I’ve always been a bit of a stress head. As a child, I would worry about anything and everything. I worried about making the right impression, not being late, getting a good enough mark in class or catching the right bus.
Carrying this worry and anxiety into adulthood as my “normal,” I could never relax or feel reassured that I was good enough, smart enough or not boring. Medical school was a blur of anxiety with multiple tests and exams over five years. I was relieved and surprised I passed my finals – my imposterdom reaching an all-time high as I waited for the knock on the door to be told there had been a mistake and that in fact, I had failed.
When working as a GP, some of my patients were those I called “the worried well.” Typically, they were well educated, health-conscious folk concerned about some aspect of their health. Allaying their fears and concerns could take time but was always worth the investment to prevent unnecessary worry turning into something else.
Knowing what you’re feeling or experiencing is normal is hugely reassuring. How often has the fear of the “what ifs?” felt worse than the actual challenge facing you?
But today there is a growing number in our society doing it tough; the worried unwell. One outcome of the pandemic has been the deluge of uncertainty and heightened stress. Some of my friends and clients have confessed to living with an undercurrent of constant tension that bubbles up to the surface in those times when their day or week didn’t go well, leaving them feeling like sh*t and wondering how long before any of us feel ‘normal’ again.
Even the most resilient are experiencing some days they wish they could forget.
Anxiety is a signal we’re under threat beyond what we can normally cope with. As an evolutionary survival tool, our stress response has served us very well, but when that threat remains unresolved our resilience becomes depleted. Like a coastal wall being pounded by a storm, eventually the wall can break leading to extensive damage to the houses and infrastructure behind.
In the same way, anxiety erodes our health and wellbeing, both physically and mentally which is why it’s vital to put into place those daily practices to help keep your anxiety at bay and your stress in the healthy zone.
What do you do when the first thing you notice on waking is a surge of anxiety coursing through your veins leaving you thinking “oh no, here we go again?”
How do you respond when your stomach is churning at the thought of trying to get through another day, not knowing if you’ll find a job if you’re currently unemployed, keep your job or stay in the industry you’re currently affiliated to after the pandemic has ended?
How do you sleep when your dreams are on hold; your plans to go to University, get married, or travel the world?
Worrying about the future, that no one has the answers for, can lead to paralysing anxiety where making any kind of decision feels hard.
Recognising when your level of anxiety is putting you at risk of developing a mood disorder is the first step to ensuring you have the right tools and strategies to keep you safe. Here are five science-based methods based on lifestyle to help, based on the acronym NAMES.
N is for Nutrition
It was Professor Felice Jacka and her team from the Mood and Food Centre at Deakin University who were the first to demonstrate how food choices impact mood. The SMILES trial was a world-first revealing a significant change in the level of depressive symptoms in a small group of people with clinically diagnosed depression.
Fast food is the fastest way to stuff up our minds and excess sugar has been shown to act as a depressant, so cut out sweetened drinks (including those that use artificial sweeteners) and replace with water.
Caffeine in excess can cause jitteriness and irritability. Your tolerance to caffeine is individual but keeping caffeine to a minimum is recommended if anxiety is being troublesome and to avoid consuming it after lunchtime because it interferes with the body’s natural transition to sleep and has a half-life of around 6 hours. A cup of coffee consumed at 4 pm means you still have 50% of the caffeine in your system at 10 pm
Choosing foods rich in antioxidants such as spices (turmeric and ginger), herbs, berries, legumes, nuts and chocolate are believed to ease the symptoms of anxiety.
- Leafy greens, legumes, seeds nuts and whole grains that are rich in magnesium
- Oily fish such as wild salmon that are high in omega-three fatty acids
- Egg yolk, cashews, liver, beef and oysters contain zinc
- Probiotics – legumes, fermented foods such as kefir and sauerkraut have been linked to diminishing social anxiety
A is for Attitude
Anxiety can be associated with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, neither of which are helpful in making good decisions or problem-solving. If you’ve become stuck in negative emotion adopting positive activities can help turn this ship around to help you feel more positive and in control. These include:
- Practising gratitude. Keeping a gratitude journal has been shown to produce a positive psychological shift and greater optimism in as little as 21 days.
- Mindfulness meditation. Even five minutes a day spent quietly, focusing on the breath will help by keeping you in the present moment to find greater mental calm and clarity of thought. The MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction course) is a great skill to learn that you can tap into at any time.
- Breathing exercises. Hopefully, you are already an accomplished breather but by focusing on consciously slowing down the breath especially the exhalation has an almost instantaneous effect on calming the sympathetic nervous system that’s involved in the stress response fight-flight or freeze. When anxiety strikes take note of your breathing pattern If it’s become shallow and rapid just take a moment to breathe more slowly and deliberately using your diaphragmatic breathing.
- Take a re-frame. We all hold a unique world perspective yet find it curious that not everyone shares the same world view. If your anxiety is skewing your perspective towards the negative it’s time to tune into the language you’re using and take a reframe
“My boss doesn’t like me” to “My boss appears to be under a lot of pressure.”
“I’ll look stupid in front of everyone” to “We’re all novices at this game.”
“I can’t believe I made such a stupid mistake” to “I’m disappointed I made a mistake, but I can make sure I don’t repeat it.”
M is for Mental fitness
Being mentally fit is about having the skills set and resilience to handle stress effectively. You can enhance your mental fitness by recognising what stresses you out and triggers your anxiety.
Recognise what you can influence and control and let go of what you can’t.
Being mentally fit is also about recognising boundaries. If your mobile phone is superglued to the palm of your hand and you never leave the house without your mobile, tablet, laptop and chargers you might be spending too much time engaged with a screen, which is in itself has been shown to create the illusion of time passing too quickly heightening stress, and elevating anxious thoughts.
Switching off in good time and at least 60-90 minutes before bed is a good way to start and try a couple of short technology-free breaks across your day.
E is for Exercise
Yes, it’s the stuff that gets you hot and sweaty that’s really good for burning off stress and increasing the release of your feel-good hormones, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. If the thought of exercise makes you nauseous fret not because all physical activity counts meaning that the time you spend washing the car, dancing to your favourite song on the radio or running for the bus counts.
The new exercise prescription is to move more and sit less and the research has shown this helps to reduce anxiety. As does engaging in strength or resistance training. Two sessions a week will strengthen your mental muscle as well as your body and help to allay anxiety
S is for Sleep, Staying Social and Sex
While not a cure, having regular sex has been shown to be a great stress and anxiety reliever because as with exercise, in general, it leads to the release of those feel-good hormones AND oxytocin our bonding molecule helping to increase compassion, boost your mood and strengthen your bond with your partner.
Sleep is more than a cognitive refresher it is essential to emotional regulation. Getting a good night’s sleep ensures you retain the confidence, competence and capability needed to handle any curveball that threatens to derail your day. While anxiety can make it harder to sleep, practising relaxation techniques, being sufficiently physically active during the day and being consistent in your sleep routine can all help.
If sleep remains an issue, please talk to your health provider. There are many non-drug strategies to help and often improving the duration and quality of your sleep will go a long way to alleviating any symptoms of anxiety.
Staying social is about using the power of your social network to enjoy a sense of belonging. If anxiety if stopping you in your tracks, look to see what you could be doing to help someone else. It’s the fastest way to reduce stress and is a win for everyone. Whether it’s assisting an elderly neighbour, calling a family member you haven’t spoken to in a while or volunteering to help at the local food bank being with and interacting with others takes the focus off ourselves and strengthens our social bonds.
Anxiety is pervasive, sneaky and frequently hidden from view. With uncertainty expected to be a big part of our lives for quite a while, this is the time to ensure your own anxiety doesn’t start to impact your life too much and to keep an eye out for what others may be going through. They may not always want to share how anxious they are feeling.
Your self-care and caring for others is all part of living a life as a happy thriving human. What steps are you taking to ensure you cultivate a Thriving Mind?
Dr Jenny’s new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life is now available for pre-order. Pre-orders made through Booktopia or other Australian online book retailers before July 31st puts you in the running to receive a second book, one of 250 numbered books signed by the author. Simply send your proof of purchase and address to firstname.lastname@example.org.