How to Combat Anxiety: Helpful Ways to Ease Anxiety Symptoms
Everyone can feel anxious at times. Whether it’s delivering a speech or going on a first date, experiencing that fleeting ‘butterfly’ sensation is nothing out of the ordinary. But when this crippling sense of fear begins to underpin your everyday life, routine anxiety can transform into a medicalised illness – or generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobia, social anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. And for many sufferers, these conditions can be just as incapacitating as having a physical ailment or disability.
Anxiety can manifest in a myriad of ways. Generally speaking, its symptoms include excessive worry, sleep troubles, irrational fears, panic attacks, social anxiety, muscle tension, chronic indigestion, stage fright and self-consciousness. As you can imagine, these issues can seep into every corner of an individual’s life. It’s a vicious cycle perpetuated by low self-esteem and debilitating bouts of worry.
When you experience a particularly tricky spell of anxiousness, it can be hard to imagine a way out. But anxiety is merely a mundane mental phenomenon, not a life sentence. And there are a variety of effective coping mechanisms to manage the physical and emotional implications the condition can trigger. Lifestyle and nutrition take centre stage here – key components, we believe, that will nurture your emotional wellbeing back to optimal health.
Did you know?
Anxiety and panic attacks are surprisingly common in the UK, with one in five Britons experiencing a disabling anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetimei
It can be tempting to drink your nerves away with a tipple (or two!) when you suffer from anxiety, especially when socialising and searching for some Dutch courage. However, that ‘innocent’ glass of wine could in fact exacerbate feelings of anxiousness and may be detrimental to your mental health in the long run. Alcohol can negatively affect your mood as it skews the level of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is your ‘happy hormone’ that, when in short supply, can lead to feelings of nervousness and anxiety. If you’re at a social occasion, sometimes the ritual of holding a drink in your hand is enough to give you a confidence boost. But who says it needs to be alcoholic? There’s a range of refreshing mocktails on the market, and no one needs to know you’re teetotal!
Many of us need a strong brew to kickstart our day, but research now indicates that drinking too much caffeine can intensify anxiety symptoms. Caffeine is a stimulant that affects the central nervous system to help you feel more energised. The ‘get-up-and-go’ sensation it fills you with causes an increase in heart and breathing rate, which is a similar reaction to the ‘fight-or-flight’ response that occurs when you perceive danger. Consuming too much caffeine when you’re already highly anxious therefore, is simply adding fuel
to the fire: you’re revving up your body’s stress response. Moderation is key with caffeine. Drinking one or two cups of coffee a day shouldn’t spark an anxious spell, but try not to exceed that amount.
Hold back on high GI
Nutritionists have been harping on about glycaemic index or GI for years – a buzzword denoting the rate at which different foods affect your blood sugar levels. According to recent data, filling up on foods with high GI scores (white bread, fizzy drinks, cereal, white rice and potatoes) could aggravate symptoms of anxiety.
These foods are thought to cause a torrent of hormonal reactions and diminish blood sugar levels, potentially leading to anxiousness, irritability, fatigue, and changes in mood and behaviour. High GI diets are also associated with inflammation and cardiovascular disease, which may play a role in the development of mood disorders. Follow these simple guidelines to make your diet low-GI friendly:
Choose wholegrain versions of foods such as bread, rice, pasta and crackers
Always combine protein with carbohydrates – for instance, eat a handful of nuts (protein) with a piece of fruit (carbohydrate)
Boil new potatoes instead of mashing, baking or chipping
Thicken sauces using a little nut butter or tahini, rather than high GI corn flour
Avoid ‘instant’ or ‘easy-to-cook’ food, as they tend to be highly processed
Snack on unsalted nuts, seeds or oatcakes, rather than sweet treats or biscuits
Say ‘no’ to sugar
Reaching for treats laden with refined sugar is a common reflex for many anxiety sufferers – some would argue it’s a temporary distraction from worry and panic. That said, sweet foods are best avoided if you’re prone to bouts of anxiety; fluctuting blood sugar levels will release hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, which could subsequently exacerbate your anxiety. You heard us, back away from the biscuit tin!
Energise with exercise
The far-reaching physical and emotional benefits of exercise are well-documented in research, with evidence proposing that it can help manage chronic mood conditions like anxiety. Regular exercise has been associated with improved mental clarity and concentration – both of which can take a battering by bouts of anxiety. Better still, the brain releases endorphins when you work out, thereby supercharging your mood and filling you with motivation. Here’s some of our favourite anti-anxiety activities:
Participation in aerobic exercise can decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilise mood, improve sleep, and bolster self-esteem. Try 30 minutes of jogging, walking, cycling or dancing 3-5 times per week to reap the full benefits. If you struggle maintaining an exercise programme, set small goals for daily consistency rather than striving for a ‘textbook’ workout. For instance, it’s better to walk every day for 15-20 minutes, then schedule in an intense 3-hour training session at the weekend. Exercising little and often is excellent fuel for your mood!
Stretching-based exercises like yoga can inject some much needed zen into your day. Yoga combines three elements: physical poses, called asanas; controlled breathing (practiced in conjunction with asanas); and a short period of deep relaxation or meditation. Avid yogis believe the practice is extremely beneficial for anxiety sufferers, as it can reduce the impact of exaggerated stress responses, helping to lower heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. If you can’t make it to a class, enlist the help of YouTube and practice from the comfort of your own home.
Relax and restore
Learning to relax can be perfect therapy at times of high stress and anxiousness. But for those with an anxiety disorder, finding the right headspace for relaxation can often be tricky. With that in mind, here’s a range of simple techniques to help you deal with anxious scenarios as they occur. Don’t worry if some ideas don’t work for you, simply enjoy the ones that do…
A systematic review of in-person meditation training found that 69% of the studies analysed, demonstrated that meditation alleviated symptoms of anxiety! Amazing, right? Where meditation really shines is in its ability to break the negative thought patterns anxiety thrives on. Neuroscience proposes that it can shift the way your brain responds to stress, thereby helping you conquer spells of anxiety. Meditation also helps cultivate a non-judgemental attitude - you are not only increasing your own self-awareness (which is the first step to self-mastery), but we also learn to accept others. Andy Puddicome, curator of the meditation app ‘Headspace’, believes it only takes 10 minutes each day to feel the positive effects of the practice. Best of all? You don’t need candles or incense to meditate – you can practice on the bus, driving to work, or even walking the dog.
Much like meditation, mindfulness has been widely acknowledged for its anxiety-busting properties. Its roots are firmly grounded in the importance of the present – the ability to focus your mind on the ‘here and now’. Of course, for someone experiencing incessant anxious thoughts, this practice can be difficult to master at times. However, if you persist and train your mind to be as present as possible, it can be transformative for your emotional wellbeing. Above all, mindfulness therapy involves accepting whatever feeling arises – worry, stress, or frustration, which is often a by-product of an anxiety disorder. Instead of avoiding or recoiling from these feelings, you should try to remain present. It may seem counter intuitive but accepting and processing these sensations may break your obsession with negative thoughts. Remember, anxiety will lose its grip once you recognise that it’s a simple mental phenomenon that can be replaced with beneficial and constructive thoughts.
It sounds simple but tuning into your breathing can support your body in times of stress. When you’re feeling anxious or on the brink of a panic attack, it’s natural to adopt short, shallow breaths. Yet when emotions are running high, it’s important to practice purposeful deep breathing, which can provide a surprising
amount of relief. Breathing is one of our most basic instincts, but when used consciously, it might just save your sanity in times of stress. Here’s an exercise to get you started:
Find a quiet and comfortable place to lie-down for 5-10 minutes.
Begin relaxing your muscles, focusing on the nooks and crannies that are holding tension.
Inhale deeply and fill your lungs with air. Bring the air into your stomach as well as your chest. Count to five as you inhale.
Exhale deeply, emptying your lungs completely for a count of five.
Continue to inhale and exhale deeply for a several minutes, counting to five each time. Let your mind completely unwind from any distractions.
When anxiety reaches its peak, it can be helpful to let your imagination transport you somewhere calm and serene. Next time you feel stress and worry rising, try practising this visualisation technique:
Think of somewhere relaxing and peaceful. You might choose a memory of somewhere you’ve been, or a place you’ve imagined.
Close your eyes and think about the details of this environment. What does it look like – what kind of colours and shapes can you see? Can you hear any sounds or smells? Is it warm or cool? Let your mind drift, your body relax, and your anxiety dissipate.
For example, you could imagine walking on a beach, feeling the silky sand between your toes and gentle waves washing over your feet. Or, you could visualise gazing at a roaring fire, carefully watching the flames flicker.
Like visualisation, this simple practice works wonders at rebalancing a stressed nervous system. It creates an unending, natural and calming sense of flow. After all, the figure eight doubles as the universal symbol of infinity.
Close your eyes and see a figure eight in motion, as if it were being drawn over and over again in
front of your eyes. You might like to trace it with the tip of your finger at the same time.
Keep drawing this, at your own comfortable pace, in flowing rhythm. Breathe deeply as you go.
Maintain this practice for a couple of minutes, allowing a wave of calm to wash over you…
Maximise your ‘me time’
Anxiety can often eat away at your self-esteem and confidence, so it’s crucial to arm yourself with ways to reclaim your inner awesomeness. Simple acts of self-care are just the ticket. Try allocating some ‘me time’ every day – it doesn’t have to be hours and hours, just enough to nourish your body and mind. Here are some easy ways to show yourself a little extra TLC…
Clock more z’s
Sleep is vital for cognitive function, bodily repair and general all-round health – that’s a no-brainer. Eight hours of rest is usually recommended for most people to perform at their optimum, but clocking that amount of sleep may not come so naturally for anxiety-sufferers. In light of this, here are our sleep hygiene hacks to help you drift into a deeper, more restful slumber every night:
Cut down on alcohol and nicotine before bed
No caffeine after 2pm
Have a long soak in an Epsom salt bath
Exercise regularly, but limit your workouts to mornings and afternoons
Make your bedroom a tech-free zone for a minimum of 30 minutes before clocking off; avoiding watching TV (especially when using your phone at the same time!), using the computer or paying bills before sleeping –
read a book, listen to soft music, or meditate instead.
Spray your pillow with a lavender-based mist or diffuse an essential oil, such as our Relaxing Blend, in your bedroom
Ensure complete darkness is maintained in your sleep sanctuary throughout the night
Get outside! Immersing yourself in nature and green spaces can work wonders for your overall wellness. A study conducted in 2011 found that rural people had a lower risk of developing anxiety due to a ‘stronger sense of community belonging.’ Another benefit of ecotherapy is, of course, exposure to the ‘sunshine nutrient’ vitamin D, which is thought to play a key role in stabilising mood. Take a walk in the countryside or your local park, paying close attention to the flowers, trees, wildlife and animals.
Numerous studies have proposed that helping others kindles happiness and boosts your emotional wellbeing. Researchers at the London School of Economics analysed the relationship between measures of happiness and volunteering; the odds of being ‘very happy’ rose by 7% for those who volunteered on a monthly basis, and increased by 12% for people who volunteered every two to four weeks. The social side of helping and working with others can have a profound effect on your overall psychological wellbeing too. Nothing relieves stress and anxiety more than a meaningful connection with another person.
In today’s fast-paced, modern world, our smart phones are rarely out of sight, with many of us endlessly scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. Recently, there have been more calls for awareness over the negative impact technological advances, like social media, can have on mental wellbeing. Although technology can be a force for good, there’s mounting evidence pointing to it diminishing offline-relationships, provoking feelings of inadequacy and breaking down interpersonal communication – all of which may encourage social isolation and exacerbate anxiety. The solution? Take a tech break: simple. Allocate times during the day for social media and turn your phone and tablet off outside those hours. When you’re ‘offline’, focus on being in the present and doing mindful activities that you enjoy such as walking, listening to music or trying out a new recipe.
Bath time bliss
Submerge yourself in a warm Epsom salt bath to alleviate muscle tension and inflammation. Epsom salts are rich in magnesium sulphate, which promote relaxation from head to toe. Simply fill your tub with warm water and add one half to two cups of Epsom salt. The more salt you add, the more detoxifying it will be, so you may want to start with a little and then build up your tolerance. 20 minutes is all you need to feel the ultra-relaxing and soporiphic effects…ahhh, that’s better.
Aromatherapy is perfect for creating a moment of self-care bliss…and we’ve got just the range! From 100% essential oils, to expertly formulated oil blends, each of our inviting aromas holds the key to reviving and uplifting your mood. As the name would suggest, our Relaxing Blend offers a simple way to unwind and
destress. This indulgent fusion of calming lavender, floral geranium and herbaceous clary sage is blended with a hint of bitter orange to balance the sweet notes. For the ultimate self-care act, you could try diffusing it through a ceramic scent stone… oh yes, now we’re talking. If you’re after something a little more traditional, our Lavender Essential Oil is another a-list aroma. With a rich, mellow and fruity aroma, this scent is universally renowned for its soothing and calming properties.
Practice positive affirmations
Positive affirmations are a self-empowering technique that helps shift your mindset from negative to positive, anxiousness to calm. As with exercise, this practice can increase the number of feel-good hormones and encourage your brain to create more ‘positive thought’ neurons. For anxiety-sufferers, this is a simple way to stamp out some of the pessimistic and limiting emotions the disorder can trigger. Try practicing these positive affirmations every morning to banish those bouts of anxiety:
I love myself unconditionally.
I concentrate on all aspects of life that make me feel good!
My personal challenges bring me better opportunities
I’m peaceful and positive. My mood creates a physiological response in my body.
I’m in control of my thoughts and my life.
Good news pet-lovers, the National Institute of Health suggests that patting your furry friends can lower blood pressure and help you feel less stressed. Pets have no demands, judgements or expectations of you; all they ask is for care, thereby stirring your innate nurturing mechanism and filling you with purpose. Petting your pooch is a mindful activity too, which can distract you from those toxic, anxious thoughts. Oh, and did we mention how adorable they are too?
We understand that anxiety can be mentally and physically exhausting at times, but you don’t need to battle through it alone. Anxiety affects one in five of us British people, so our nation is pretty well-versed on ways to support sufferers. Here are some coping mechanisms you may want to consider if it’s all getting too much.
Self-help therapy offers many advantages over professional, face-to-face counselling: it’s convenient, inexpensive and you can work through it at your own pace.
Write your worries away: Anxiety forces you to juggle everyday tasks with the suppression of crippling worries, and this can take its toll on you. But using words to express such feelings can unburden and declutter the mind. That’s why many people with anxiety keep a journal or worry box to vent their feelings.
Self-help books: There are thousands of self-help books in bookshops, libraries and available online. Some are excellent, but many are not. As a rule of thumb, always check if a book is written by an accredited counsellor or therapist who has plenty of experience. Alternatively, look for self-help books that have been endorsed by a professional organisation or health professional, like Reading Well for example.
A computer-based cognitive behavioural therapy (CCBT) programme: Research has shown that CCBT can be as effective as face-to-face therapy and reduces the time needed by clinicians, without losing effectiveness. CCBT provides a solution for many sufferers who prefer its convenience, confidentiality and reduction of stigma. Programmes like FearFighter are free to use on the NHS with a referral from your GP.
A problem shared is a problem halved’, as the saying goes – and in moments of high anxiety, this is especially true. Unlike self-help therapies, a one-to-one therapy session can often help you see the bigger picture of your anxiety, as practitioners are trained to listen effectively and offer insightful perspective. The very act of talking through your problems will also help release those pent-up feelings.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): This form of therapy focuses on how your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes affect your feelings and behaviour, and teaches you coping mechanisms to deal with these complex problems.
Hypnotherapy: Using hypnosis for the alleviation of a variety of physical and psychological symptoms, this technique allows the subject to experience deep levels of relaxation, which can reduce levels of stress and anxiety.
Applied relaxation therapy: This therapy involves learning how to relax your muscles in situations where you’d normally experience anxiety. It’s very similar to the ‘behavioural’ component in CBT, but with additional relaxation.
‘Conquering anxiety isn’t an easy task, but if you stick to lifestyle changes we’ve discussed, you can gently control the symptoms, reclaim your body and mind, and prevent it overtaking your life. You’ll encounter challenges – that’s a given, but with sheer grit, determination and courage, you’ll feel more empowered than ever to combat the condition.
McManus. S., Bebbington. P., et al. (2016). Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014. Leeds: NHS digital.
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Keri Filtness has worked in the Nutrition Industry for 19 years. She is regularly called upon for her professional comments on health and nutrition related news. Her opinions have been featured by BBC3, Prima, Vitality, The Mirror, Woman’s Own and Cycling Weekly, amongst others. She has also worked one to one with journalists, analysing their diets and health concerns and recommending changes and additions, where appropriate.