Anxiety is something that even the most emotionally and physically healthy people have to deal with. None of us are completely free from it, and certain life events — like a death in the family, rough break-ups, and career changes — can cause even the most even-keeled people to experience anxiety and panic attacks. Whether your anxiety is situational or chronic, though, doesn't change the fact that it can be extremely difficult to learn how to manage it.
Fortunately, accepting that your anxiety is a matter of physical health , as well as a matter of mental health, might be exactly what you need to know in order to get a handle on it. Because many physical factors — including the foods and drinks we consume, the time we go to bed, what kind of sleep we're getting, (or not getting), how often we're getting laid, how frequently we work out, and how much oxygen we're inhaling — can impact how our anxiety impacts us.
Depending on the severity of your anxiety, you may find that no amount of natural anxiety relievers will undo your need for medication — and that's more than OK. That's why anxiety medication exists in the first place. But whether you're hoping to manage your anxiety with medication or without, it's important to know how our physical health affects our mental health. Here are seven ways managing your physical health can help you manage your anxiety:
1. Exercise, But Don't Overdo It
It's pretty much common knowledge that exercise is free (or at least inexpensive) medicine. Not only does exercise build muscle, improve flexibility, strengthen bones, and reduce your chances of developing heart disease and certain cancers; moderate exercise is also a great way to manage anxiety. Moderate exercise effectively reduces our levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, while simultaneously releasing feel-good chemicals — like endorphins and serotonin — into our bodies. Remember, though, that "moderate" is the key word here — there can be such a thing as exercising too much. As Greatist explained back in February 2015:
Regularly pushing ourselves past the brink of what our bodies can handle (including exercising on top of heavy demands at work, relationship or social drama, and other life pressures) skyrockets stress hormones and can mess with our moods.
According to Psych Central, if you make a point of practicing mindfulness while you're exercising, you can be even more effective at reducing your anxiety. So if you can be mindful during a run or strength training, awesome. If that sounds nearly impossible to you, though, then consider opting for a long walk instead and practice some walking meditation.
2. Know Which Foods To Avoid When You're Anxious
As you may already know, diet greatly affects our mood and overall mental health. Candy, anything sweetened with artificial sweeteners, fat-free chips, French fries (and pretty much anything else that's been fried in hydrogenated oils), and processed snacks like hot dogs are all foods that can make your anxiety more difficult to manage. Fried foods hinder blood flow to your brain, processed meats can increase your chances of developing depression (not to mention cancer), and fat-free chips actually inhibit your body's serotonin production.
Conversely, healthier foods — such as almonds, berries, and leafy greens — can actually boost your mood and raise your serotonin and dopamine levels. So while I'm not suggesting you should never order French fries again, it's important to be aware of the roles that various foods can play in balancing your mood.
3. Know Which Drinks To Avoid, Too
Any drinks that contain wine and/or caffeine should be consumed with caution if you're trying to manage anxiety. Though wine can initially have a sedating effect, drinking too much wine can cause blood sugar swings, dehydration, and sleep problems — all of which can make anxiety much more difficult to handle.
Additionally, as motivating and delicious as caffeine can be, it's important to closely monitor your caffeine intake if you're trying to manage anxiety. Caffeine in moderation can be good for us, of course. But unfortunately, too much of the stuff can actually trigger anxiety attacks. As Everyday Health explains, "caffeine stimulates your 'fight or flight' response, and studies show that this can make anxiety worse and can even trigger an anxiety attack."
4. Go To Bed Earlier
Perhaps you're far more disciplined than I am, and as such, you've already got the whole early-to-bed thing down. If not, though, it may be time to work on changing that. I know that going to bed early is difficult no matter what; but when you suffer from anxiety, it can feel nearly impossible to power down your brain at night. Plus, finding time for work, fitness, relaxation, and a social life can make going to bed earlier seem laughable.
That said, studies have shown that late bedtimes can increase our chances of experiencing negative thoughts, low moods, and ruminative worries. Moreover, while it's recommended for adults to get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, studies show that people who go to bed late are generally more tense, pessimistic, and depressed than those who go to bed early — regardless of how many hours they sleep.
So, I know it's tough, but try going to bed earlier tonight. If you think you'll need a little help dozing off, you could try taking melatonin about half an hour before you go to bed.
5. Have Sex And/Or Masturbate
Sometimes, anxiety and stress can zap our sex drives. On top of that, depending on where you're at emotionally, the prospect of having sex with someone new can cause just as much anxiety as excitement. Trust me, I get all of that. But as Greatist reported back in 2011 (and as you may already know firsthand), having sex can significantly improve our moods and help us manage our anxiety. In fact, studies show that having sex actually reduces stress signals in our brains, and lowers blood pressure.
Moreover, a 2010 animal study, published in the science journal PLOS ONE, claimed that having sex can actually cause cell growth in the hippocampus (the hippocampus is the part of the brain which is responsible for keeping stress levels under control). So if you have a partner, go ask them if they want to get down, like, now.
If you don't have a partner right now, that's OK, too. Although scientists believe that orgasms resulting from partnered sex are ideal for stress relief (because apparently it combines both the oxytocin that orgasms release into our bodies as well as the comfort that accompanies being intimate with someone you trust), solo orgasms release oxytocin as well, so masturbation is definitely worth a shot (isn't it always?).