If you’ve ever struggled with anxiety you’d know how isolating, frustrating, and scary it can be. I’ve been there–but I’ve learned a lot over the years. Here are 6 effective strategies for decreasing anxiety that you can start implementing today.
Last month I was dealing with some underlying, low-grade anxiety. I don’t struggle with anxiety as intensely as I used to, but it still comes and goes every so often.
Something I haven’t talked much about is a bad concussion I had about 8 years ago that resulted in two back-to-back seizures and roughly a year and a half of crippling depression and anxiety. This period of my life was unlike anything I had ever experienced and is pretty hazy when I try to recall it.
While it eventually dissipated, it’s not the only source or “type” of anxiety I’ve experienced in my life, as I’ve been prone to anxiety even before I hit my head. Overcoming my anxiety though — including from the concussion — has involved a few major things:
- Addressing thought patterns
- Relaxation techniques
- Facing fears
- Some good ol’ nutrition
Keep reading to learn more or watch my video below! Don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel for weekly videos on all things wellness 🙂
1. Addressing Thought Patterns
“Checking in” with ourselves when we notice heightened anxiety is, well, really freaking important. If I experienced notable levels of anxiety, I first identify what’s bothering me (if there’s a specific reason, which there often is) and then I sit with it.
I sit with the exact thoughts I’m thinking that are producing the feeling of anxiety.
A part of our brain called the cortex is one of the main pathways that can produce a lot of anxiety for us. Since it’s the part of our brain responsible for thoughts, intuition, memory and logic, anxiety can often be created via misinterpretations, mental images or fearful thoughts.
But quite often we can track our anxiousness to the thoughts that we’re thinking strictly because the thoughts we think directly impact our emotions. Let me repeat that:
The thoughts we think directly impact our emotions.
Noticing which thoughts are producing anxiety for you is the first step in being able to change them. This takes time, patience and practice, but it’s very effective when we can take those frightening, discouraging, or otherwise uncomfortable thoughts and recognize them for what they are: thoughts.
Thoughts do not always equate reality, and it’s important to discern between a realistic thought and a convincing “faux truth” as I like to call them! These are highly believable thoughts we think that aren’t, in actuality, even true. They’re just… thoughts. Replacing them with positive thoughts is the key to “unlearning” what we’re constantly telling our brains and that are consequently contributing to feelings of anxiety.
“I’ll handle it” is one of my favourite phrases or “coping thought” that I find very helpful, especially when I’m in the midst of a game of what if’s. For a list of positive affirmations you can start practicing, you can download my PDF guide here.
I’ve also found that talking about my worries and fears with people I trust, including therapists, has been immensely helpful also. Don’t resist reaching out for help if you need it.
2. Relaxation Techniques
Sometimes we can’t pinpoint exactly why we’re feeling anxious. I know that feeling too. Sometimes it’s just… there. For seemingly no reason. But it turns out there is a reason.
I learned in an audiobook recently called Rewire Your Anxious brain that another major pathway in our brain that can create anxiety is our amygdala. Two almond-shaped sets of neurons that constantly assess our surrounding for potential harm and set off our stress response — muscle tension, racing heart, fast breathing — when it suspects a threat. This happens within a fraction of a second. Our amygdala stores past negative experiences as danger for future reference which can cause us to experience anxiety or panic attacks without a logical explanation.
This is also why trying to talk ourselves out of anxiety by modifying our thought patterns doesn’t always work. Our amygdala doesn’t care how much we try to reason without ourselves, and instead, responds much better to relaxation techniques that activate our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
Our PNS is the branch of our nervous system responsible for keeping us calm. Also known as our “rest and digest” state, this is when our muscles are relaxed, our breathing and heart rate are balanced, and digestion and function properly.
Some of the best ways to activate our PNS include:
- Meditation with a focus on breath has been shown to relieve anxiety, calm the amygdala long-term and short term, activate the PNS, help us cope with stress and even lower blood pressure. It’s important to emphasize the focus on breath here. Even a couple minutes a day can have a huge influence on our anxiety levels. Try setting a timer for 3 minutes each day to sit quietly while focusing on your breath.
- Diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing, is another fantastic technique for activating our PNS. Long, slow, deep inhales and exhales directly calm our heart rate and has been shown to work wonders for anxiety and stress.
- Some other techniques are visualization and progressive muscle relaxation.
3. Facing Our Fears
Coming face-to-face with our fears has got to be one of the scariest things. Because, of course, they’re our fears! But I cannot stress enough how life changing it is when we feel the fear… and do it anyway (great book by Susan Jeffers by the way).
Most of my life, up until recent adult years, I was a scared lil’ hermit crab. I said ‘no’ to most things and I came up with excuses for why I couldn’t participate in, or shouldn’t pursue, something that would otherwise be a fantastic opportunity or idea. As a kid, public speaking was always my absolute #1 biggest fear, and after an admittedly terrible solo class presentation, I pretty much vowed to never get up in front of people again.
And to be totally honest… this is still a noteworthy fear of mine.
The difference though between now and then is that I’ve pushed myself to say ‘yes’ to more and more opportunities over the years, even when they’ve been nerve-wracking for me.
When we let our fears make decisions for us, we fuel it. If we choose our comfort zone all the time, we never allow ourselves to rise above it.
Overcoming anxiety comes when we face it along with all the associated feelings of fear. That’s when we realize it’s not as scary as we thought it was. There’s actually science behind this: have you ever heard of Exposure Therapy? Anxiety has literally been shown to effectively decrease over time by exposing ourselves to our fears and gradually re-training our brain not to be afraid. Pretty cool stuff.
Acceptance was probably the biggest turning point for me in overcoming the anxiety I struggled with. And if you’re reading this thinking either “acceptance” is the furthest thing from a real solution to mental health issues, or like that’s way too vague, let me explain as simply as I can:
Accepting the feeling of anxiety means stopping resistance to it. When we resist anxiety, or anything for that matter, it intensifies because we’re essentially fearful of it. We tense up, we freak out, and we unintentionally fuel it as a result.. This will often lead to a full-blown panic attack before the cycle calms down and replays all over again.
So, what happens when we accept anxiety instead of resist it? It has nothing to grasp onto, because we welcome it with open arms. Sounds counterintuitive, but the result is an inevitable decrease in anxiousness.
5. Aerobic Exercise
Aerobic exercise is known to have very anti-stress effects. Not only does it increase endorphins and feel good neurotransmitters like serotonin, but it acts as an outlet for us to expend the energy we experience when feeling anxious. Plus, the feel-good effects can last hours or even days afterwards. Make sure you find something you enjoy doing and if you need any tips, check out my video on How to Love Exercise.
This point cannot be forgotten about. While there are many factors that contribute to anxiety, putting an emphasis on nutrient-dense foods can have a way bigger impact than you might think.
Many different whole foods are known as “good mood foods” because of the types of specific amino acids, fats, minerals, or vitamins they contain.
B-vitamins for example are fantastic for stress and adrenal function (our stress glands). Sources include eggs, sunflower seeds, spirulina and lentils.
Magnesium is a very anti-stress mineral. It helps relax muscles, supports nerve function, blood pressure and cardiovascular health. Whenever you think of magnesium, think green! Dark leafy greens, that is.
Vitamin D, a fat-soluble vitamin, is widely known for its mental health benefits as well as bone health, anti-cancer, and immune boosting abilities. You’re likely familiar with Vitamin D being called “the sunshine vitamin” because we synthesize it just beneath our skin when we’re exposed to sunlight. This is why supplementation during dark, winter months is important (and it’s why it plays a role in improving Seasonal Affective Disorder).
Healthy fat, namely omega-3 fatty acids, are critical for brain health. They’re anti-inflammatory and they help support cognition. In fact, deficiencies in this area are shown to lead directly to depression/anxiety. Some good-mood fatty foods include avocado, fish or fish oil, coconut, olives, flaxseeds and flax oil.
Reducing caffeine is another important factor in decreasing anxiety. Caffeine is a nervous system stimulant and if you’re prone to anxiety, even one cup of coffee a day can exacerbate anxiety levels and negatively effect sleep. Try reducing your intake or switching to caffeine-free herbal tea instead.
How you do cope with anxiety? Share your best tips below. I’d love to hear from you!