Certain lifestyle factors can aggravate anxiety, increasing the duration and intensity of panic attacks, and can even influence the way we think, increasing phobias and generalized anxiety.
For people with moderate anxiety, or occasional worry, implementing lifestyle changes may be all that is needed to live an anxiety- or worry-free life. For those who suffer from severe anxiety, who need professional counseling and drug therapy, these same lifestyle factors are not cures in and of themselves, but are no less helpful.
I will focus on negative lifestyle factors in Part I—on our bad habits which lead to increased stress. You may find that avoiding these factors are beneficial for people without anxiety as well, and for people with depression.
Stress is a general cause of anxiety and panic attacks. Each topic in this post is an example of a stressor, be it drugs, poor diet, the way we think about others and ourselves, conflict, or emotional and physical isolation.
Not dealing with stressful events as they occur leads to a buildup of stress over weeks, months, or years. This chronic stress causes illnesses, mood swings, and unpredictable behavior, further compounding life's troubles.
Though stress should not be (nor can it be) avoided at all costs, it's good to have a way of coping with the stress, and avoiding what stress we can do without. Being aware of stress's role in life can be a big first step. Knowing the difference between avoidable stress (having a disorganized schedule) and unavoidable stress (a death in the family) is important.
What follows deals with avoidable stress. Avoiding these things in our lives can go a long way to reducing or even curing anxiety.
Drugs like alcohol and tobacco give people a false sense of security. The first drink or smoke can make us feel good, take away feelings of stress and apprehension, but the more someone self-medicates with drinking and smoking the more they play “catch up” as the body craves another drink or smoke.
Addiction is a see-saw between feeling a high and being in withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms are similar to panic and anxiety symptoms and so an alcoholic or smoker who is dealing with an anxiety disorder may not realize the difference.
The chemical compounds in alcohol and tobacco are also detrimental. Nicotine in cigarettes acts as a stimulant, much like the caffeine in coffee or chocolate. Alcohol can quickly dehydrate the body, causing hang-over symptoms which can feel like the pounding headache and churning stomach of a severe panic attack.
Poor diet negatively effects our moods and increase anxiety, especially foods high in sugar and chemical additives.
Sugar (and other processed carbohydrates) is digested quickly, and just as quickly used by the body, resulting in a quick high and an even quicker crash. Many people who consume large amounts of candy or soda are familiar with these mood swings. But instead of avoiding sugar, most people remedy the crash by eating again, and the cycle repeats itself.
Overeating can also mimic panic attack symptoms like uncomfortable bloating, upset stomachs, heartburn, and headaches. Some people have trigger foods like greasy pizza or milk. Chemicals like MSG in processed foods can cause migraines. Other food additives like artificial sugars can increase appetite, leading to even more sugar intake. An unhealthy diet can lead to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, creating even more instability and anxiety.
A majority of my own panic attacks have come during or shortly after a meal, and controlling my diet has been one of the most effective means of controlling my anxiety.
Exercise and anxiety medications have something in common. Serotonin. Serotonin makes us feel happy, but when we sit and watch TV all day, unless we're taking a healthy dose of drugs, we're probably lacking this one vital neurotransmitter.
Watching TV and playing video games has been linked to increased feelings of uneasiness, and when we sit for long periods of time we're also more likely to get bored and eat, or dwell on negativity. Sitting too much also depresses the immune system and a slew of other hormones and bodily activities.
A lack of activity also impacts self-esteem. Few people can gain confidence on a couch.
If life were a race, it would be smart of us to begin at the start/finish line with the rest of the runners.
Having a pessimistic outlook on life means starting a mile behind where we're supposed to. By the time we catch the other runners, assuming we even do, we've come farther than we had to, and worked harder than necessary, because we were holding ourselves back. And the other racers—life's challenges—have the edge on us.
With pessimism it's hard for us to overcome obstacles, or to even think clearly about life and what we're doing in it. How this effects those with anxiety disorders is simple: pessimism gives us every reason to give up and not finish what we've started or hope to one day accomplish—healing.
Some conflict is unavoidable, like a project that must be finished immediately, or a major illness in the family. But much of the conflict we face in life comes in the form of drama. Life's drama is conflict that is not dependent on others or life circumstances. This is drama we create for ourselves.
People who gossip, treat others rudely, or lose their tempers and lash out at friends and loved ones only make their anxiety worse by creating unnecessary tension in all of their activities and social interactions. It is important to understand that when we are rude and harsh to others, we will not be treated well by them. But when we are kind to others, we can generally expect others to be kind in return.
It can be very difficult to know when the problem is us or someone else, but typically if it's happening a lot, across many relationships, we're likely the ones to blame—and the only ones who can fix us.
It is far easier to heal in a happy, relaxed atmosphere than in a chaotic and tense one. Building relationships based on kindness instead of treachery is vital.
Perfectionism is a common cause of generalized anxiety and feelings of uneasiness. When it comes right down to it, what bothers many people most is a feeling of lack of control which contradicts a strong, inborn need to have things work out perfectly.
We want everything to go right on the first day of school or work, but there's an uncertainty that it won't, and so we worry. We worry when anything may turn out less than perfect. We fret over the cooking, over the kids, over neighbors and coworkers. We fret when life isn't perfectly in our control.
But life doesn't have to be perfect to be happy, fulfilling, and fun.
The last item speaks specifically to those with Social Anxiety Disorder and Agoraphobia. In the face of phobias the first instinct is to hide, but isolating oneself is counterproductive. The intuitive feeling of running away from what we feel is harmful is wrong precisely because it is just a feeling.
In reality unfamiliar social situations (like driving a car, going to school or work, or talking on a telephone) may be nerve-racking, but they are not dangerous, and so do not require the same response as meeting a predator in the wild would require, which is to run and hide.
Because there is no real, valid threat, isolation not only fails, but often results in the exact opposite of what we need to cope with life. Isolation can lead to an increased phobia by entrenching us in our comfort zone. And when dealing with a phobia, or even worry, the best tactic is to grow, not collapse, even if growth happens slowly.
Tao of Anxiety: Series
Tao of Anxiety: Series