Decrease Anxiety and Stress with These 10 Strategies (Supported by Science)!
Your Anxiety, Panic and Overwhelm Survival Kit By Dr. Samantha Dass, Naturopathic Doctor
Are you going through a period of feeling anxious or overwhelmed? Whether you’ve been anxious for years or anxiety is a new thing for you, it’s not fun. You feel waves of fear that can show up out of the blue. You feel like something bad is going to happen. You’re constantly worrying and it zaps the joy out of you. But it’s not just the anxious thoughts that are troublesome. The physical symptoms of anxiety can be just as frustrating – even more so when you don’t know WHY you have these symptoms. Heart pounding for no good reason, hands shaking, sweating, feeling like you’re not getting enough air. It can be unpleasant or downright frightening.
You might feel like you’re the only one living with anxiety, stress and overwhelm. I mean, it’s easy to feel that way as you scroll through Facebook and Instagram. Everyone looks like they’re living these fearless, bright, peaceful lives and there you are dreading your work day, turning down invitations and feeling guilty about not being in the mood to do anything. But you’re not alone. Anxiety, panic disorders, high stress and overwhelm are common.
In the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, 700,000 respondents had symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in the previous year alone. 30-50% of the survey respondents felt like their mental health care needs were not being met. My point is, you’re not alone or weird or weak for having anxiety. You’re not making it up. And you’re not alone if you want to do more to better manage your anxiety. Whether you’re taking medication or not, if you’re reading this, you probably feel like you still need more help for your anxiety.
Signs and Symptoms
If you’re not quite sure you are experiencing anxiety or panic, here are some common symptoms. Of course, this list doesn’t replace an individualized diagnosis from a health care provider:
You keep worrying about a variety of different topics and you have a hard time controlling your worry
Physical symptoms like: restlessness, fatigue, sore muscles, poor sleep
Cognitive symptoms like: irritability, poor focus or “brain fog”
You feel so afraid of your anxiety or panic that it makes you want to avoid certain situations (the classic fear of fear)
Symptoms of a panic attack include: pounding heart, sweating, feeling dizzy, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, feeling choked, feeling like you’re in a dream or detached from yourself, tingling, numbness or fear that something is wrong with your health or that you are going to die
Note: You don’t have to have a clinical anxiety disorder to experience the negative impacts of anxiety and stress. There are many people who don’t have a full-blown anxiety disorder, but they are still suffering from overwhelm, stress and feeling anxious.
How Anxiety Affects You
Anxiety doesn’t show up on a blood test or an x-ray. Just because you can’t see anxiety doesn’t mean it’s not real or that it doesn’t have a real impact on your life. These are the four most common ways that anxiety has impacted the lives of my patients:
1. Social: When you’re anxious, you may feel more irritable, melancholy or bitter. For many, this leads to strained relationships with partners, kids, parents, in-laws, co-workers, friends, etc.
2. Career/School: Anxiety may be impacting your career or education because you don’t feel like participating or giving your all at work or school (or even attending work or school).
3. Activities of daily living: Anxiety often impacts your ability to do basic everyday things like cleaning or grocery shopping.
4. Physical health: Eventually, anxiety and overwhelm may start to impact your physical health. You might not be in the mood to eat healthy food or exercise and you start to feel the physical effects of that. Even beyond lifestyle choices, psychological stress can throw off your digestive health, your periods, your skin health (hello acne or eczema flair ups), your hormones, your sleep – the list goes on.
What You Can do About It
So is it even possible to get a handle on anxiety? In this article, I compile a list of science-based strategies you can do on your own to soothe your anxious, panicked and overwhelmed feelings. These strategies are supported by scientific research and/or expert opinion from around the world.
If you go through this list and you find that you’re already doing all of these things CONSISTENTLY and it’s still not enough, then you may need more support (more on that later). But that doesn’t mean you should stop using these strategies.
This resource is not a be all and end all cure, but it can help take the edge off your symptoms to help you cope with them better. The rest of this article is designed to be a very practical tool with links and resources for you to explore.
Let’s get some disclaimers out of the way: I link to a lot of different videos and articles below, but I don’t officially endorse these sources and I don’t profit from linking to them. I also don’t necessarily agree with all the opinions of the people or organizations that I link to. These are just some useful tools. Let’s get started.
1. Mindfulness/ Meditation/ Breathing Exercises
Mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises have mountains of research showing their usefulness for managing anxiety, panic and stress. Regular, consistent practice is critical.
Awesome meditation apps you can find in your app store (with free sessions): Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer
The Mind Shift app by Anxiety Canada also has meditations and other tools based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for decreasing anxiety: CLICK HERE
A very calming body scan meditation for when you’re anxious: CLICK HERE
Progressive muscle relaxation instructions (this is especially good if your body gets tense when you’re anxious): CLICK HERE
If you’re a visual person, try this guided imagery meditation: CLICK HERE
Follow along with this breathing animation when you’re panicked: CLICK HERE
If you’re feeling a panic attack try the box breathing technique: breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, breath out through pursed lips (as if you’re breathing through a straw) for 5-10 seconds (I prefer 10). Repeat 5 times.
Try 5 -10 minutes of belly breathing if you feel anxious and panicked: place your hands on your belly and try to breathe in and out in a way that makes your belly do most of the moving (rather than your shoulders and chest).
2. Catch the cognitive distortion
Cognitive distortions are unhealthy thinking patters we can get stuck in. For example, if your mind jumps to the worst-case scenario, you may be “catastrophizing” which is a common cognitive distortion. If you’re convinced your in-laws hate you, you may be engaging in the cognitive distortion of “mind-reading”. There’s an expression used in mindfulness training: name it to tame it. If you can name your cognitive distortion, it can tame the feelings of anxiety you feel. Review these common mind traps (a.k.a. cognitive distortions) so you’re better prepared to name your anxious thinking habits in order to tame them. I encourage you to do your own research if you want more details on a specific cognitive distortion. CLICK HERE to read about these mind traps.
3. Good Old Kitchen Remedies
Both of these herbs have evidence for reducing feelings of anxiousness. The research for these is weaker than for more potent natural options that I discuss with my patients in private practice. Nonetheless, if you have any of these kicking around in your kitchen, you might as well make use of them during times of anxiety. As always, if you have a medical condition, allergies or are taking any medications, consult with a health care provider before trying herbal medicine:
– Chamomile tea
– Lemon balm tea
As these can potentially help with sleep, it’s best not to take them when you need to be alert.
Some people love it, some people hate it. Either way, there is evidence that yoga can help with stress and anxiety. Visit a studio or look into some of these YouTube yoga channels for free: YOGA BY CANDACE , YOGA WITH ADRIENE , YOGA WITH KASSANDRA , ALO YOGA
Aromatherapy has some evidence for helping with anxiety, particularly these essential oils: lavender, bergamot or peppermint. Put them in a diffuser or put a few drops on a cotton ball and keep it near you.
6. Prepare Your Constructive Self Talk
This is a commonly used strategy for managing a panic attack. It involves a little homework though. You need to prepare anxiety-soothing statements ahead of time to pull out when you’re panicked. You can keep them in a notebook, in your phone, on sticky notes or in your head. Here are some examples to get you started but it’s important to come up with statements that are relevant to you:
“I know these symptoms in my body are related to anxiety. I know it will pass and that I have tools to manage them.”
“The worse that will happen is that I won’t like how I feel.”
“I’ll survive this.”
“I have managed these feeling before.”
“I’m not going crazy. These are common symptoms of panic and anxiety.”
Some experts will recommend saying “stop” out loud (or in your head) to yourself during moments of panic to interrupt your anxious thoughts and “replace” them with these statements. You’ll notice that a lot of these statement involve accepting the panic symptoms and riding the wave of panic.
This may be the last thing you feel like doing when you’re feeling blah, but exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms of both generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
Science has shown us that spending time in nature can lower stress and anxiety levels. Research has even shown that nature sounds and looking at pictures of nature have some soothing effect on our anxiety levels. Try to aim for 1 hour a week outdoors.
There are a fair amount of studies on how music lowers stress and anxiety levels. A lot of the studies look at how this may be helpful in hospital settings such as before surgeries. That doesn’t mean you can’t try using music for stress and anxiety in other settings. Music without words may be more effective. For example, some experts say that the song “Weightless” by Marconi Union is one of the most relaxing songs out there. You can find it on Spotify or on YouTube: CLICK HERE
10. Unplug and Ground
Here’s a quick little exercise to help calm a racing mind. First, turn away from from distractions around you (phone, TV, laptop, etc.). Then, simply tune into each of your senses. Reflect on FIVE things that you can see right now, FOUR things you can hear, THREE things you can touch (e.g. your feet on a hard floor, your hand holding a pen), TWO things you can smell and ONE thing you can taste. It’s like a form of meditation or distraction. You’re shifting your focus away from your anxious thoughts.
You might still feel like you need more in-depth work and more personalized, one-on-one solutions for your anxiety, panic and stress. Proper assessment is key for managing these cases. I often run specific tests for my patients to determine if there are underlying biological factors that could be contributing to their feelings. This includes things like nutritional deficiencies and hormonal imbalances. As a start, you can click HERE to access a free list of tests that should be considered in cases of anxiety, panic, high stress and overwhelm. Be sure to discuss these tests with your naturopathic doctor and family doctor.
If you’re reading this article because you know someone else who is struggling with anxiety or stress, please share it with them. Sharing this article can open new doors to change for someone.
I firmly believe that with the right plan, you can get a better hold of your anxiety. For some, overcoming anxiety means having more freedom to pursue career goals. For some, it means being free from constant irritability so you can have more fun with loved ones. Or it might mean having the energy and motivation to do more in life whether that be cooking more, socializing more or just being more carefree in general. Whatever an anxiety-reduced life looks like to you, it’s possible to take big steps towards that. Let’s see if we can get you closer to the life you envision for yourself.
Dr. Samantha Dass is currently a naturopathic doctor working at Holland Landing Health Centre in East Gwillimbury, Ontario, which services Holland Landing, Newmarket, Aurora, Keswick and Bradford areas. If you are interested in naturopathic services please contact Holland Landing Health Centre at 905-853-7900 or via e-mail at [email protected]
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to replace personal medical advice. If you are at risk for harming yourself or others, call 911/ seek emergency medical services immediately.