We all have it, to varying degrees, and though it was designed to serve the evolutionary purpose of helping us survive a world ripe with potential danger, modern anxiety usually does more harm than good. As Roosevelt once put it so aptly, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself,” and this is especially true once you understand how to quickly quiet those voices in productive and healthy ways. Here, 7 science-backed methods for regularly defeating your anxiety that don’t involve wine, Xanax, or running away to Bali.
Few things have been as effective for us in terms of battling anxiety as following the advice of You Are Not Your Brain, written by neuroplasticity researcher Jeffrey M. Schwartz. He teaches four steps for diffusing any anxious thought. The first is to "relabel" the thought—rather than accepting the thought as a reflection of reality, identify it simply as an anxious thought. The second is to "reframe" the thought—it doesn't have power, because it's just a lie your brain is telling you. In this portion of the program, you need to feel a little uncomfortable as you sit in the anxiousness. The third is to "refocus"—don't reach for a glass of wine or fall into an anxiety spiral as a result of your discomfort. Instead, do something productive, immediately. Go for a run, spend five minutes learning a language, do math—whatever works. The fourth is to "revalue" the thought—now that the feeling has passed, you can see it clearly for what it was. If you follow this process regularly, you will eventually develop healthier coping mechanisms and never again mistake an anxious thought for a scary reality.
For more detailed guidance on the process, we highly recommend picking up the book.
Studies have shown that consumption of fructose stimulates areas of the brain that affect the stress response, ultimately making it more sensitive to stress and therefore prone to anxiety. Another study found that it's not so much the type of sugar consumed as the quality of the sugar consumed that contributes to fearful thoughts and depression. Opt for non-juiced fruits and vegetables and low sugar dairy products to satisfy your sweet tooth whenever possible.
Developed by sleep expert Dr. Andrew Weil, the 4-7-8 breathing technique involves 3 steps. First, hold your breath for four seconds. Then, breathe out before holding again for seven seconds. Finally, exhale entirely for a count of eight. Repeat these steps two to four times. This technique works because people who are stressed or anxious are under-breathing, or taking short and shallow breaths. Deep breathing slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure and increases your oxygen intake, all of which has a calming effect.
In 2014, researchers at John Hopkins University sifted through hundreds of studies to find 47 that met strict criteria for evaluating the effects of meditation on stress and anxiety. They found that mindful meditation may help to reduce or eliminate symptoms for people with generalized anxiety disorder (chronic, unproductive anxious thoughts). You can read more about the science behind anxiety and meditation through our favorite meditation app, Headspace, here.
Studies show that people with chronic insomnia are at a high risk for developing an anxiety disorder. When you sleep, your brain uses the time to "prune" your thoughts, eliminating clutter and thus reducing anxiety. As the author of The Chaos Imperative put it, "Thinking with a sleep-deprived brain is like hacking your way through a dense jungle with a machete. It’s overgrown, slow-going, exhausting. The paths overlap, and light can’t get through." We have anxiety just reading that sentence.
According to research done at UCLA, physical clutter overwhelms your senses, which makes you feel stressed. If you're what's known as a highly-sensitive person, you will likely feel this even more acutely. In this day and age, physical clutter isn't the only problem for those prone to anxiety—digital clutter counts towards the problem as well. If you are experiencing a spike with regards to your nerves, it might be helpful to purge both your home and your laptop of unnecessary clutter.
Nature can be an incredibly calming force. Studies have shown, in fact, that people feel restored by even just looking at images of nature. According to some scientists, the reason for this is that in natural environments, we experience "awe," which reduces our cortisol levels and, in turn, lessens anxiety. Another potential explanation for this phenomenon is that observation of our environment was, at one point, a critical component of survival, so doing so is rewarded by feelings of pleasure. Whatever the reason it works as a cure for all that ails, an increasing number of doctors are now prescribing immersion in nature as part of a holistic wellness regimen to heal both mind and body.