Everyone feels anxious in new or stressful circumstances — first dates, job interviews, public speaking engagements — but situational anxiety fades quickly. If those feelings of fear, dread, or worry never go away, or if they worsen over time, you might be one of the 40 million American adults suffering from an anxiety disorder.
The good news: You don't have to keep feeling that way. While anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the U.S., they're also among the most treatable. The even better news: Many people respond well to anxiety treatment without medication. They find that their condition can often be managed entirely, or at least in part, with lifestyle changes and holistic therapies.
Here are seven strategies to try on your own — and where to get backup if you need it.
1. Keep Your Blood Sugar in Check
Even if you don't have diabetes, skipping meals or loading up on junk food can lead to blood sugar drops that make you irritable, jittery, and anxious. Try to eat three balanced meals and two snacks each day. Choose foods that are high in fiber, fruits and vegetables, nuts, small servings of lean meat, and low-fat milk or cheese. If you have diabetes, take your medications as prescribed.
2. Avoid Stimulants
When you're feeling wound up, it can be tempting to reach for another cup of coffee, but herbal tea is the better option for anxiety sufferers. Stimulants, such as caffeine, nicotine, certain illicit drugs, and even some over-the-counter or prescription drugs, can aggravate anxiety symptoms.
3. Get Enough Sleep
Granted, this might be easier said than done. Anxiety and sleeplessness are closely linked. Poor or insufficient shut-eye can cause or worsen anxiety symptoms, which can, in turn, make it hard to fall or stay asleep. If you can't get enough sleep on your own, talk to your doctor about ways to rest easier.
4. Just Breathe
Deep breathing helps your body and mind relax by lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, relaxing your muscles, and telling your brain to stop releasing "fight or flight" hormones. You can learn and practice breathing exercises in yoga or guided meditation classes, or simply learn basic exercises and do them whenever you feel anxious.
5. Practice Mindfulness
Often practiced through meditation, mindfulness is an intentional focus on the present. Instead of reliving your past regrets or worrying about future fears, you focus on what's happening right now and how you feel about it. By taking just two minutes a day for mindful meditation, you can reduce your stress levels and better connect with other people.
Regular exercise can help to reduce stress and anxiety symptoms, but if you really want to unwind, get off the treadmill and take a walk in the woods. Several studies have demonstrated the anxiety-reducing benefits of spending time surrounded by nature.
7. Do What You Enjoy
Make time to unplug from work, technology, and the general busyness of everyday life. Think about what makes you feel most relaxed, such as taking a bath, getting a massage, fishing, gardening, reading, napping, or spending time with family and friends. Whatever it is, try to do it more often.
Where to Get Help
For mild to moderate anxiety, these strategies might be enough to manage your symptoms. Still, it's a good idea to discuss your efforts with your primary doctor, who can make more personalized suggestions about anxiety treatment without medication.
If these strategies don't work, or if you have severe or worsening anxiety, talk to your doctor immediately. He or she will want to screen you for underlying medical conditions that could contribute to your anxiety. Your doctor might also recommend prescription medications or refer you to a mental health specialist for therapy.
Just remember that you're not alone. Anxiety disorders are common and treatable. There's no shame in seeking help, and nothing to gain by suffering in silence.