5 Tips to Manage Anxiety
Anxiety is a completely functional driving force. It’s called adaptive because it helps species survive. Animals develop quick reflexes, the ability to turn their head nearly 360°, eyes on either side of their cute little bird skulls to search for prey, the ability to run fast, jumps high distances, scream at the top of their lungs. All this can be fueled by anxiety and helps species survive.
In my years as a therapist, and my many more years as an every day person, I have tried to reduce anxiety and then keep it down. It turns out that one of them is easier than the other depending on where you’re at in the anxiety remission journey. If you already have high anxiety, the safeguards and defense mechanisms that help you survive might also make it difficult to take actions to reduce your anxiety. But if your anxiety is already moderate to low, I find that it’s easier to reduce anxiety. Regardless of where you’re in your journey, all of these tips will be helpful to reduce your anxiety.
Tip #1: Cut Coffee
Coffee is a magical bean that stimulates the nervous system and creates a sense of mental alertness. It also mimics so many symptoms you can experience when you’re feeling anxious. Feeling keyed up, shaky, increased heart rate, dizziness, lightheaded, muscle agitation, irritability, headaches, heartburn, frequent urination, diarrhea and upset tummy… Could be caffeine or anxiety. It’s for this reason that I recommend clients to cut coffee in addition to call another lifestyle changes and adding antianxiety strategies.
Coffee can be a deeply ingrained ritual and there caffeine withdrawal headaches can have you reaching for a cup of joe. If you experience withdrawal headaches, start by switching your morning coffee to a half-caffeine-half-decaf mix for a few days. Then switch over to full decaf. There are trace amount of caffeine in one mug of decaf coffee. A regular cup of coffee has around 150 mg of caffeine, while decaf has only around 30 mg.
General tips for caffeine and anxiety:
- Start your morning with a glass of water instead of a glass of coffee. This can give you a sense of invigoration.
- Don’t drink coffee (any kind) on an empty stomach! Drink your coffee with a meal, light meal or snack.
- Don’t drink coffee after 3 PM to help your body digest and help any burn through the caffeine half-life.
Tip #2: Reduce or Eliminate Alcohol
So far I’m not the bearer of good news, am I? If you’ve ever felt extra anxious or depressed after drinking alcohol, the reason is because of your alcohol intake. Alcohol inhibits the production of GABA (gaba aminobutyric acid) in the brain. GABA is the chemical messenger that helps to regulate the speed of impulses in the brain. There is no magic number of ounces of alcohol a person can consume so that they don’t experience a dip in mood the next day. Each person has a different level of tolerance and some people metabolize alcohol differently than others. Alcohol can also interfere with many medications, including meds that help with anxiety and depression. Some people can also experience anxiety when drinking alcohol as they notice changes to their body symptoms and cognition as alcohol intoxication disrupts the regular operating functions of the body. If you’re experiencing disruptive anxiety, reduce your alcohol intake until your anxiety drops to a manageable level. Then slowly re-introduce alcohol in moderation.
Tip #3: Stop Your Guilty Habits
I debated whether to make separate tips dedicated to tobacco use, cannabis use, and sleeping habits. But I think it’s summarized best by stopping habits you feel guilty or shameful about. In my experience, people generally know which of their habits are helpful and which are harmful. Let’s look at two habits I commonly see in therapy.
Just like your cell phone battery, we can’t run on empty. We operate best with a full battery at the beginning of the day that can slowly reduce in time to lie down and recharge at the end of the day. If you end your day with doom scrolling or watching a murder mystery movie, you might have racing or intrusive thoughts before sleep, and dreams with violent and scary themes. The general rule of thumb is to avoid screen time 60 to 90 minutes before bed. So what can you do instead? Read a book, listen to a podcast or guided visualization, extend your wind-down and evening self care routine. If you don’t have an evening wind-down and self care routine, take the opportunity to make one.
While cannabis and CBD in particular might help to induce sleepiness, there is also a potential negative effect. Reliance on cannabis to fall asleep can create a dependence on drugs to fall sleep. You can replace the word cannabis with melatonin, over-the-counter sleep aids, or any other aid you take to fall asleep. With cannabis in particular, there is also a link between cannabis abuse and increased anxiety and depression symptoms.
A handy rule of thumb: if using cannabis decreases your overall motivation for the day or is used to numb feelings, you’re likely to have dependence and could benefit from examining your relationship with cannabis.
*The relationship with cannabis use for medicinal and recreational purposes varies from person to person. Explore this with your medical provider and therapist.*
Some other guilty habits that can interfere with sleep and increase anxiety include electronic distractions, attempting conflicting resolution before bed, and fighting with your partner. I’m sure a full list would be much longer, but this gives you the idea.
Tip #4: Make Relaxation a Ritual
How often do you actively engage in intentional relaxation? Take a moment right now to think about that. If you're like most people in North America and you are millennial, you probably say “busy” more often than you say “relaxed.” A ritual of relaxation can look like incorporating any activity that helps you to feel calm, grounded, relaxed, and centered. This can include meditation, painting, guided visualization, reading a book, walking in nature, playing with your pet, listening to music while doing nothing else
I’ll be honest, it can be tricky to avoid “hacking” relaxation by doing something relaxing while completing a task. I for one have listened to relaxing music while cleaning pet for off the floor. You can bet that I felt more energized than relaxed. The intention with the relaxation ritual is to do at least one activity for one hour per day dedicated just for your own enjoyment. You may need to play with this to experiment and pinpoint what is truly relaxing, and that’s OK. Make a list or look at suggestions online and start your relaxation ritual ASAP.
Tip #5: Nourishment
The definition of nourishment is “the food necessary for growth, health, and good condition.” Applying this to anxiety, nourishment looks like eating regular meals to provide your body with the energy it needs to complete tasks throughout the day. And if you have a day without tasks to complete, nourishment serves the purpose of continued growth and maintenance of well-being. With the elimination of caffeine from your morning, a nutrient-filled smoothie or breakfast meal will give you a boost of energy through the morning to mid day. Snack if you need to! Tummy gurgles and feeling lightheaded indicate the need for more nourishment. With this in mind, you should reconsider intermittent fasting and other restrictive diets if you plan to reduce anxiety.
Note: “Health” is a tricky word considering that many people live with chronic illness and disease. I encourage folks to shift their definition of health to consider the nutrients required for survival.
These 5 tips to help you manage anxiety can make a significant positive impact in your life. Keep a reminder of these tips by writing the following words on a sticky note and posting it to your mirror or monitor: coffee, EtOH, sleep, alcohol, relaxation, nourishment
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