start by just gently scenting your bedroom, home or car, or perhaps dabbing a little on your wrists like a perfume.
12. Re-evaluate Your Relationship With Social Media
Did you know studies have shown that people who spend more than two hours a day on social networking sites are more likely to suffer from increased levels of psychological distress, depression and anxiety?
We naturally compare what we see of others with our own lives, forgetting that online it’s only a curated reality, not real life. This can contribute to a now well-known phenomenon called ‘compare and despair’. If your friends are sharing pics of amazing holidays or picture-perfect houses, they’re probably not showing you the disagreements at the airport or the sink full of dirty dishes. That doesn’t make them bad people: it just means that comparing their curated pictures to your reality is like comparing apples and oranges.
So while social media can be fantastic, think about whether your mental health might benefit from a change in your online habits.
13. Start Practicing Yoga
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says yoga is one of the top ten alternative practices used to treat anxiety and depression. And it’s easy to see why. The Harvard Medical School highlights that yoga is capable of modulating stress response systems in the body, serving to decrease physiological impacts of stress through things like reducing heart rate, lowering blood pressure and easing respiration.
Find a yoga centre near you, or start gently by following along with yoga videos or apps that you can use at home.
14. Smiling Works Wonders
It’s true: the simple act of smiling can help you in alleviating anxiety. Here’s what you should know:
- Psychologists in the US undertook a study and found that the simple act of smiling served to reduce heart rates, even after stressful activities (and it is widely known that an increased heart rate is one of the major indicators of stress in your body).
- Neuroscientists have found that emotions and their associated expression happen at exactly the same moment, so triggering one automatically activates the other.
So even when you don’t feel like it, smiling or laughing can help to shift your emotions in the right direction. There are apps (like ‘PocketSmile’, developed by neuroscientists) that have been released to make this an easy part of your day.
15. Talk To Someone
Sharing your experience with someone can help to alleviate some of the intensity of what you’re going through. It can also help you to realise that you’re not alone. Choosing the right person to chat with is key, so have a think about whether there’s someone close to you like a friend, family member or partner to talk with, or whether you’d prefer to discuss your situation with a professional health carer.
Part Two: Three Activities To Try When You Need Immediate Relief From Anxiety
The first fifteen ideas in this guide are all things you can incorporate into your lifestyle to help you manage anxiety naturally. These final three, however, represent natural things you can do to help you in the moment, once you feel anxiety building. Try practicing them so they become easy to implement when you start feeling stressed. See which works best for you, or use a combination of all three…
1. Interrupt Anxiety – ‘The 3 Things Rule’
This method was developed by Tamar Chansky, a psychologist who promotes clear thinking in the face of anxiety. This exercise gives you three clear steps to follow when anxiety starts to build:
- Step 1: Look around you and name three things that you can see.
- Step 2: Name three sounds you can hear.
- Step 3: Finally, identify three parts of your body and move them as you think about them.
This can stop your mind racing and give you a chance to rebalance your thoughts.
2. T.H.I.N.K About Your Thoughts
This is a very simple acronym recommended by an anxiety sufferer and it can be a really useful prompt to redirect negative thoughts. So when anxiety starts to build, consider:
Is my thought:
H – Helpful?
I – Inspirational?
N – Necessary?
K – Kind?
And if not, recognise it as an unhelpful and untrue thought and set it aside.
3. Breathing Activity
When you’re experiencing anxiety your breathing can become faster and shallower. Breathing deeply lets your nervous system know that it’s okay to relax and indicates to your body that you’re not in a ‘fight or flight’ situation.
There are lots of different breathing exercises for anxiety, but this is the simplest for disrupting escalating anxiety:
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, counting to four as you do. Feel the breath go right down into your body.
- Gently hold this breath to the count of four, then exhale slowly through your nose again counting to four as you do. If you find it hard to focus, direct your attention to the feeling of the air as it passes in and out of your nostrils – cool air travelling in, warm air travelling out.
If you’re suffering from anxiety and are planning to overhaul your lifestyle choices and activities to get on top of your chronic worry, it’s a good idea to visit a professional therapist first. They will be able to give you professional health advice on managing and combatting your anxiety, as well as being there to guide you through your recovery. Alongside receiving professional help, use this guide as a great way to supplement your recovery, and know that you’re doing everything you can – naturally – to combat your anxiety.