Written by: Bonnie Feldman, DDS, MBA, Anna Simon, BS, Ellen M. Martin
Anxiety disorders are the most common group of mental illnesses. Chronic anxiety and anxiety disorders are often linked to conditions such as diabetes, hypo- and hyperthyroidism, chronic pain, and IBS, although many people with chronic disease are not unusually anxious. Even healthy people feel anxious sometimes from factors such as stress, substance use, and personality tendencies.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is an emotional state, related to but less intense and more chronic than fear, characterized by sympathetic nervous system activation or arousal: increased blood pressure, heart rate, fast and shallow breathing, feeling tense and worried. Inherited from our mammalian ancestors, this arousal is also called the “fight or flight” response, and it is evolutionarily adaptive, in case you need to run away from a predator or fight off an attacker.
But for most of us civilized humans, anxiety is focused either on future social challenges (that speech you are giving next week) or ruminating over past failures (that speech that didn’t go so well last month). Anxiety is a perfectly normal response to stressful situations, such as an upcoming performance or a chronic illness, but severe or chronic stress (death of a loved one, loss of a job, chronic illness) and certain genetic personality tendencies can manifest as an anxiety disorder, where the intensity and duration of anxious feelings are out of proportion to the real stress. In these cases, the anxiety itself becomes distressing and may trigger elevated blood pressure, nausea, or intrusive thoughts that interfere with daily life. Many of us have even experienced being anxious about being anxious!
We want you to feel like your best self, so we did the research on how lifestyle changes, food, and movement can help reduce your anxiety. Here are some of our tips to fight anxiety:
Whether it be meditation, journaling, or simple breathing exercises, mindfulness practices calm your mind and body and reduce stress. Expressing gratitude has been shown to increase social support and reduce stress and depression. Practice gratitude journaling by writing about what you are grateful for or by telling loved ones why you value them.
Breathing practices are particularly good for anxiety. Mindful breathing can help you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the CNS by slowing down and deepening breathing, reducing heart rate and blood pressure, and countering the release of stress-response hormones such as norepinephrine and cortisol.
Essential oils and candles can create a calming environment. The olfactory system (which regulates smell) involves the amygdala and limbic system, areas involved in emotional regulation. Certain scents, especially bergamot, lavender, myrtle, rose, and vetiver, have been recognized to reduce stress and anxiety. Try using an essential oil diffuser, putting a few drops into your bath or shower, or massaging diluted oils into your skin.
Create a relaxing space
The environment you are in affects your mood. If you feel anxious, it could help to declutter your room, do some deep cleaning, and keep things in your space that spark joy, as Marie Kondo would suggest. Mindfully doing housework or creating and maintaining a space to pray or meditate in combines the positive effects of exercise and meditation. Relaxing music (one of us finds Beethoven and Bruckner sure fire anxiolytics!), natural or candle light, and fresh air could help, too.
Take a shower or warm bath
When I get weighed down by stress and anxiety, it always helps to take a shower. It feels like I am physically and mentally clearing my body of dirt and negativity. Let the warm water wash your worries away, or soak in a warm bath to help your body relax. Soothing scents in a shower gel or soap can bring the benefits of aromatherapy to your shower or bath. Or turn your bathroom into a relaxing space with candles, music, and scents.
Do something creative
Creative activities like painting, drawing, playing an instrument, singing (which also harnesses the breath!), dancing and creative writing are good ways to channel your anxious energy into a more relaxing, therapeutic behavior. Writing can be as simple as journaling, writing letters to loved ones, or even try your hand at poetry or fiction.
Face whatever is making you anxious
Dwelling on your problems for too long is unhealthy; eventually it is important to address the things that are troubling you. Allow yourself 20 minutes to think about your sources of anxiety actively, then find another activity to do like the ones listed above. Writing or journaling often helps people process emotions and move those swirling thoughts from your mind to the paper.
Anxiety and depression tend to be linked, so feel free to check out our post on how to naturally improve your mood.
Avoid inflammatory foods
Inflammatory foods increase inflammation in the body, tend to exacerbate disease symptoms, and can lead to increased stress and exacerbated anxiety. These foods include processed meats, sodas and sugary beverages, salty snacks, packaged sweets, and refined carbohydrates.
Eat anti-inflammatory foods
On the other hand, anti-inflammatory foods help to reduce inflammation in the body and may reduce symptoms, including exacerbated anxiety; these are therefore the foods you should focus on including in your diet. Luckily, there are many anti-inflammatory foods, including turmeric, ginger, green leafy vegetables, berries, flax and chia seeds, walnuts and almonds, olive oil, and salmon.
- Turkey isn’t the only food that contains tryptophan, an amino acid that may reduce anxiety by increasing serotonin—pumpkin seeds, tofu, fish, eggs, and beans contain this anxiety-busting compound as well.
- Fermented foods containing probiotics (kimchi, kefir, miso, and kombucha, to name a few) “may have a protective effect against social anxiety symptoms.”²
- Studies suggest that magnesium deficiency leads to an increase in anxiety.³ Try incorporating foods high in magnesium into your diet such as almonds and cashews, spinach, tofu, beans, and avocados. Avocados and almonds also contain Vitamin B, which may have stress and anxiety-reducing effects.
- Asparagus is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat anxiety and studies show that it could be an effective alternative treatment for anxiety disorders.⁴
- Studies suggest Vitamin C to be another compound effective for anxiety treatment. Foods rich in Vitamin C include guavas, bell peppers, kiwi, berries, oranges, leafy greens, and broccoli.
Check out our guide to food therapy to learn more about nutrition and how to experiment with food as therapy.
Drink water rather than caffeine or alcohol
Anxiety is a common side effect of caffeine intake. If you drink too much coffee, you may become jittery and anxious. Try drinking black or green tea instead to cut back on caffeine, or herbal tea to cut caffeine out completely. Theanine is a calming chemical found in tea that you can also find as a supplement. Additionally, it’s generally good to avoid soda and sugary drinks, opting for water instead. We typically recommend limiting alcohol, although the power of a glass of wine or cocktail to quell anxiety, at least temporarily, is well attested.
Exercise and anxiety
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, exercise is a good tool for temporary relief from anxiety and depression. Even just a 10-minute walk can have lasting positive effects. On a more long-term scale, people who are more physically active tend to have a lower risk of anxiety and mood disorders. Exercise serves to reduce anxiety by releasing endorphins and taking your mind off of worries and stressors. Exercise also focuses your sympathetic nervous system on real activity—a lively round of competitive sport, an observant walk in nature, or dancing to upbeat music all give the anxious body something fun to do with that fight-or-flight energy.
Go for a run
Running is a therapeutic activity for many people. It increases serotonin and dopamine, both of which help you feel good and reduce stress. If you physically cannot run, going for a walk or stretching (which can be more beneficial than you might think) are lower-intensity forms of movement that could help reduce anxiety.
Yoga has been shown to reduce many disease symptoms, including anxiety and depression. This review showed a significant reduction in stress and anxiety after a yoga intervention in over 71% of the studies reviewed. There are many kinds of yoga you can try, from kundalini to yoga therapy.
Reduce stress through movement
Tai Chi & Qi Gong are good exercises for combating stress and anxiety—they focus on redirecting thoughts and promoting relaxation. If you feel extra stressed, try breathing exercises or meditation to relax your system. There are so many different ways to move your body, and any type of exercise can be beneficial for anxiety, but it is important to find the right therapy cocktail for your body. Our guide to movement therapy can help you on this journey.
We hope these tips help you reduce anxiety and feel ready to conquer every day. What do you do to reduce anxiety? Let us know in the comments!
- Wood, A et al. “The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies.” Journal of Research in Personality. 2008. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0092656607001286
- Hilimire, MR et al. “Fermented foods, neuroticism, and social anxiety: An interaction model.” Psychiatry Res. 2015 Aug 15;228(2):203-8. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2015.04.023. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25998000
- Sartori, SB et al. “Magnesium deficiency induces anxiety and HPA axis dysregulation: Modulation by therapeutic drug treatment” Neuropharmacology. 2012 Jan; 62(1): 304–312. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.07.027 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3198864/
- Cheng, L et al. “Evaluation of Anxiolytic-Like Effect of Aqueous Extract of Asparagus Stem in Mice.” Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013; 2013: 587260. Published online 2013 Nov 20. doi: 10.1155/2013/587260 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3853311/