Even without a formal diagnosis, you may recognize anxiety’s unpleasant effects: racing thoughts, feelings of panic, a sense of dread, or difficulty sleeping. It may show up in the body as rapid breathing, a racing heart, dizziness, and nausea. If anxiety elevates to panic, it can feel like a heart attack.
Anxiety is sneaky—and all too common. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness in the U.S., affecting nearly 40 million adults—women most often. Anxiety runs the gamut from occasional, mild bouts (like right before your period) to severe, chronic phobias. Research shows that anxiety experienced over a long period of time can have debilitating health consequences. It can affect the central nervous system, immune system, cardiovascular system, and can put you at greater risk for developing depression or dementia.
While there’s no substitute for treatment from a therapist or other medical practitioner, we asked experts to share some tips to help you feel less anxious.
Integrative Ideas for Anxiety
Sometimes a simple change—of scenery or of temperature—can do a lot of good, says Maura Lipinski, LISW-S, CHT, a licensed independent social worker and clinical hypnotherapist at the Center for Integrative Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. By shifting our attention onto a new external environment or sensation, we can refocus away from our internal stress. Here’s how:
- Opt outside: Spending as little as 10 minutes outdoors can reduce stress and make us happier, according to a 2020 study from Cornell University. Visit a nearby trail or park, walk the dog or just wander around the yard. Lipinski recommends embracing Mother Nature—literally. Hugging or leaning against a tree can help you feel more rooted and stable. Plus, a burst of vitamin D from the sun also boosts mood. Low levels of the vitamin have been associated with higher levels of anxiety.
- Tweak your temperature: “If you feel anxious or panicked, a temperature change really helps move you from fight-or-flight to a calm, grounded state,” Lipinski says. When we experience a dramatic temperature shift, the body works hard to return itself to homeostasis, or its natural state of balance.
Try this: Drape an ice pack or a heating pad on your chest or the back of your neck. Splash cool or warm water on your face or wrists. Sip cold water or hot tea. Step from the warmth of the indoors into the chill of the outdoors (or vice versa).
Yoga for Anxiety
Plenty of research has demonstrated yoga’s ability to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety. The practice can pull us out of fight-or-flight mode and allow the parasympathetic nervous system to restore homeostasis to the body and mind, says Michele Landis, E-RYT 500, founder and director of Yoga at Simply Well in Pennsylvania.
You don’t need to commit to a full yoga session to experience the benefits, Landis says. Try these simple, quick techniques to tamp down anxiety:
- Breathe: Breathing is the easiest way to put your body back into rest mode, Landis says. Take slow, even, expanding breaths, making your exhale longer than your inhale. “Fill from the bottom to the top: belly, ribs, then chest,” she says. “Empty slowly and completely from top to bottom.”
- Bend: “Poses that bring your head below your heart will help shift your energy into letting go of the stress you may be holding onto,” Landis says. She recommends child’s pose, downward facing dog, puppy stretch, and seated or standing forward folds.
- Meditate: Anxious thoughts often dwell on the past or worry about the future. A few minutes of meditation—focusing on the present—can help calm a racing mind. “Meditation does not have to be about having no thoughts,” Landis explains. “It’s about witnessing and watching the busyness of our minds and understanding that we are not our thoughts.”
Nutrition for Anxiety
What we eat can affect how we feel, says Jerlyn Jones, MS, RDN, LD, an Atlanta-based dietitian and owner of The Lifestyle Dietitian. She recommends incorporating more of three specific micronutrients into the diet:
- Magnesium: Research suggests getting more magnesium can reduce anxiety levels. The essential mineral is required for maintaining homeostasis.
- Try these: leafy greens, black beans, edamame, pumpkin and chia seeds, almonds, brown rice, fortified soy milk
- Zinc: Zinc gets lots of attention when it comes to the immune system, but it’s also important for modulating mood. Research has found that too little of the mineral can increase anxiety and depression, while zinc supplementation can improve efficacy of antidepressants.
- Try these: oysters, lentils, lobster, cashews, egg yolks, fortified breakfast cereals
- B vitamins: Foods rich in B vitamins spur the release of feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, Jones says. Low levels of vitamins B-6 and B-12 may be linked to depression.
- Try these: avocado, almonds, milk, cheese, barley, millet, lentils, brown rice