There are many things that can cause anxiety, things both mental and physical, so pinpointing a single person’s specific anxiety triggers can be a very difficult task. Luckily there are some things that can cause anxiety that are relatively easy to fix, and although fixing them might not cure your anxiety completely, it will certainly put your body and mind in a less anxiety-prone state. So here are 15 things that you can start doing today to reduce your anxiety and get on the path to beating it.
Although you may well remember magnesium from your school days, when your chemistry teacher proudly held a brightly burning strip of metal up in the air for all to see, magnesium is also something that is essential for a fully functioning and healthy body. In fact every organ in the body, especially the heart, kidney and muscles needs magnesium to operate effectively and the brain makes use of magnesium to help control the Amount of ACTH produced by the hippocampus, which regulates how much of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released into the body. It has been shown that a lack of magnesium can often lead to an excess of stress hormones in the body and an increase in anxiety-like symptoms.
This has become an issue, since only about 25% of Americans meet the recommended daily amount of magnesium, and although the other 75% might not be deemed “magnesium deficient” in a clinical sense, their low magnesium levels can often be enough to help make their anxiety worse.
So how did we reach this point of such low magnesium levels? Well, the problem mainly arises from our love of refined foods, where the refining process can remove between 50% and 99% of the magnesium content of the foods leaving us with levels much lower than we would expect.
It is also important to note the relationship between magnesium and calcium. Basically, as one goes up, the other goes down, and as the North American diet contains around 4 times more calcium than magnesium, and the fact that many children are given calcium supplements for their bone development, it is no wonder that our bodies have become magnesium–scarce zones. Add to that, the fact that magnesium can be lost through the urine because of alcohol, sugar, or stress, and it becomes clear that we should not really be all that surprised that our bodies are lacking this essential mineral at all.
So how can you increase your magnesium levels without adversely affecting the other levels of minerals in your body? Well the simple answer is to eat as many non-refined, and preferably raw, magnesium rich foods as you can. These would include dark leafy greens like Swiss Chard, Kale, Collard greens and spinach, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli or cauliflower, or nuts and seeds. If you can fill your diet with as many of these as possible and bring your magnesium levels back to normal, then you could see your anxiety levels reduce. After all, they don’t call magnesium “the original chill-pill” for nothing.
Zinc is another essential mineral for the body which many people are lacking. In fact the Linus Pauling institute estimates that around 2 billion people in the world are affected by marginal zinc levels, which has been ranked as the 5th leading risk factor for causing disease worldwide. The problem with zinc in relation to anxiety is that as zinc levels decrease, copper absorption increases and a deficiency of zinc can lead to copper toxicity. As the late Carl C. Pfeiffer PhD, MD, formerly of the Brain-Bio Center in Princeton, New Jersey put it: “Deficiency of zinc accentuates copper excess.” This is a problem, as it has been shown in certain studies that people who suffer from anxiety disorders tend to have significantly higher plasma levels of copper and lower zinc levels than non-anxiety sufferers.
To keep your copper levels in check then, you need to make sure you are getting enough zinc. Again you should try and do this using your diet to make sure you are getting the balance right. Foods you might want to look at are seafood like oysters, crab and lobsters, meat like beef, pork and chicken, nuts and seeds, or avocados.
There are two ways in which potassium (or more correctly a lack of potassium) can play a part with anxiety: The first is to do with potassium’s role in muscle function, both voluntary and involuntary. When potassium levels fall too low, the muscles can become weak and shaky, and involuntary twitching and trembling can occur, which of course can trick a person into the anxiety cycle as they foresee a looming anxiety attack. The second, and most important way, is thanks to potassium’s role in helping to regulate serotonin in the brain. If potassium levels are too low, then this can result in decreased levels of serotonin which can of course negatively affect your mood, and result in significant feelings of anxiety.
If you want to increase your levels of potassium, then as always it is best to do so through your diet. Foods rich in potassium include dark leafy greens such as kale and chard, fruit such as bananas, oranges, avocados, and even potato and sweet potato. Foods with licorice in should be avoided as they can seriously deplete your potassium levels (yet another reason to stop drinking cola).
4. Omega 3 – Omega 6 Balance
I am sure you have heard a lot already about Omega 6s and Omega3s as they have been in the new a lot recently and discussion have reached fever pitch on what is the best ratio to have between them. Some people say that the omega 6:omega 3 ration should be 1:1, others say 2:1 and others still argue that it should be higher. What almost all of them will agree on, though, is that the current average in the western world of around 15:1 – 20:1 is way too high and is causing problems. One of the main problems of having skewed ratios like these is that they lead to excessive inflammation, which is the body’s immune system’s response to injury or invaders. Excessive inflammation has been linked in many studies to a multitude of sicknesses, and one of those is severe anxiety.
So although the debate still rages on what the ideal ratio is, the only really important thing is getting the ratio lower. Both omega 3s and omega 6s are needed by the body, but you need to increase your 3s and reduce the 6s if you are to get a healthy, balanced ratio, whatever the numbers. Unfortunately, these omega fatty acids are not created naturally in the body, so they have to be added, and the best way to do this is by eating oily fish like salmon and mackerel, cooking with olive oil instead of vegetable oils (which are high in omega 6) and eating nuts and seeds like walnuts or flax seeds. You can of course take fish oil supplements if you’re not a big fan of actually eating fish.
Unfortunately this entry is not going to be a positive and I won’t be telling you that you are cookie deficient, or you need to increase your daily intake of doughnuts and cheesecake. It would be nice, I agree, but I’m sure you knew it wasn’t coming. I’m sure you know already, as most people do, that sugar is not good for you. What you probably don’t fully appreciate is exactly how bad refined sugar is for your body. It is probably the most damaging food type that you can eat for your health, and yet it’s everywhere and people can’t get enough of it. Whether it gets re-branded as high fructose corn syrup or not, the one thing we know for sure is that sugar is bad. And not only is it bad for your health, it is also bad for your anxiety.
The dastardly refined sugar has several different routes it can take to spark your anxiety – it can reduce the levels of a chemical called BDNF in the brain, a chemical that has been shown to help relax the mind, it can also reduce the amount of endorphines in the brain and increase insulin production. All of these things can lead to a lowering of the mood and anxiety, and all are caused by too much refined sugar.
It doesn’t end there though, sugar is also the favoured food of many of the bad and anxiety-inducing bacteria that dwell in the gut, and feeding them helps them multiply and push out the good and healthy bacteria that might otherwise reduce the anxiety. This is not a good scenario, and I will talk more about bacteria in the next entry – probiotics.
Suffice to say, sugar is bad for you and can trigger anxiety, so if you can cut down on the sugary foods and sodas that you eat and drink, then great, if you can cut them out completely, even better. There is no downside to cutting out refined sugar, just a truck-full of positives.
One of the biggest areas of scientific study in medicine at the moment is that of the microbiota, or the bacteria that inhabit the gut, and the effect that they can have on many areas of health and well-being. It is only just being uncovered now exactly how much the combination and balance of different bacteria in the gut can affect the health of each person, and many diseases and illnesses are being found to have at least partial root cause in this bacterial realm. Anxiety is no exception. There is now growing evidence to suggest that having the wrong kind of bacteria in your gut can lead to your body being more prone to triggering the fight or flight response and the release of stress hormones that keep the body in a state of anxiety. In simple terms, there seems to be some bacteria that promote anxiety and others that reduce it. Ideally you want to get the balance right, so that you still experience normal levels of fear and anxiety, but never experience excessive or out of control anxiety.
So how can you change the balance of the bacteria in your gut? Well the answer, as always, is down to what you put in your gut in the first place – food. Now, I don’t have the room here to go through all of the different foods that you can eat to feed the good bacteria and help them grow, so I will keep it simple: The easiest way to start to change the landscape of your bacterial world is to add more good bacteria and starve the bad. The easiest way to starve the bad bacteria is to cut out sugar. There are more ways of course, but that sugar is the biggest culprit and probably the most effective.
To purposefully add more good bacteria to your gut to keep the numbers high, you need to take in probiotics, which are basically living (healthy) bacteria that you add to your body. Again, ideally, you should take in probiotics through the food you eat, but since there are so few probiotic foods left in the western diet, and those that are available (such as kimchi, and sauerkraut) can be deemed unpalatable by many people, the simplest way to get probiotics into your gut is to take a supplement. If you can find a probiotic supplement with a good number of different strains and more (preferably a lot more) than 5 billion bacteria per tablet, then you can start to change the balance of your gut, and start reducing your anxiety.
If this seems obvious then I apologise, but even though it is clearly stating the obvious that we all need to drink water to survive and be healthy, it seems that too many people still don’t drink enough water. In fact CBS news recently revealed a study showing that around 75% of people in the US may be suffering from chronic dehydration. While this is probably unhealthy in so many ways, it is more important to note that it has also been shown that dehydration can affect the mood of people and can cause tension and anxiety.
The beauty of this one is that it is an easy fix – just drink more water. The guidelines from the health authorities at the moment suggest that you should be drinking about 8-eight ounce glasses (about 2 litres) per day, and even more if you are in a hot climate or sweat a lot due to exercise. One thing I would say is this: If you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated. Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink water, be proactive and be constantly drinking water all day. I have a refillable bottle of water with me at work and at home and I take glugs from it all the time so it becomes a habit. Sure I need to go to the toilet all the time, but I rarely get dehydrated 🙂
It has long been known (especially by anxiety sufferers themselves) that anxiety can lead to a lack of sleep, as you lie there worrying about anything and everything, but it is only recently that science has shown that a lack of sleep can also lead to anxiety. So if you find yourself not getting enough sleep through choice because you like to stay up and watch movies or you just enjoy being a night-owl, then you might want to start thinking about getting more of your beauty sleep. You should be trying to get somewhere between 7 and 9 hours sleep every night if you can, and if you’re not then this could be aggravating your anxiety on a daily basis.
It is important to note though that it is not just lack of sleep that can cause anxious feelings, disturbing the body’s natural circadian rhythm can also trigger unwanted anxieties. This means that trying to “catch up” on lost sleep by indulging in a 12 hour sleep-a-thon on Saturday night could set you up for an anxiety tinged Monday as your body clock is disrupted with the unusual sleep pattern. This means that it is best to keep your sleep between 7 – 9 hours regardless of what the day is.
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If you’re anything like me, you love a cup of Joe in the morning and you just can’t seem to wake up properly until you’ve had the first one of the day. Coffee is certainly effective at waking you up. The problem is, that the mechanism for waking you up, which is basically to counteract the effect of adenosin, a chemical in the brain that lowers neural activity, also triggers the same symptoms that are experienced during the fight or flight response. So although coffee might not trigger anxiety directly, it does cause the same jittery feelings that anxiety and panic attacks do, leading many people into the fearful anticipation that a panic attack is on the way. One of the biggest problems is that often the effects of coffee can last several hours and so when the symptoms occur the coffee is no longer seen as the culprit.
So should you give up coffee? Well if you can give it up with no problems, then you probably should yes. But if you love it and rely on it as much as me then there is no point in giving it up if it doesn’t affect your anxiety. Instead I propose a test: Sit down with a pad and paper, drink several cups of strongly brewed coffee (not the 3-in-1 rubbish that is 22% sugar) and make notes on how you feel. Note down the symptoms you get from the coffee and decide for yourself if you think these could be adding to your anxiety or not. After all, it’s your call.
Exercise is a well worn activity for reducing anxiety and for good reason: It is basically one of the best and easiest ways to feel good and reduce your anxiety without actually taking a handful of happy pills. Exercise works on anxiety in the brain in both the short term and the long term. In the short term, exercise releases endorphins that are basically the brains natural version of that handful of happy pills and can relieve pain and anxiety for hours after exercising.
In the long term, exercise causes the formation of new blood vessels and an increase in a chemical called BDNF which is a chemical that has been shown to be reduced in anxiety sufferers compared to non-sufferers. Not only that though, exercise has been shown to lead to the formation of new neurons in the brain that are specifically designed to release the neurotransmitter GABA, that reduces overall brain activity, resulting in a decrease in anxiety.
As you can see the evidence for the benefits of exercise for anxiety sufferers is undeniable. I’m pretty sure you knew that already, and if you’re not exercising already, you’re probably trying to ignore the evidence that’s staring you in the face. If you aren’t exercising yet, it’s time to face the truth and get up off that sofa and start exercising. You don’t have to hit the gym every day, you can just start off easy with a ten minute walk everyday.
Meditation has been known to be a mind relaxer and an anti-anxiety powerhouse for millennia, but a lot of people don’t make use of it because they see it as a difficult pursuit that only yogi and buddhist monks do. They imagine they will have to sit in the lotus position for an hour straight chanting ancient incantations. Luckily nothing could be further from the truth. With the popularity of techniques like Mindfulness growing over the last few years, it is becoming easier and easier to make use of meditation without spending the next six months in a monastery. In fact mindfulness seems almost like it was tailor made for anxiety sufferers, as it is pretty darned difficult to be anxious about the present.
That said then, if you haven’t tried it yet I strongly suggest you get the book Mindfulness:An 8 week plan which will get you started on mindfulness and get you up and running with meditation quickly. well within 8 weeks at least.
12. Do Something Nice for Someone Else
I apologise if this one sounds like it is a little bit from left field or it appears that I am turning into a new age guru, but I assure you this one is as based in science as all of the others. Studies have shown that altruistic acts (doing things for other people with no thought of repayment) have a positive effect on anxiety, partially due to the outward focus of concentrating on other people rather than yourself, and also the feel-good factor and positive chemical release you get from doing good things for someone else.
You can make use of this effect and reduce your anxious feelings simply by going out and doing some good deeds. You can’t tell me that that’s not a win-win-win situation right?
This is a little similar to the last one, but actually a whole lot easier. All you have to do for this one is find some people you don’t hate and spend some time with them. This too has some solid science to back it up. You see, humans are inherently social beings, and when we find ourselves with social support our brains release the chemical oxytocin which reduces anxiety and makes us feel good. Being in social situations also releases a hormone that helps reduce our anxieties and makes us feel more confident about our ability to cope with stressful situations.
Of course if your anxiety is based around social phobia then you need to find the people that you feel comfortable around and spend as much time as you can around them. The social experience with them will both help your current anxiety levels and make you better at coping with future anxiety problems.
14. Smiling and Laughing
Laughing and smiling are things we do naturally when we are happy or we find something amusing, but many people, as they get older, find themselves laughing and smiling less than they used to. Sadly, you even hear some people complain about others that they think “smile too much” or will “laugh at anything” like this is a bad thing. On the contrary, both smiling and laughing have been proven to be very beneficial to our health and are excellent to ease an anxious mind. You see when you smile or laugh, the brain releases endorphins, the same chemical released during exercise, and these endorphins are great at killing pain and calming the mind. Not only that though, as the endorphins are increased, cortisol levels are decreased which means a happier and less stressed and anxious state.
I know what you’re thinking, when you are in an anxious state you don’t really feel like smiling or laughing. Well I have two words for you: Fake it. You see the brain cannot tell the difference between a real smile and a fake one, or a real laugh and a forced one, and it releases the endorphins whether it’s real or not. So the quickest way to get a cheap shot of endorphins is to have a good hearty laugh. If you can get a real one from watching a funny TV show then great, but if not, just bust out a huge and heart and completely fake laugh and a big grin. Just make sure you are alone.
Breathing is an important part of life, more important than water or food, because without it, you will be dead within minutes, but it is also an important part of health and mental well-being and although there are there many good breathing techniques that can be used to calm anxiety, I just want to talk about one single thing, and it’s not even really a technique.
Many people who suffer from anxiety will have issues with their breathing as part of their anxiety symptoms and they will often suffer from short, shallow breaths, which can also lead to a feeling of not being able to catch the breath ,and can ultimately lead to panic attacks. The problem with this breathing is that the sufferer is trying too hard to try and “catch their breath”, but what in fact they are doing is forgetting to exhale properly. They are spending so much time trying to inhale fully, that they are ignoring the out breath.
A simple way to breathe to make sure you get full breaths is to breath in slowly through the nose and breathe out even slower through the mouth. So if you inhale for a 5 count then you should exhale for a 6 or 7 count. The numbers don’t matter, but the exhale should be longer.
This is a simple way of breathing that is not even really a technique. You can do it all the time and it will keep your mind calmer than the anxiety induced by those short, shallow and incomplete breaths.