You don't need to hit rock bottom to finally get serious about finding ways to end feeling anxious and strung-out. There is nothing heroic or magical about living in a state of overdrive -- yes to everything, you over-extenders, super-producers, deadline junkies, caffeine & adrenaline high seekers (you know who you are!) -- you will crash, it's just a matter of time. Millions of adults suffer from anxiety disorders, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. Some individuals will begin anti-anxiety medications for the first time, while many sufferers are now dependent on anxiolytics, like Xanax, to fall asleep and to manage their anxiety throughout the day. As a therapist who treats anxiety and mood disorders, I know how helpful antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can be for many. Without these pharmacological interventions, many would suffer serious, debilitating symptoms. Not a great way to live managing symptoms 24/7. I'm not knocking medication, but one problem that I've observed, is that, because of the ease of medication, anxiety sufferers fail to to try or develop helpful techniques or natural remedies first, before reaching for a pill. Many have difficulty tolerating discomfort and they've learned to find quick fixes as a solution. However, there are those who, armed with a little patience and motivation can learn the skills that can help them take control of their symptoms. For people struggling with situational and chronic anxiety and willing to make some lifestyle changes, I offer these helpful tips:
- Learn to breathe - People prone to anxiety tend to take rapid, shallow breaths that come directly from the chest. This type of breathing is called thoracic or chest breathing which can upset the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body, resulting in increased heart rate, dizziness, tingling sensations, muscle tension, agitation and other physical sensations. These strange body sensations that anxiety sufferers experience lead to more anxiety and the concern that something really bad is happening to the body. Learn to replace automatic shallow breathing with diaphragmatic breathing. It does work, however you need to practice this and don't give it up when your symptoms disappear. Breathing correctly is now a new way of life for you. Proper breathing slows down or stops the fear response, but you need to make it a habit. Keep it simple in the beginning, a few minutes at a time and several times a day until you get the hang of it. You can google this on your own or use this link to learn how to practice abdominal breathing.
- Meditation - Meditation really helps you slow down and I've learned to integrate it into my psychotherapy practice when appropriate. I've helped many of my clients add a dedicated practice to their lives to improve awareness, clarity and ultimately help them get the success and joy they desire. The simple act of attending to the present through meditation helps you release the past and your negative, limiting scripts -- whatever is not serving you -- and make room for the good stuff. Learn to meditate by taking a class, private instruction or by using a guided meditation tape. You don't need to meditate for an hour to see benefits, 5-10 minutes daily is better than nothing and can support your emotional health. Mindfulness is a wonderful practice to help with generalized anxiety disorder or GAD.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation - Fear, dread, rumination and the attendant muscle tension can all be reduced by learning PMR. Once you learn this relaxation response and have some practice under your belt, you can combat anxious thoughts by remembering how you felt during your relaxation session. When you begin worrying, remind yourself that it's just your "worry brain" and this is your cue to practice the relaxation techniques. You can learn about PMR here.
- Rumination - If you are tormented by problems and issues, commit your worries to paper then put it in a desk drawer or box to be dealt with at a later time. The goal is to contain the problems, if even temporarily, as a means to quiet the mind. Rumination that takes over your life may need to be treated with medication.
- Challenge your thoughts - Thought-stopping is a helpful cognitive therapy strategy for interrupting disturbing thoughts and ruminations. In order for this to be effective, you must do this every time you feel interrupted by persistent thoughts. When you stop an automatic thought, you then replace it with a more realistic, rational thought. You may need to do this a lot throughout the day, just so you know, because much of our negative, unhelpful self-chatter is habitual. To learn more about thought-stopping visit about.com or WebMD.
- Make a plan - For chronic, habitual worriers, sometimes it helps to set a timer and plan a "worry" session, then be done with it. This begins with identifying the issue, then prioritizing and taking care of only what is necessary. What needs to be addressed now; what can wait for another time? Determine a time when you will revisit the issue (next week, next month) then record the scheduled time in your calendar. Put it on an imaginary shelf for later if that helps. If the issues bubbles up before that time, and it likely will, say stop (because you've already done the fret-time) and distract yourself with other thoughts.
- Let it go - Is this really important? Does it really matter? It's interesting to notice just how much of what we worry about really should not be taking up real estate in our heads. Maybe you can learn to accept what is and give it up or let it go. Acceptance. Not easy, I know. Sometimes chronic worry becomes our constant companion. What would our lives improve if we didn't worry so much?
- Identify triggers - Triggers are people, thoughts or situations that send anxiety sufferers into a very dark place. Making the choice to eliminate triggers as well as working through problems or dilemmas in a logical, productive way can reduce the impact of a particular trigger. Sometimes facing triggers or situations that cause us terror exposes us to the problem and eventually it becomes less problematic. We call this exposure therapy.
- Find the funny - Whatever it takes, find a way to laugh. Laughing discharges tension. In therapy, I often make this a treatment goal and suggest that my clients make time for play, fun and laughter. Many adults have a tough time with this, so it's important to help fun-deprived people explore any resistance to joy and relearn this long-forgotten aspect of their true nature.
- Lifestyle and chemicals - Remove them (I'm mean, I know), but you will feel better if you reduce or eliminate coffee, alcohol, tobacco and sugar. Many drink alcohol to relax and reduce anxiety, but is actually a depressant which leads to mood and anxiety problems or exacerbates existing problems.
- Exercise regularly - The Mayo Clinic suggests exercising on most days of the weeks to improve health and emotional problems. Walking, dancing, yoga and tai chi are all good choices to support emotional health
- Improve your diet - Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Proper nutrition and eating before your blood sugar tanks is key to warding off anxiety and potential related problems such as heart palpitations and hyperventilation. According to this article in Psychology Today, Omega 3 fatty acids may play a role in reducing anxiety, so power up the nutrition.
- Learn to self-soothe - Read a good book, enjoy a hot bath, call a friend, dance, play a game, pet kitty or listen to music to help you manage your anxiety. Load your iPod and playlists with relaxing tunes for chill time. A bookshelf favorite of mine, and I love to loan, is 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food by Susan Albers, PsyD. This book is not just for individuals with eating disorders, and is packed with healthy, helpful actions that support positive self-esteem and increase control over many symptoms including difficulties with mood regulation and anxiety.
- Aromatherapy - Essential oils have a molecular structure that makes it easy for them to enter the olfactory system, via the nose, which signals the limbic system to release important neurochemicals that affect mood and relaxation. Some helpful oils to support relaxation are lavender, orange, bergamot, frankincense, sandalwood, clary sage, vetiver and rose. A favorite book of mine AromaYoga by Tracy Griffiths and Ashley Turner is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in learning about essential oils and tips to enhance their yoga and wellness practice. Tracy is a pal, and she knows her oils well. I'm also a fan of Young Living Oils.
- Get plenty of restful, restorative sleep - The effects of poor sleep quality and insomnia can compound over time interfering with coping abilities and increasing anxiety and premature aging. Learning sleep hygiene techniques might just change your life. As we age we make less melatonin. Investigate if this would be worth replacing and adding to your nighttime ritual of calm and good sleep hygiene. Talk to a trusted doctor who understands supplements.
There is an abundance of evidence that suggests that anxiety disorders run in families. Whether nature, nurture or some combination, left untreated, anxiety can worsen, leading to impaired daily functioning in many areas including: school, work, social, relationship problems, panic attacks, avoidance and even agoraphobia. People who suffer from an untreated anxiety disorder often tend to suffer from other psychological difficulties, such as depression, and they have a greater tendency to abuse alcohol and other drugs as a way to self-medicate. This becomes a solution to a problem, which can then become a habit and a bigger problem. Common signs of anxiety include: restlessness, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, irritability, muscle tension, sleep disturbances and changes in personality such as isolation. No need to suffer in silence. Ask for help. As problems go, it's pretty ordinary but can really disrupt your life.