7 Daily Habits That Can Make Anxiety Worse, According To Experts
Humans are creatures of habit, and every one of us has formed a plethora of habits over our lifetimes that affect both our physical and mental wellness. For people with mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, creating healthy routines can be very beneficial when it comes to managing these disorders. Simple, daily habits — like journaling, or taking five minutes to practice deep breathing — can help ease anxiety and other symptoms. Other habits, though, such as overthinking, avoiding stressful situations, or ruminating on anxiety, can make the symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other disorders worse. While people may develop these habits because they ease discomfort in the moment, they often have a negative impact on anxiety levels in the long-term.
Though it's not always possible to control what affects your anxiety, or how intense your anxiety is, examining your lifestyle habits can have an impact on how much anxiety you are experiencing. And fortunately, once you recognize the habits that are contributing to your anxiety, it's possible to make subtle changes that will positively impact your mental health. These mental health experts weighed in on the seven habits that may be increasing your anxiety, and the changes you can make to help.
1. Poor Sleep
When you have mental health issues like anxiety, even simple tasks like getting enough sleep can be difficult — not to mention, insomnia can sometimes be caused by anxiety itself. However, it can play a large role in how much anxiety you are experiencing. "Sleep and eating well are critical for keeping our emotions in check. When our bodies are not taken care of, we are more prone to experience all of our emotions more intensely," Dr. Lorie A. Ritschel, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and Assistant Professor at the UNC School of Medicine, tells Bustle.
Luckily, the solutions to poor sleep or nutrition are pretty straightforward. "Take care of your basic biology. Get good sleep, eat well, avoid drugs and alcohol, stay hydrated, [and] take your medications as prescribed," says Dr. Ritschel. "Don’t let your blood sugar get out of whack — the symptoms of hypoglycemia are awfully similar to high anxiety. In addition, consuming lots of sugary foods, or caffeine increases heart rate and blood pressure, which also mimics anxiety."
Though getting a good night's sleep or eating a nutritious meal may not always be possible, try to practice good sleep hygiene, and eat balanced meals as much as you can to help ease some of your anxiety.
2. Not Putting Your Phone Down
"One of the effects that digital overload has on our mental health is that it causes our stress levels to rise. As we switch from working, to answering emails, to listening to a podcast, to dropping a text into a group chat, our bodies produce more cortisol [aka, the stress hormone], as well as adrenaline. Together, these can work to overstimulate our brains, and even disrupt our thinking," Niels Eek, a psychologist and co-founder of the personal development and mental health app Remente, tells Bustle.
If you're in the habit of checking your social media pages or email every few minutes, Eek suggests to slowly "detox" from digital overload by setting goals to not check your phone at certain times, not bringing it with you on small trips (such as to the grocery store), and to turn your phone notifications on silent.
3. You Turn Away From Anxious Thoughts
Dr. Nick Hobson, PhD, Science Director at PsychologyCompass.com, tells Bustle that "telling yourself to not feel the anxiety, and thinking that you can control unwanted thoughts with enough mental discipline" can actually have the opposite effect, and make your anxiety levels worse. "The truth of it is, nobody has this level of control. Our brains aren’t wired for it," he says. Moreover, Dr. Ritschel explains that, "When we avoid the things that make us anxious, it continues to give our brains the message that there’s a legitimate danger out there. In many cases, that’s not accurate."
According to Dr. Hobson, the best way to break yourself of the habit of avoidance is by confronting your anxiety head-on. "Slowly expose yourself to the anxiety in a controlled way. Take the anxiety and dissect it into smaller elements such that you can rank them from least anxious, to most anxious," he explains. "Bring yourself to purposefully, and with gentle intention, live out the anxiety — whatever it is. But start with the least amount of anxiety, and work your way up."
Of course, you don't have to confront your anxiety alone: You can work with a mental health professional trained in exposure therapy, a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy recommended by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) that helps people become more desensitized to their anxiety or phobias.
4. Or, You Ruminate On Your Anxiety
Unsurprisingly, mulling over every little thought or idea that triggers your anxiety can also make it worse. "When we get anxious about something and think about it over and over and over again, we often ramp ourselves up to a fever pitch," says Dr. Ritschel.
Slowing down your mind can be hard as heck, even for people who don't have anxiety, but Dr. Ritschel explains the best way to break yourself of this habit is to practice mindfulness. "Mindfulness — which is about learning to live fully in the present moment rather than past or future moments — will help you stay grounded in the current moment, be less reactive, and be aware of your anxiety as it’s getting started, rather than you not noticing it until you’re already pretty upset. Our bodies and minds give us lots of cues about our anxiety, but we have to be able to notice them in order to do something about it," she says. "Also, you can use mindfulness skills to notice the things that prompt anxiety for you, and ask yourself whether you need to continue exposing yourself to that trigger or whether you should make some different choices in how you conduct your day."
There are many ways to practice mindfulness in your daily life, even if you don't have much free time to spare. Utilize whatever form of mindfulness works best in calming your anxiety — whether that's meditation, keeping a gratitude journal, or simply observing your surroundings for a few minutes.
5. You Seek Outside Reassurance
It can be healthy to seek support from professionals, loved ones, and peers. But, relying solely on external validation to soothe your anxiety can actually be detrimental. Dr. Ritschel explains that "It feels better in the moment when others tell us everything is okay, but it doesn’t teach us to tolerate our anxiety."
Seeking out external validation can be a difficult habit to replace, but, you can retrain your brain by forming habits that make you feel more confident and grounded — and therefore, less anxious. "A lot of anxiety is the result of distorted thinking — predicting that the worst will happen or that you won’t be able to cope with a difficult situation that may arise. Some people are more aware of their thinking than others, so you may have to really work on identifying what you’re telling yourself. A lot of anxiety will go away if you can stop living in the catastrophic future you’re predicting will happen (and often doesn’t)," says Dr. Ritschel.
6. You Try To Do Everything Yourself
Seeking too much external validation can have a negative impact on your anxiety, but so can refusing to ask for support or help when you need it. "Many of us are reluctant to ask for help, and this might be for various reasons — such as we are afraid to bother other people, or we think we are doing it best ourselves. Doing everything yourself can lead to you feeling stressed about all the things you need to do before the end of the day or week, and accumulating too much on your plate. In the long-term, this habit could make your mental health suffer," says Eek.
"If you feel uncomfortable asking for help, begin with small favors, such as asking for someone's advice, asking them if they can help you spellcheck your document, and so on," Eek explains. "Write down a list of things that you don't necessarily need to do yourself. You will see that people are happy to help, and you will feel less stressed." Learning when to ask for help, or when to be self-reliant, can help even out your anxiety levels.
7. You Try To 'Cure' Your Anxiety, Rather Than Cope With It
"Committing to the goal that you’ll get rid of all your anxiety, forever, is not only an overly perfectionistic (and harshly unrealistic) pursuit to think that you can 'cure' anxiety once and for all, it’s also biologically inaccurate. Stress and anxiety are a natural and functional part of all living things. We have these anxiety-related systems in place for good reason," says Dr. Hobson.
Instead of trying to setting out with the goal to "cure" your anxiety, set out with the goal to develop habits and skills that help you cope with anxiety. Dr. Hobson suggests to "do reframing exercises so that you can begin to see your anxiety in a different light. Frame your anxiety in such a way that your mind and body is actually trying to help you figure something out."
It's not always possible to predict when you'll have anxiety or what will cause it. But, by breaking a few small habits — and replacing them with healthier ones — you'll be well on your way to improving your anxiety.