[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
When I was a small child, I had a collection of lip balms, each one a different bright, gaudy color, each a different waxy flavor. My favorite though, was a light pink strawberry kiwi that made my tiny lips shimmer. One night, my parents took my brother and I to a high school basketball game, which in my hometown, was one of the only things to do on a cold Tuesday evening in mid-December. I brought my strawberry kiwi lip balm with me, and somehow, dropped it below the tall brown bleachers. I was beside myself. After the game ended, my parents asked the janitor to check for the lip balm, but it was gone, swallowed up forever, lost to the island of misfit toys, mismatched socks, and errant lip balm.
I was in the odd habit of taking a different lip balm to school each day, carefully laying them out in order. Orange was for Monday. Marshmallow was Tuesday. Grape was Wednesday, cherry was Thursday and Friday was reserved for the coveted strawberry kiwi. If I forgot to exchange one lip balm for another, my entire day unraveled. Such a small thing should not affect a child so deeply, but I needed to feel control over something, and for a brief time, lip balm was the thing.
Lip balm was the thing until my body became the thing. I planned which clothes I would wear based on what I thought made me look less fat. I would skip the morning milk break, back when milk breaks were a thing. Later, I would keep the hard candies my teachers gave me as prizes in a stash in my backpack. I would save them until I had a nice handful, and then, I would eat them all at once. I started packing my lunch in middle school, because I believed the school lunches were unhealthy beyond reason (that isn’t so far from the truth). And the food rules spiraled from there.
I have a lot of empathy for people who struggle with anxiety. I run for my physical health, but also for my brain. Running helps me concentrate on work, helps me not overthink things, helps me sleep, and generally helps me regulate this discombobulated brain.
When I don’t run before sitting down to work in the morning, my brain is foggy and my concentration hops from one task to the next to the next. When I can’t run for a few weeks or months due to injury, my brain falls into the shallow end of depression, waves of ennui lapping at my frontal lobe. Anxiety is a bit monstrous; picture Big Bird on methamphetamines or Donald Trump square dancing. Not exactly terrifying, but definitely not cute.
Adults and children can grow anxious for a lot of reasons. Inconsistent homes, trauma, genetics, media, and even….nothing. Sometimes anxiety just happens and it isn’t based in anything real, but the anxiety itself? That’s as real as air or water, as suffocating as a sauna, as solvable as an existential crisis.
Things that are proven to help alleviate anxiety include:
1. Therapy: A well-established and highly effective treatment for anxiety is cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT. CBT focuses on identifying, understanding, and changing thinking and behavior patterns. Benefits are usually seen in 12 to 16 weeks, depending on the individual. I engaged in CBT on and off for many years, and I enjoyed that I felt a sense of control over my treatment plan. CBT often involves reading, keeping records/journals, and completing homework assignments. Read more about other types of therapy here.
2. Meditation: While anxiety is difficult to truly get rid of, meditation can have benefits after only one session. Studies show when it becomes a habit, meditation helps us develop the skills to better manage anxiety and stress, and cultivate peace of mind. Meditation can help us accept anxious thought instead of trying to push them away, which ultimately results in a healthier, more positive and less anxious mindset.
3. Exercise: Regular, long-term exercise triggers the release of feel-good neurochemicals in the brain, boosts confidence and mood, and builds your resilience to negative emotions. You don't have to run a marathon either, just taking a walk, gardening, yoga, tennis, or anything that gets you moving helps. Research shows that 30 minutes, three to five days a week can help to significantly improve symptoms of generalized anxiety.
4. Fidget Toys: I used to play with Silly Putty or doodle during class, which helped me focus even though some of my teachers were convinced it was a distraction. Over the past few years, a growing body of research has studied the effects of fidget toys for those with ADHD, anxiety, autism, and other conditions that affect learning and concentration. Some evidence suggests that fidget toys may influence people’s fine motor control skills, reduce anxiety, and help concentration. More research is needed, but fidget toys are relatively cheap and easy to find.
5. Breath Work: Anxiety often results in rapid, shallow breathing. Deep breathing exercises can decrease anxiety my stimulating the body's relaxation response, lowering our heart rate and blood pressure. Deep breathing works because it's impossible to be anxious and breathe deeply at the same time. One exercise I like is to inhale deeply for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4, and exhale for a count of 4. I do this several times until I feel better, and it often helps me fall asleep.
6. Sleep: An ideal full night of sleep for most adults is 7-9 hours. Research shows that we're likely to feel less anxious and more confident if we consistently get enough sleep. Everyone knows sleep is important, but the problem for many people is falling asleep in the first place. Being physically active during the day and having a bedtime routine that doesn't include screens will help you sleep better.
7. Eat Healthfully: Researchers often refer to the belly as the second brain, since about 95% of serotonin receptors are found in the lining of the stomach. (This is why we get butterflies in our stomach when we’re anxious.) Foods containing certain vitamins and minerals may help reduce anxiety, so consider filling up on: leafy greens, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, which are rich in magnesium; oysters, liver, and egg yolks, which contain zinc; wild Alaskan salmon, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids; and berries, apples, prunes, cherries, plums, broccoli, and beets, which are high in antioxidants. It might also be helpful to limit caffeine and alcohol, both of which can aggravate symptoms of anxiety.
8. Supplement: This study found that people who ate foods high in B vitamins showed significant improvements in their anxiety and stress scores than those who did not. Taking a high-quality B-complex supplement is generally safe, since B vitamins are water-soluble, meaning the body excretes what it doesn’t use. (Always consult with your doctor before taking any supplements that might interact with medications or have side effects.)
9. Sit in a Sauna: For most of us, felling warm (not hot) makes us feel calm. Heating up the body in a bath, steam room, or sauna reduces muscle tension and anxiety. Sensations of warmth may alter neural circuits that control mood, including those involved in regulating serotonin. Read more benefits of using a sauna here.
10. Get Outside: Spending time in nature lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol. Research analyzing data from 10,000 people found that those living near more green space reported less mental distress. Living near water and in warmer climates is associated with more physical activity and longer lifespans as well. Read more about the benefits of living near the ocean here.