Anxiety often underlies eating disorders. For many individuals, engaging in eating disorder behaviors helps to soothe them – only temporarily, of course.
Anxiety also contributes to emotional eating and can worsen body image issues. (How many times have you been tense and taken it out on your body? Or vice versa? Or mistook discomfort and nervousness for “feeling fat”?)
But while anxiety seems incredibly overwhelming when you’re caught in its clutches, you can do so many things to minimize your anxiety. It’s a matter of learning some skills. Here’s a list of strategies to try.
1. Get enough sleep.
This is a biggie because sleep-deprivation increases anxiety. And, unfortunately, anxiety can make it more difficult to fall and stay asleep, too. Here are some tips on creating a bedtime routine and getting sufficient sleep:
2. Participate in physical activities.
Being active is seriously an elixir for anxiety. Personally, after my workouts, I feel a sense of relief. And on days that I don’t do anything physical and just stay in the house (which happens very easily since I work from home), I feel miserable and all out of sorts. I can feel the anxiety swirling through my body.
And I know this has become my mantra but seriously, pick physical activities that you love. Nothing makes you more crabby than pounding the pavement, if you hate running. Or going to the gym, if it makes you unhappy, and so on.
3. Accept that you’re anxious.
Anxiety is scary, especially if you’ve struggled with panic attacks and know precisely where anxiety can lead you. (I know, I’ve been there.) So when we feel even a hint, a twinge of anxiety, sweaty palms, dizziness or any other symptoms, we start getting very upset. I remember getting so mad at myself for being anxious before presentations or tests or my thesis defense. Well, it’s perfectly OK to be anxious.
As I’m sure you’ve learned, fighting anxiety does no good and berating yourself about it only fuels your symptoms. Even if you’re anxious at something seemingly small (also been there), just use your anxiety as a hint that right now you need to pull out some strategies from your anxiety-minimizing toolbox. Use this like you would an emotion: as information. As your body telling you what it needs right now.
4. Breathe slowly and deeply.
How many times have you started hyperventilating when you’re anxious or your breath becomes very shallow? Sometimes, when I’m anxious, I realize that I’m holding my breath. All these things also fuel anxiety. Taking slow and deep breaths helps to counteract this, and lets your body know it’s time to relax, and that there’s no need to put up a fight.
5. Block out time to worry.
I used to think that worrying would somehow solve my problems, or that if I worried enough, I could make them go away or I wouldn’t jinx myself (e.g., if I stopped worrying about a test, I worried that I wouldn’t do well.) Let me tell you: Umm, this definitely doesn’t work. Still, if you’re a worrywart, you probably have a laundry list of concerns that you’re thinking throughout the day.
Worry is anxiety’s best friend. What helps many people is to block out a 15-minute break during the day to think about everything that’s on your mind – and write it down. Just get it out of your brain. When a worry thought pops up, gently tell yourself that you can’t think about it right now, because this isn’t your worry session. Also, alongside your worries, brainstorm solutions that are within your power.
6. Find a go-to soothing visual.
Therese Borchard, author of the beautifully written and super valuable blog Beyond Blue, calls this your “visual anchor.” In a post on minimizing anxiety, she writes:
My therapist looks up to the clouds. They calm her down in traffic or whenever she feels anxious. For me it’s the water. I don’t now if it’s because I’m a Pisces (fish), but the water has always calmed me down in the same way as Xanax, and since I don’t take the latter (as a recovering alcoholic, I try to stay away from sedatives), I need to rely on the former. So I just downloaded some “ocean waves” that I can listen to on my iPod when I feel that familiar knot in my stomach. I also have a medal of St. Therese that I grab when I become scared, a kind of blankie to make me feel safe in an anxious world.
My blankie is a gold chain that I never take off. It was my dad’s and has a round charm that symbolizes the astrological sign Leo. (I’m a Leo, too). I just touch the charm, and I feel better. I get an instant dose of comfort and perspective. Nature also soothes me, so whenever I’m feeling anxious, I try to get outside. Or if I’m outside already, I focus on all the beauty around me, and try to use my five senses to pay attention to everything from the birds chirping to the sunny sky or the raindrops falling.
7. Practice self-compassion when emotions strike.
It’s not surprising that I’m an anxious person. One of the things I used to always do is bury my feelings. Or worse, I’d chew on them. Either way, I wouldn’t process them properly. I’m not saying that you need to feel every feeling you’ve got, especially if it’s too painful. (Here it might be better to see a therapist.) But ignoring your feelings or ruminating over them can both boost anxiety. Cultivating your self-compassion can help a lot! (Here’s how.)
8. Keep up with self-care.
Running around like a harried, distressed person won’t soothe your anxiety. It’ll just ignite it. Sure, self-care takes time out of our already busy schedule, but it’s truly an investment in your well-being. And it leaves you better equipped to deal with stress when it erupts. Self-care can be anything from taking a walk to taking a bath to taking the time to cook for yourself to preserving your boundaries. Here’s a look at the many types of self-care along with activities to try.
9. Be mindful.
Don’t worry, practicing mindfulness doesn’t mean meditating for 30 minutes and swatting any thoughts that pop up. Mindfulness means being fully aware or paying attention to what’s around you. I’ve written before about mindfulness and shared four valuable activities you can try. I promise they’re totally user-friendly.
10. Practice your passion daily.
Anxiety can make your world very small. Because you become so focused on trying to avoid all the things that make you anxious. But this tactic backfires and in a big way because avoidance only boosts anxiety. So before you know it, you’re avoiding a lot and possibly even the things you used to love. Keep doing the activities that bring you joy, whether that’s sewing, singing, painting, playing tennis, baking or biking. This reminds you of the great things in life, and keeps anxiety at bay.
11. Take it one step at a time.
This is another tip from Therese, which helps to quell worry and anxiety. Remember that you don’t have to solve (or think about) all your problems at once. She writes:
One cognitive adjustment that helps relieve anxiety is reminding myself that I don’t have to think about 2:45 pm when I pick up the kids from school and how I will be able to cope with the noise and chaos when I’m feeling this way, or about the boundary issue I have with a friend–whether or not I’m strong enough to continue putting myself first in that relationship. All I have to worry about is the very second before me. If I am successful at breaking my time down that way, I usually discover that everything is fine for the moment.
12. Relinquish control.
We think the more we control our anxiety, the more likely we are to minimize it. And that couldn’t be further from reality. It’s actually once we give up control that we can decrease symptoms. I’ve written a lot about anxiety for Psych Central. Here’s an excerpt from this article on letting go of control.
This step encourages worriers to slow down the fight-or-flight response and relax the body by using “traditional stress management” techniques, LeJeune says. Examples include breathing deeply and relaxing your hands and all your muscles.
But this isn’t to gain control over your anxiety. Trying to overpower worry only ignites anxiety and worry thoughts. When you “have a thought you don’t like, your body responds by struggling physically to control it and escape from it. And that intensifies the thought,” LeJeune says.
So your goal is actually the opposite — to interrupt the urge to stronghold your anxiety. It’s to allow acceptance and mindfulness to enter, LeJeune writes in The Worry Trap. As he says, some people will try to use relaxation techniques as weapons in their anti-anxiety arsenal. They’ll try “to furiously breathe away their anxiety,” or get stressed out because yoga isn’t eliminating their angst. They might walk away from a massage feeling fantastic, but they let the inevitable sprinklings of stress undo that relaxation.
It’s unrealistic to think that we can sail through life without any stressors, he says. This perspective also sets people up for more anxiety, he adds, and puts a lot of pressure on yourself.
13. Visualize your peaceful place.
Some therapists recommend their clients create a sanctuary in their mind that helps to soothe their anxiety. For you that might be the beach, a park, a forest, your room or a golf course (That’s my boyfriend’s happy place). When you get anxious, picture this place and let the tranquility wash over you.
14. Surround yourself with supportive people.
Humans are social beings, and having great people around us is really the key to living life. Again, anxiety can make your world a lot smaller. You might find yourself staying home more often and declining certain invites. Don’t. Try to push through the panic and worry, and get out there. It also might help to check out support groups for anxiety or other groups. (Like a running group if you love running, or a book club, if you enjoy reading.)
15. Consider your triggers, and find solutions.
Each of us is unique, so the things that trigger our anxiety will be unique, too. Consider what events, people, settings or situations trigger your tension. Make a list of your triggers, and consider the strategies you can use to prevent, minimize or manage them. For instance, your trigger may be as simple as having caffeine. Every time you have coffee, your anxiety symptoms flare up. If you can’t give up coffee completely, try half caffeine and half decaf. Or try to reduce the number of cups you drink per day.
And, of course, if you need additional help with your anxiety, don’t hesitate to seek therapy.
More on Coping with Anxiety
Here’s a list of other articles I’ve written on anxiety:
Also, on Psych Central, we have two excellent blogs about anxiety:
What helps you in alleviating anxiety? What struggles do you have with anxiety? What types of posts on anxiety would you like to see in the future?
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Last reviewed: 18 Apr 2013