A few years ago, I had the unfortunate experience of working the night shift. Once the clock hit 4 am, I turned into a zombie that accidentally fell asleep in the bathroom, no joke. One of the worst parts of the night shift was trying to sleep during the day, and failing miserably. It never failed; every day after I got home from work, I`d toss and turn trying to sleep. Finally, FINALLY after what seemed like years, I`d fall into a light sleep only to be awakened by a car alarm going off, every single day.
If someone is stealing your car, a car alarm is excellent. If you are trying to sleep, a car alarm is a pain in the neck. Fear is like that. If you are wandering in the woods and you come across a bear, fear is what prevents you from running up and trying to pet it. In the right context, fear is helpful. When you are sitting at your desk trying to get your work done, and random worries start racing through your head, and that pit of anxiety drops in your stomach...not so useful.
When anxiety starts popping up in the wrong context, it`s always a good idea to talk to your doctor or therapist, seeing as none of this is medical advice. I`ve developed a list of strategies below that can be beneficial supports for anxiety and have some research backing the claim. But seriously, before you start anything new, it`s usually a good idea to check with the doc.
It seems like everyone does yoga these days and it turns out that`s not a bad thing. Few studies have been done to estimate the benefit of yoga on anxiety and so far so good. One study even found regular yoga practice to be as good, and in some areas better, than taking a benzodiazepine. Anxiolytics have a fair number of nasty side effects (like being highly addictive) that you won`t get from a regular yoga practice. Though judging by the popularity and commitment many have toward yoga, one might argue it`s addictive, too 😉I kid, I kid.
Doing yoga a few times a week appears to have a pervasive calming effect on the nervous system. That translates into more peace and calm even off the mat. Classes are great, but even if you can`t get yourself to the gym, there are some fantastic resources online these days. Hello, YouTube!
Many people have heard that lavender is calming and have tried the scented bubble baths or a nice diffuser. Some small studies indicate that scents have the potential to impact our emotions, which is pretty cool if you think about it and perhaps not all that surprising.
What might be surprising, however, is some interesting studies have been done on taking an oral lavender supplement for anxiety. The lavender preparation is called Silexan, and it`s had several studies showing its effectiveness. One study showed that it was as effective as paroxetine for anxiety. That`s pretty impressive. Reviews of famous brands for this supplement mention burps that taste like lavender. That might be a turn off to some but, if you think about it, it also might be like a built-in breath freshener. That`s a two for one bonus 😆
No anxiety hack list is complete without mentioning meditation. It`s pretty widely known in the therapeutic community that meditation has a powerful impact on anxiety and other mental health symptoms. Regular practice may even have the power to “re-write” your brain. Pretty trippy, right?
Studies show that regular meditation or mindful practice has a pronounced calming effect, but I`ve talked to so many people who say they just aren`t good at meditation. They can`t get the hang of it. “My mind just keeps wandering--I`m not built for it.” If you nodded right there and smirked because you were thinking, “yep, might as well skip to the next item on this list…” Hold up. Wait for just a second because I have some pretty life-changing info for you…
No one is “built” for meditation. Gasp. Everyone`s mind wanders, especially when you first start. The fact that your mind wanders is why you need to do it. You wouldn`t expect to get on the pitchers` mound at Wrigley field and pitch a 90 mph curveball the first time you try, would you? No? Did not think so. That would be crazy. Expecting your brain to be perfectly mindful as soon as you start trying meditation is just as ridiculous. You have to practice, and the good news is that, as you practice, your brain gets better at it. As your mind gets better at it, your body starts calming down. It`s great.
If you`ve ever had a puppy who you had to potty train, this analogy is for you. When you put your puppy on its pee pad, in a few seconds, he tries to run off of it. So what do you do? You go pick him up and gently put him back on the pad. A few seconds later, he runs off again, so you gently pick him up and put him back on the pad. Your mind is like that puppy. It will wander. When it does, tenderly bring it back to your mindful exercise. Each time it walks, gently bring it back. In time, you adapt, and your attention stays for more extended periods of time.
If you want to add something helpful to your mindful practice, studies have shown mantras to be an active meditative practice. A mantra, in case you aren`t familiar, is a short phrase that you repeat to yourself over and over. One I`ve been working with lately is “I am strong, capable, and confident.” In the past, I`ve used “I will overcome” and “screw perfection.” Both were helpful. The great thing about using a mantra is you can change it to fit whatever situation you need it for. And it works!
I`ve only speaked to one other person who had heard of the Marconi Union Band and their song “Weightless.” This song was created to be calming, and one study showed that participants listening to this song experienced a 65% reduction in anxiety. Pretty crazy, right? Just listening to a song. That`s easy. And, my favorite part, you can listen to this song for free on Youtube. Free is fantastic, is it not? The song is so calming it would be a great addition to your yoga session or as calming ambiance to your meditation practice.
There hasn`t been a ton of studies that I`ve found on the effects of weighted blankets, though the few I`ve seen have shown promising results. What I can tell you is just about every person I`ve met who`s tried a weighted blanket for the calming impact on their anxiety--or insomnia--has raved about it. Add the reviews on popular brands where people go gaga over them, and that`s some pretty decent information at least for a case study on the topic. I`ve heard such great feedback from them that I finally broke down and bought my own.
There`s something very grounding and comforting about the pressure that being cuddled by the most massive blanket you`ve ever tried to lift brings. The closest comparison I`ve had is when my 60lb dog lays down on top of me. I love him, but the blanket doesn`t put its elbow on my diaphragm and lick the inside of my nose. Sheesh.
If you are serious about calming anxiety, don`t neglect some critical physical components that will either put you on your best foot forward or, if ignored, will put that foot knee deep in mud before you even get going.
1. Sleep. If you aren`t getting good sleep, you`re fighting an uphill battle with your mental health. Getting good sleep is perhaps another blog post but suffice it to say you need your 8 hours if you are going to win the battle with your anxiety.
2. Balanced Eating. Most of us love potato chips and ice cream. And coffee. Coffee is the best. The problem is when most of our diet is composed of simple carbs (like potato chips), sugar, and caffeine, our body isn`t getting the nutrients it needs, our blood sugar is going nuts, and stimulants have hijacked the nervous system. I`m not saying any of these foods are wrong--I am saying that all of these foods together too frequently are a terrible combination. The body needs foods that help it maintain energy--sustained energy. Think fiber and protein.
3. Exercise. This remains as one of the most useful things we can do for anxiety both in the moment of peak anxiety and as a preventative. Regular exercise has a pervasive calming effect that helps us lower our responses to stress in the long run. Training as an intervention for in the moment worry is also really helpful--it`s versatile like that. It`s often beneficial for people to experiment with the type of exercise that is helpful when they are freaking out. For some, a walk is exactly what they need, for others a step does nothing, and they need something more intense like weight lifting or High-Intensity Interval Training. Whatever it is, by and large, this is one of the best things you can do to calm yourself down.
4. Relaxation training. Learning to use deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or body scans are all helpful relaxation options that can help a body calm. These can be beneficial supports, too.
And there you have it, five scientifically studied strategies to decrease your anxiety, plus a few extra for good measure. Here`s to wishing you good mental health!