Anxiety is something that everyone experiences from time to time and studies show it’s been increasing around the globe. In the UK, research found that there has been an “explosion” in anxiety over the past decade, with the financial crash, austerity, Brexit, climate change and social media blamed for massive rises in the condition. The debilitating mental illness has trebled among young adults, affecting 30% of women aged 18 to 24, and has increased across the board among men and women under 55.
Luckily, studies show some levels of anxiety are actually good! It can make you more resilient, improve your attention and problem-solving, motivate you to work harder toward a goal, keep you safe, build resilience, warn you about a potential threat and even live longer. But for many, it can become pervasive, excessive and unhelpful. Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterised by persistent, excessive worry.
According to Deborah Glasofer, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology and practitioner of cognitive behavioural therapy, some people tend to be more prone to anxiety, often due to upbringing or genetics, but there are also other factors that can contribute to the anxiety cycle.
Avoidance: Anxiety can persist and even grow worse because of the ways people respond to their worries. Individuals with untreated anxiety problems tend to respond to their fears by trying to suppress the worry, seek reassurance that nothing bad will happen, or avoid situations that might trigger the fear. These strategies can backfire and reinforce anxiety.
Distorted or biased thinking: Some worries might persist because of biased thinking. This thinking could involve an overestimation of the likelihood of a bad outcome or an exaggeration of how bad the bad outcome will be.
Negative thinking: Some worries are strengthened by negative thoughts about yourself, like the belief that you would be unable to cope with uncertainty or an undesirable outcome.
Selective memory and attention: Worries can also persist because of how information in the environment is processed. A person with GAD may selectively tune into information that supports the worry and ignore evidence that refutes it. Memory can also be selective.
The good news is there are many natural ways to overcome anxiety with short and long-term changes.
Doctor Daniel Amen is a leading Psychiatrist and best-selling author who changes peoples’ brains. He will always avoid prescribing Benzodiazepines because they’re really hard to get off once you’ve started.
Here are his tips, along with other leading experts, for naturally overcoming anxiety and what he always prescribes for his patients before suggesting any medication:
Check labs for hyperglycaemia, anemia, low iron and hyper hypothyroidism. If you’re chronically anxious, have your doctor check your labs. For example, if you are low in iron you will be anxious. Alternatively, a functional medicine practitioner can help you with lab tests.
Cut out gluten and dairy and artificial dyes and sweeteners. 30% of symptoms will go away if you cut these things out.
Try supplements. Theanine, Magnesium, Ashwagandha, Gaba and valerian are great supplements to try for anyone experiencing high levels of anxiety.
Practice self-care. Whether it’s listening to relaxing music, making space for things you enjoy, or saying “no” when you don’t want to do something, there are many ways to practice self-care. The idea is to cherish and nourish yourself and work towards becoming the best version of yourself whatever that means to you.
Hypnosis, meditation, prayer. According to Doctor Amen, they’re all incredibly powerful and have no negative side effects.
Get regular exercise. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise helps prevent and improve a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis. Research on depression, anxiety and exercise shows that the psychological and physical benefits of exercise can also help improve mood and reduce anxiety. Relaxing exercises like yoga and tai chi in particular are very good for lowering anxiety.
Get enough sleep. Avoid caffeine after 2pm and aim to get sunlight early in the morning. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day — weekends included. Your routine before going to bed also matters. Consider creating a wind-down routine. For example, 60 minutes with no devices. Instead, you could read a book or take a bath. Avoiding potential triggers, like reading through work emails or scrolling social media, is key. Creating a sleep routine will help you fall asleep faster and reduce the chances that you’ll toss and turn with your mind racing.
Set goals and stay disciplined. To get what you want out of life, you first need clarity about what you want. According to Doctor Amen, the people who are successful, in loving relationships, and in peak physical condition aren’t just lucky. In most cases, it’s because they know what they want out of life and they match their behaviour to help them get it. While often easier said than done, you can learn to do this too by clarifying what you want out of life and taking action to get you there. Self-discipline has been shown to be a key principle in overcoming feelings of anxiety and in feeling happy in life.
Make time for loved ones. Relationships matter in life and contribute to our overall sense of wellbeing. When we spend time with loved ones it significantly reduces the occurrence of depression, anxiety, and other mental illness. Being physically present with loved ones creates a strong emotional support that strengthens your resilience and coping reserves through life’s challenges.
Cultivate a gratitude practice. You might want to try writing down 5 things you’re grateful for every day. The more you do it and take the time to actually feel the emotion of gratitude, the easier it will become for you to feel good and see the good in situations. A 2020 review associated gratitude with several well-being indicators, including life satisfaction, happiness, and stress.
Include more humour in your life. Laughter can help reduce your stress, depression and anxiety and may make you feel happier. It can also improve your self-esteem. Watch a funny show, call a friend that always puts a smile on your face and no matter what you’re going through, give yourself permission to laugh.
Consider expert support. Some of the therapy you can try:
How to overcome anxiety in the moment
There are different ways that you may be able to overcome anxiety in the moment in order to lower your stress response and enjoy more well-being. The following are some strategies you might try to include.
Get moving. Dance around your room or go for a quick run. “A quick burst of exercise that increases your heart rate is helpful at reducing anxiety,” explains Patricia Celan, a postgraduate psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Canada.
Questioning. According to VeryWellMind, cognitive restructuring is another strategy that can help you change the way you perceive situations and lessen your anxiety. This technique is a cornerstone of a treatment approach called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Cognitive restructuring provides a way to critically evaluate potentially distorted thoughts, like “He’s definitely going to break up with me.” You ask a series of questions about the belief that can encourage a more balanced view.
For instance, “She’s definitely going to break up with me,” might turn into a more realistic belief like, “Just because we had an argument doesn’t mean our relationship will end.” Or “I haven’t heard back on the job yet, I’m definitely not going to get it,” might become “I haven’t heard back yet, and that’s ok. There are many reasons that I may not have heard back yet. I did my best, I’m qualified for the job, and I trust that whatever happens will be for the best.”
Diaphragmatic breathing. It can help to reduce the stress response in your body and distract yourself. If you’re new to breath-work, try breathing in for 4, hold for 7 and breathe out for 8. Repeat. Alternatively, breathe in for 4, hold for 1 and breathe out for 8. Repeat for 10 rounds or two minutes.
Accept and label your thoughts. One way to overcome anxiety is to learn to accept that not every intrusive thought is signalling a legitimate reason to worry. Simply put, not every thought is true. So it’s often unhelpful to try to disprove the beliefs. When you acknowledge and label your thoughts it diminishes their strength.
An acceptance-based approach means that you observe the thought you’re having without the urgency you might normally feel to address it, fix it, argue with it, or believe it. You are letting it come and go without focusing on it.
Visualise it away. Visualisation is a powerful technique that can help relieve the symptoms of anxiety. The technique involves using mental imagery to achieve a more relaxed state of mind. Similar to daydreaming, visualisation is accomplished through the use of your imagination. Try visualising yourself somewhere you find peaceful and that brings up calming thoughts.
Journal. Journaling involves writing down one’s thoughts and emotions on paper. When feeling anxious, try spending 5–15 minutes or more writing whatever is on your mind. Studies show that there are countless benefits to doing so including reducing anxiety.
Since you can only write one thing at a time, it will force you to slow down, organise your thoughts, and focus on them one at a time. Journaling can provide greater clarity on concerns, help identify patterns, and help recognise the emotions accompanying their anxiety. A 2018 study found that emotion-focused journaling decreased anxiety, depressive symptoms, and distress. The study concluded that journaling improved the well-being of patients with medical conditions in just 1 month. If you’re not sure where to start,
Try to remember something really funny. If possible, watch it and allow yourself to laugh. “When you laugh, you contract and expand muscles, which reduces physical anxiety, stress, and tension,” says Steven Sultanoff, clinical psychologist and professor at Pepperdine University. Laughter also combats the production of cortisol levels in the body.
Take a cold shower. If you’re experiencing particularly intense anxiety, some psychiatrists have a relatively extreme (and unpleasant) way to snap you back to reality: take a cold shower or you can fill a large bowl with cold water and dunk your face in the water for 30 seconds. “This technique triggers your mammalian dive reflex. It tricks your body into thinking you’re swimming, so your heart rate slows, and your body becomes calmer,” explains Celan.
No matter where you are on the anxiety spectrum, Doctor Amen wants you to know: You don’t have to live with crippling anxiety. It’s work, but it’ll be so worth it.
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