Anxiety happens to the best of us. Feeling anxious or overwhelmed is a normal and healthy response to stressful situations, such as dealing with the uncertainty of an acute medical crisis. But that doesn’t make it pleasant.
Fortunately, you can learn how to cope with anxiety. Try these nine strategies to prevent anxiety from taking hold.
1. Get Enough Sleep
The relationship between sleep and anxiety goes two ways: Anxiety can cause sleeping problems, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Not getting enough sleep can worsen anxiety.
Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night. To increase the amount of sleep you get, the National Sleep Foundation recommends maintaining a regular schedule that includes going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning.
2. Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Incorporating meditation into your life can help you cope with anxiety, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Research shows mindfulness meditation programs, such as UPMC’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, are effective in reducing anxiety and depression. They can also improve the amount of sleep you get by reducing insomnia.
(Note: UPMC has postponed its upcoming MBSR course due to COVID-19 restrictions.)
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3. Exercise Regularly
Exercise promotes the release of endorphins. These brain chemicals reduce the body’s reaction to pain and stress. They also produce a feeling of euphoria, or happiness, that’s comparable to morphine. Just five minutes of aerobic exercise can kick start these anti-anxiety effects, according to the ADAA.
Current federal Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend adults get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderately intense physical activity, such as brisk walking, each week. They also can get 75 to 150 minutes of vigorously intense activity, such as jogging, biking or swimming. Aerobic activity should be spread out over the week.
4. Spend Time in Nature
How you deal with anxiety should include a walk in the forest or even a tree-lined park.
Research shows that forest bathing — long, slow walks in nature for health purposes — can lower blood pressure and relieve anxiety. A review of clinical trials published in the International Journal of Biometeorology found that salivary cortisol levels, biomarkers for stress, were significantly lower in groups who participated in forest bathing versus the control group.
5. Take up Yoga or Tai chi
Yoga does more than increase your flexibility. It incorporates exercise, deep breathing, and meditation. Yoga is an all-in-one antianxiety activity, as shown in a review of body-centered interventions published in Frontiers in Psychology. Tai chi, a mix of meditation and martial arts, works much the same way.
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6. Dance Therapy
That same research found that dance therapy, also known as movement therapy, reduces anxiety by engaging the body’s nervous system, which regulates how the body reacts to stress. In addition, dance/movement therapy increases production of serotonin, a chemical produced by the cells that’s responsible for mood.
7. Breathe Through It
When you feel anxiety or a panic attack — sweating, trembling, dizziness, rapid heart beat and nausea — start to come on, take deep, slow breaths to help your body and mind calm down, says Psychology Today. Avoid quick, shallow breaths as they can induce or worsen anxiety.
8. Limit Caffeine and Alcohol
Too much caffeine restricts blood vessels, which can increase blood pressure and contribute to anxiety. Coping with anxiety also doesn’t mean masking it with alcohol.
Alcohol can interfere with the neurotransmitters that manage anxiety and prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep. Drinking to cope creates a sort of feedback loop, which makes the anxiety worse and can lead to alcohol dependence, reports Vice.
9. Check Your Medicine
Certain medicines, such as corticosteroids, asthma drugs, and others, can cause anxiety. Ask your doctor if any medicines you take may be a contributing factor.
When to Talk With a Mental Health Professional
Chronic anxiety also can point to an underlying mental health issue. When your anxiety causes extreme distress or interrupts your ability to function on a daily basis, or when panic attacks are frequent and debilitating, it’s important to reach out to a mental health professional. They can provide a treatment plan, which may include specialized antianxiety medicine, psychotherapy, or both.
For more information, call UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital at 1-877-624-4100 or 412-624-1000.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Understand the Facts: Sleep Disorders. Link
ADAA. Exercise for Stress and Anxiety. Link
American Psychological Association (APA), Anxiety. Link
Danny Penman, PhD. Can You Reduce Anxiety and Stress by the Way You Breathe? Psychology Today. Link
Depression and Anxiety Disorders: Benefits of Exercise, Yoga and Meditation. American Family Physician. Link
Lexi Krupp. Drinking to Calm Your Nerves Might Just Make Your Anxiety Worse. Vice. Link
Marsha S. Tarsha. Body-Centered Interventions for Psychopathological Conditions: A Review. Frontiers in Psychology. Link
Michelle Antonelli. Effects of Forest Bathing (Shinrin-Yoku) on Levels of Cortisol as a Stress Biomarker: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. International Journal of Biometeorology. Link
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Meditation: In Depth. National Institutes of Health. Link
National Sleep Foundation. How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? Link
Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. 2nd Edition. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Link
UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. UPMC Western Psychiatric is the hub of UPMC Western Behavioral Health, a network of nearly 60 community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors throughout western Pennsylvania.