Between work, bills, family, and trying to stay healthy, the everyday pressures of life can turn you into an anxious mess. Maybe you were an anxious child who grew into an anxious adult, or maybe you developed anxiety later in life. Regardless of when symptoms began, it’s possible that your mind is in overdrive, and you’re always waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under you.
You’re not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults. Like so many others looking for relief, you may have turned to medication for help. Although antianxiety drugs can ease your anxiety, the serenity can come with a price tag in the form of side effects. Trouble sleeping, decreased libido, jumpiness, and increased hunger are some of the most common inconveniences of treating anxiety with drugs.
The good news is that popping pills isn’t the only way to get your fears and nerves under control. Here are eight simple and effective ways to battle anxiety without medication.
1. Shout it out
Talking to a trusted friend is one way to cope with anxiety. But there’s something even better than talking: screaming at the top of your lungs. As a kid, you were probably taught not to shout and told to use your “inside voice.” But as an adult, you can make your own rules. So if you’re dealing with pent-up frustrations and anxiety, let it out.
This doesn't mean putting fear in others so they feel on edge like you. We're talking about a healthy release of emotions in a controlled environment. The more you fight anxiety, the more overwhelming it can become. Instead, embrace anxiety as a part of your life, and then let it go. Scream at the top of your lungs, punch a pillow, stomp your feet, or pound your chest. Do whatever helps you get it out! One Los Angeles-based yoga teacher even developed a class called Tantrum Yoga that encourages yogis to try these unconventional methods as a way to release emotion that “gets stuck in our bodies and could turn into stress, disease, etc.”
2. Get moving
Exercise is probably the last thing you want to do when your mind’s in overdrive. You may worry about post-workout soreness and being unable to walk or sit for the next two days. Or your mind might go to the worst-case scenario and you fear overexerting yourself and having a heart attack. But in reality, exercise is one of the best natural antianxiety solutions.
Physical activity raises endorphins and serotonin levels to help you feel better emotionally. And when you feel better on the inside, your entire outlook improves. And because your brain can’t equally focus on two things at once, exercise can also take your mind off your problems. Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity three to five days a week. Don’t think you have to struggle through a painful workout. Any type of movement is good, so put on your favorite jam and move around the house. Or grab a mat and break out into your favorite yoga poses.
3. Break up with caffeine
A cup of coffee, chocolate, or an ice-cold Coke might help you feel better. But if caffeine is your go-to drug of choice, your anxiety could worsen.
Caffeine gives the nervous system a jolt, which can boost energy levels. But when under pressure, this nervous energy can induce an anxiety attack. Now, the idea of giving up your favorite caffeinated beverage might raise your heart rate and induce anxiety as you read this, but you don’t have to stop cold turkey or give up caffeine completely. It’s all about moderation.
Rather than four cups of coffee a day, scale back to one or two normal-sized cups a day —normal as in 8 ounces, not 16 or 32 ounces. Give it a test run and see how you feel. As you wean yourself, slowly introduce other beverages into your diet such as decaffeinated herbal tea, which can calm your mind and nerves.
4. Give yourself a bedtime
With your busy schedule, there’s no time for sleep, right? Some workaholics brag about only needing three or four hours of sleep a night, as if to say, “I’m more determined and committed than everyone else.” But no matter what you might tell yourself, you’re not a robot. Humans need sleep to function properly, so unless you beamed in from some nearby planet, this also applies to you.
Whether you deal with insomnia, purposely limit your amount of sleep, or you’re a self-professed night owl, chronic sleep deprivation makes you susceptible to anxiety. Do yourself (and everyone around you) a favor and get eight to nine hours of sleep every night. Develop a bedtime routine to read a book or do something relaxing before bed. The better prepared you are to get a good night’s sleep, the better quality of sleep you’ll have, which leads to a better morning as well.
5. Feel OK saying no
Your plate is only so big, and if you overwhelm yourself with everyone else’s personal problems, your anxiety will also worsen. We’ve all heard the adage, “There’s more happiness in giving than receiving.” But nowhere in this sentence does it say you should sit back and let others infringe on your time.
Whether you’re driving someone around on errands, picking up their kids from school, or lending an ear about their problems, you’ll have little strength to care for your personal affairs if you spend almost all your energy caring for others. This doesn’t mean you should never help anyone, but know your limitations, and don’t be afraid to say “no” when you need to.
6. Don’t skip meals
If anxiety causes nausea, the thought of eating food is as appealing as eating dirt. But skipping meals can make anxiety worse. Your blood sugar drops when you don’t eat, which causes the release of a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol can help you perform better under pressure, but it can also make you feel worse if you’re already prone to anxiety.
The fact that you need to eat doesn't justify stuffing just anything in your mouth, so this isn't an excuse to overindulge in sugar and junk food. Sugar doesn’t cause anxiety, but a sugar rush can cause physical symptoms of anxiety, such as nervousness and shaking. And if you begin to obsess over a reaction to sugar, you could have an out-all panic attack.
Incorporate more lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats into your diet. Eat five to six small meals throughout the day, and avoid or limit your intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates.
7. Give yourself an exit strategy
Sometimes, anxiety is due to feeling out of control. You can't always be in the driver seat of your life, but you can take steps to identify your triggers and cope with circumstances that cause anxiety.
Does the thought of going into a social situation or meeting new people make you want to jump off a bridge? As everyone at a party engages in exciting conversations, maybe you see yourself holding up the wall and counting down the seconds until you’re put out of your misery. You drove with friends and can’t leave, so you spend the entire night looking like the punchbowl attendant. It’s this fear that makes you decline invitations and sleep through the weekends.
But what if you had an exit strategy in place before leaving the house? For example, instead of carpooling with your party animal friends, you could drive yourself. This way, you can leave if your anxiety starts to build and you can't handle another minute of awkward interactions. The more in control you feel, the less anxiety you’ll have.
8. Live in the moment
Other than the words on this page, what are you thinking about right now? Are you worried about a meeting you have next week? Are you stressed about meeting your financial goals? Or maybe you’re obsessing over whether you’ll be a good parent — although you have zero kids and have no plans to conceive in the near future.
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you’ve just uncovered part of the problem. Like many others with anxiety disorders, you have trouble living in the moment. Instead of worrying about today, you’re already thinking about tomorrow's problems. And depending on the severity of your anxiety, you might be stressing about yesterday's mistakes.
You can't control the future, and you can't borrow a time machine and change the past, so here’s a thought: Take each day as it comes. Not to say you can't be proactive and head off problems. But don't put too much focus on what has been and what will be that you create anxiety for yourself. Mindfulness and meditation are rooted in living in the moment and have been proven to ease anxiety. Try practicing for a few minutes a day and increase the duration over time. The best part? You can do it anywhere: in bed, at your work desk, or even on the commute home.
Anxiety is a beast, but it is possible to win the battle without medication. Sometimes, overcoming worry and nervousness is simply a matter of modifying your behavior, thoughts, and lifestyle. You can start with a drug-free approach, and then speak with a doctor if your symptoms don’t improve or worsen. These drug-free, antianxiety tactics can even help you complement your medication regimen. Do what works for you, and know that anxiety does not control your life.