Everyone gets nervous when the stakes go up in our lives. Anxiety is a built-in reaction to the perception of threatening or challenging situations, evoked by the release of stress hormones in the brain. Short-term nervousness serves a purpose, elevating our arousal and preparing our body to put forth powerful mental and physical efforts. But anxiety that lasts too long, or is provoked by ruminations or repeated worries about stressors, can have a detrimental impact on performance and health.
Anxiety disorders are widespread in America, affecting 18% of adults; in fact, up to 30% of American adults may have an anxiety disorder as many people don’t seek help or even realize they have chronic anxiety. Fortunately, there are many healthy ways to relieve anxiety. Whether you are seeking a quick fix for mental calm or long-term solutions to your chronic anxiety, the options described below can help you with de-stressing.
Your brain is your body’s biggest consumer of nutrients. A poor diet may cause neurotransmitter deficiencies and other nutritional problems that can be directly solved by dietary changes. One important step is to reduce your intake of alcohol and caffeine. Caffeinated beverages increase heart rate and contribute to physical feelings of jitteriness and nervousness. Consider replacing your coffee with green tea for a healthier, calming energy boost. You can also improve your energy levels by increasing your intake of water. Up to 75% of Americans may be experiencing chronic dehydration without even knowing it.
Alcohol can make you feel calm in the short-term duration, but disturbs sleep patterns and memory formation, contributing to anxiety. Even if you don’t want to stop drinking altogether, making sure that you don’t drink close to bedtime will help reduce anxiety.
Improving your diet to reduce anxiety isn’t just about taking away anxiety-producing substances but adding healthier options. The Mayo Clinic recommends including protein in your breakfast foods for long-lasting energy that helps to stabilize blood sugar, reducing physical feelings of nervousness; more complex carbohydrates, like whole grains, to increase levels of serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter; and consumption of foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, in order to bolster brain nutrition.
Any form of regular and moderately vigorous exercise can reduce anxiety, by helping to condition and strengthen cardiovascular health, maintain mental fitness, reduce fatigue, and increase tolerance to uncomfortable physical sensations (like elevated heart rate during stressful situations).
Walking can be a particularly helpful way to reduce anxiety, because it fits easily into most people’s daily lives. Calm Clinic, a mental health resource website, suggests there are additional ways walking helps to reduce anxiety, including:
• Increased movement. Lack of movement and frequent sitting is a major contributor to anxiety; people who spend most of their day sitting are more anxiety-prone those who exercise. Unused, tense, stiff muscles contribute to anxiety by transmitting anxiety-provoking neurochemicals, while muscle relaxation helps reduce anxiety, and regularly exercised muscles are better able to relax than sedentary muscles.
• Changes in breathing patterns. Many people who are anxious hyperventilate and frequently hold their breath during stress, without realizing it. Walking helps to naturally balance breathing patterns which can have an indirect impact on anxiety symptoms.
• Distractions. Walking provides distractions from rumination and worry, which helps take your mind off even serious stressors. The regular rhythm of walking fosters mental clarity and focus. Perhaps that’s why the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”.
Swimming is a high-impact cardiovascular exercise with a particularly strong impact on anxiety. All cardiovascular exercises can help to reduce anxiety, through their impact on breathing (see the section about walking, above) as well as brain function. Cardiovascular exercise promotes calm emotional states, by contributing to production of “feel-good” chemicals like endorphins. Cardiovascular exercise may also contribute to the growth of new cells in the brain’s memory center, the hippocampus, which allows us to develop new ways of coping with anxiety and reduces the impact of harmful mental habits.
Swimming may be one of the best forms of cardiovascular exercise. It has a high impact on muscular and cardiovascular strength but doesn’t stress joints as much as running or bicycling, making it a good starting point for sedentary individuals. Swimming also has a profound impact on breathing which in turn may reduce anxiety. Anyone who swims knows there is something inherently calming about being immersed in water and feeling your breathing adjust to the rhythm of swimming. The meditative quality of swimming, and its potent cardiovascular benefits, make it a very effective treatment for anxiety, so signing up for swim lessons could be a great place to start.
A simple but profound way of describing anxiety belongs to Buddhist meditative practice- “monkey mind”- the concept that the anxious mind is constantly in motion, grasping for meaning, never still. A contemporary technique for alleviating anxiety, mindfulness practice, has evolved out of centuries-old Eastern meditative practice. Mindfulness is not only a short-term solution for anxiety, with immediate impact on breathing patterns, but it also promotes development of attention control which makes it easy for the mind to switch away from rumination (the “monkey mind”) and exist with non-judgmental clarity in the present moment. Fortunately, there are many ways you can fit mindfulness into your day.
Everyday Mindfulness, a mindfulness resource, recommends three mindfulness practices specific to anxiety reduction: anchoring, or directing attention first to the lower half of your body, then to your breathing (many people with chronic anxiety over-focus on their heart rate and breathing); counting your breath, which restores emotional equilibrium and balances the ratio of carbon dioxide in breath; and finger breathing, which provides a visual and tactile way to gain greater control over breathing.
Mindfulness is not just a set of techniques; it is also a mindset that you can incorporate into any of the other suggestions mentioned here, including walking and swimming—even eating. There are many resources on the Web to provide education and guidance if you want to incorporate mindfulness into your life.
Finally, incorporating more humor and laughter in your life is an important way to reduce anxiety. Humor can contribute to anxiety reduction through both physical and mental pathways. Physically, the act of laughing has a profound and positive effect on health. It promotes oxygen-rich breathing, stimulates muscles and cardiovascular organs, and activates, then relieves, your stress response. Some scientists believe that laughter evolved as a means of fostering resilience to stress. We laugh when a situation seems threatening and is unexpectedly resolved, first engaging, and then relieving, our stress response.
Humor can have a long-term impact on anxiety by restructuring the way we perceive and deal with stressors. Rumination, or repeated worries characterized by feelings of low self-efficacy or ability to solve problems on our own, is a major contributor to development of anxiety disorders. Humor takes the wind out of rumination. It distracts and refocuses us, and gives perspective that our problems aren’t as big as they seem. Little wonder that humor is often used as a potent healing agent on hospital wards.
Many individuals cope with chronic anxiety through substances like alcohol, prescription medications, or recreational drugs. Prescription medications can have their place in treating anxiety, but there are many other ways to cope with stress, simple and cost-effective changes that promote long-term alleviation of anxiety as well as short-term relief. Hopefully by reading this article, you have found some resources for your own well-being.
Dixie Somers is a freelance writer and blogger for business, home, and family niches. Dixie lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and is the proud mother of three beautiful girls and wife to a wonderful husband.
*Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Zensorium.
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