This is Part Two of my Wellness Series featured on Glass House Journal. The article shares my top nutrition and practical tips for coping with mild to severe anxiety.
We’ve all experienced that sick feeling in the pit of our stomach, or clammy hands that won’t sit still, or perhaps just an insistent ticking over of our minds, a movie reel of obsessive thoughts that just won’t stop. This is anxiety - a feeling of worry and insecurity that won’t budge. Who can’t relate to that?! In the United Kingdom alone, 1 in every 6 adults is affected by anxiety on a daily basis. I often find with clients who worry about leaving the house or falling asleep at night, that acquiring some simple practices can help them a long way. What a relief to know that we are not alone and that our anxious states don’t need to control our lives. We can live free of anxiety and here are some of my thoughts on how.
Nutrition plays an important role in accompanying the process of becoming free from anxiety. Wholefood is the best place to start. Wholefoods contain essential minerals and vitamins that the body requires to function optimally. Research has shown that the alternative; a diet high in processed and refined foods, increases our risk of depression (closely associated with anxiety). Consuming adequate amounts of magnesium is beneficial for relaxing muscles and reducing tension, which has a positive effect on quality sleep and minimizing bowel spasms. The best food sources of magnesium include green leafy vegetables, almonds, cashews, peanuts, and legumes. I often find with individuals who are burdened by obsessive thinking in the evening, that sipping on chamomile tea before bed helps clears their minds.
For some of us who experience impulsive anxiety; anxiety that occurs at random intervals and causes our hearts to beat faster or our body temperature to increase, that avoiding stimulating foods can be beneficial. This is especially true with sugar and caffeine. Both of these foods cause blood sugar levels to rise and then fall again shortly after. This translates into our energy levels shooting up and then slumping down again in a matter of minutes, subsequently imitating the effect of anxiety on the body. Avoiding these foods will help to reduce anxiety-like symptoms experienced throughout the day. Caffeine stays in our systems for around 6 – 10 hours, therefore contributing significantly to those long evenings lying awake in bed waiting for our minds to be still. Staying clear of caffeine and sugar helps clear the mind and reduce experience of stress throughout the day.
Creating Helpful Habits
Getting enough quality sleep is key – read more on sleep in part one of this series.
Breathing from your diaphragm – as in, expanding your diaphragm slowly as you breathe in and contracting it slowly as you exhale – communicates to your autonomic nervous system that you are safe, which has a calming effect on the body. Contrast this with short, shallow breaths, which tell your body and mind that you are in danger, and only serves to increase anxiety. I find with clients who suffer from anxiety and worry, that when they learn to breathe with their diaphragm they gain more control over their minds.
Mindfulness is one of my favourite practises to discuss. Mindfulness simply means to pay attention; to become aware of our thoughts and feelings. Research has shown that practising mindfulness has a significant affect on reducing anxiety. Being mindful ensures we identify exactly where anxiety is taking over, instead of continuing on in ignorance. I always recommend to them to sit in a quiet space on their own and write fears and worries down on paper. If they are not sure how to start this process then I give them the following questions:
- What is the main thing I am afraid of?
- If I set my feelings to the side, what do I really believe about this?
- What past experiences are contrary to my fear? For example, if I am afraid a car might crash into the bus I take to work, has this happened in the past? If not, then my experience tells me it is unlikely, even though my feelings tell me it is very likely. Remembering our past can give weight to our real thoughts and beliefs about a situation.
- How do I want my life to look in the future?
- How will anxiety inhibit me from experiencing this life?
Mindfulness can also be translated into meditation, walking, and movement, which all have shown to have a positive effect on the part of the brain that controls our emotions. Yoga is also a wonderful practice to release tensions.
For those of us who experience excessive fear and worry exhibited through trembling, hopelessness, or panic attacks, here are a few steps I recommend to help elevate this debilitating anxiety.
Step One: Acceptance
A great place to start is to acknowledge that we have fears and worries that ail us and disrupt our lives.
Step Two: Openness
To be proactive about dealing with anxiety and seeking healing is a bold step to take. Is it worth dealing with these feelings of anxiety now, so we don’t have to live with them in our future? The answer is of course, yes!
Step Three: Support
Having the support of people close to us during the healing process is important. For my clients who suffer from this intense form of anxiety I suggest they arrange a coffee with a trusted person to talk about their fears and worries. Professional support may be necessary if the anxiety continues to feel overwhelming.
Step Four: Choose
One thing that helped someone I know who experienced chronic anxiety was to think of their anxiety as a mental injury, not a mental illness. Just like how misusing a muscle during a work-out can result in an injury, the way we process our thoughts can feed anxiety, causing a mental injury. This can be helpful to understand because it means we can take control over our feelings, instead of being at the whim of every emotion we have.
Step Five: Focus on other areas of life
This is a very positive step for my clients as it encourages them to recognise the areas of their lives that they do feel in control of, and to focus on doing those really well. Often these other areas include eating well, exercising regularly, sleeping enough, breathing well, taking time to relax or practicing mindfulness, and pursuing quality relationships with our loved ones. This ensures we still have balance in our lives.
Step Six: Plan fun
Lastly, I always suggest to individuals who suffer from anxiety to schedule in a time of ‘fun’ each week. This reminds them that their life is not only filled with anxiety, but joy as well, and helps to increase their hope for a good future. For me, I curl up on the couch with my husband and watch a Nancy Meyers film whilst nibbling away on dark chocolate.
We can all agree that there are many things in life that don’t turn out the way we hoped. I have learned that we can either worry about all the risks of what could go wrong, or embrace life with a certain level of trust in the goodness of the world. Choosing the later has been the most rewarding and enjoyable in the lives of my own and of people I know. For those of us that want to reduce our levels of anxiety, I employ you to imagine what life could look like free of anxiety. Anxiety makes us focused on only what could go wrong, but there could be a very joy-filled future ahead of us if we only dared to dream.
Feed, Nourish, Value Yourself.