16 Things That Can Make Anxiety Worse That Are Subtler Than You’d Think
Anxiety is a tough and sometimes unpredictable condition. While treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy and medication can help, small things can make anxiety worse without your expecting it. If you struggle with anxiety, you may not know that certain aspects of your daily routine may also be setting off anxious thoughts. Small habits can contribute to your anxiety levels, even if you barely notice them — and they can have a significant negative effect over time.
There are many different types of anxiety, from generalized anxiety disorder to specialized anxiety issues like PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder or social anxiety. Your specific anxiety likely has its own individual triggers and characteristics; anxiety is highly personal, and everything from symptoms to contributing factors can differ from person to person.
These certain small acts may not cause anxiety in and of themselves, but can contribute to greater overall anxiety levels and more intense symptoms. Habits like smoking and sitting still a lot might seem like they help you calm down, but in the long run, research indicates the opposite. Fortunately, small habits can be easy to change — as long as you notice what's happening and start gradually. Here are a range of small things that may be worsening your anxiety.
1. Having Irregular Sleep Times
Maintaining the same sleep routine every night can help reduce anxiety, but sometimes it's the anxiety itself that keeps people awake. "Far too many people suffering from anxiety avoid sleep, allowing their stresses to keep them awake," explains The Calm Clinic. "Sleep is one of the most important tools for coping with stress, so when you allow yourself to be kept awake, you make it much more likely for stress to affect you later." Maintaining a routine and regular bedtime can help to reduce the impact of sleep deprivation on anxiety in general.
Always putting off till tomorrow what you could do today? People with anxiety disorders told The Mighty that procrastination in general heightened their symptoms and made them feel less in control of their lives. "I know the things I need to do, yet cannot bring myself to do them because I feel overwhelmed. This causes more anxiety and sends me into a feedback loop I have a hard time getting myself out of," said one contributor.
3. Too Many Stimulants
Staying away from coffee before bedtime is a good idea for all of us, but consuming other stimulants throughout the day, including chocolate and sugary foods, could be heightening your body's arousal levels and anxiety response, too. "Remember, there is caffeine in chocolate and tea as well, and a great deal of caffeine in many sodas. If you're taking in these stimulants often, your anxiety is bound to get worse," says the Calm Clinic.
4. Irregular Exercise Routines
You might not love the gym, but if you have anxiety, skipping it could create issues. "Regular intense exercise such as running can help alleviate anxiety, while being sedentary may worsen your social anxiety," notes VeryWell Health. "During exercise, you release endorphins that give you a feeling of well-being and may reduce anxiety." The added benefit of a regular, reliable routine can make weekly exercise a great anxiety-buster.
5. Over-Monitoring Email
Does your job mean you're attached to your email all the time, even after hours? Do you find you check it constantly even when off the clock? Over-monitoring email can be both a symptom of anxiety and can fuel it, says Prevention: "Are you waiting for an important document or are you trying to never miss a beat? If it's the latter, try setting aside some phone-free time slots."
6. Too Much Time On Social Media
Scroll through Instagram or Twitter whenever you have a spare second? That habit could be increasing anxiety, psychiatrist Dr. Thea Gallagher of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania told Prevention. "Social media becomes habitual," she explained. Even if you don't think you check it that much, it's probably a good idea to monitor your usage or keep it off your phone if you have anxiety.
This is one of those interesting paradoxes: smoking may be thought to relieve anxiety momentarily, but in reality it tends to make it worse, according to VeryWell Mind. "Research has shown that smoking cigarettes may be linked to an increased risk of anxiety disorders," they note. "The effect of cigarette smoking on your anxiety may be related to the indirect effects of the habit on breathing, as well as the direct effects of nicotine on your body." Nicotine tends to create withdrawals that increase anxiety rather than reducing it.
8. Getting Dehydrated
Getting dehydrated during the day or during a workout can fuel anxiety, according to the Mayo Clinic. "Even mild dehydration can affect your mood," they explain. Make sure to bring a bottle of water with you.
9. Eating Food You're Sensitive To
The Mayo Clinic also notes that if you happen to have food sensitivities, even if they're pretty mild, not paying attention to those can heighten anxiety symptoms. "In some people, certain foods or food additives can cause unpleasant physical reactions. In certain people, these physical reactions may lead to shifts in mood, including irritability or anxiety," they note. Don't eat that banoffee pie if it makes your stomach upset, even if it does look delicious.
10. Isolating Yourself Till You Feel Better
Research shows that isolating oneself from others in times of stress can actually contribute to overall anxiety levels, explains the Calm Clinic, even if you feel like you just need some alone time. "Being alone is often the exact opposite of what you need to do to overcome anxiety," they explain. "That's because when you have anxiety, your thought processes tend to become skewed, and you become far more internalized (focused inside of your head). Anxiety is associated with negative and fearful thoughts, and anxiety puts you inside of your head, concentrating the experience of those negative thoughts."
11. Keeping All Your Social Connections Online
If you tend to maintain all your social connections on Whatsapp, that might not be helping your anxiety. "Phone calls and social networks have their place, but nothing can beat the stress-busting, mood-boosting power of quality face-to-face time with other people," notes the Help Guide. "No matter how much time you devote to improving your mental and emotional health, you will still need the company of others to feel and function at your best. Humans are social creatures with emotional needs for relationships and positive connections to others." Make the effort to have face-to-face time with friends, even if you're not doing very much at all.
12. Sitting Down Whenever You Have Free Time
Sitting calmly might seem like a good idea when you have anxiety, but it can be too much of a good thing. "After lengthy analysis, researchers found that the risk of anxiety risk increases as sedentary behavior increases — and, specifically, sitting time spikes one’s likelihood of experiencing anxiety," explained the Huffington Post in 2017. While you may want to wallow, it's better to get up and move around a little.
13. Watching & Reading Too Much "Serious" Material
Yes, the world is in a lot of trouble, but one of the quickest ways to ease anxiety symptoms is to laugh, notes Healthline — and it can be tough to do that if you're constantly feeling doom and gloom. "Try watching a funny TV show or hanging out with friends who make you laugh," they suggest. And no, John Oliver doesn't count.
14. Avoiding Looking At Your Bills
Even a small amount of worry around money can elevate anxiety levels in general — and the habit of avoiding looking at your bills, or your bank account, can contribute. "As you find proactive ways to stay on top of your finances, you just may find that the anxious feeling that comes when checking your bank balance dissipates in favor of control and confidence," explains Money Crashers.
15. Saying Yes Too Much
Saying yes to too many things and feeling incapable of backing out can cause high levels of anxiety and stress, says mental health organization Mind. Good boundaries around your own capabilities can be helpful to lower your anxiety.
16. Thinking Too Much About The Future
You may habitually think four steps ahead — what's going to happen after this strategy goes into effect at work? — but that habit can fuel anxiety, says Psychology Today. "Focusing on future potential events rather than staying focused on the present or very-next-action invites anxiety problems," they note. Instead, try to retrain your brain to look at what you're dealing with right now, rather than speculating about what might or might not happen.
Small shifts in habits can help to reduce anxiety. The good news is that noticing your habits, and how they contribute to your anxiety levels, can lead to lower anxiety overall, with a few simple changes.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.