Reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Anxiety can take over your life. When you struggle with constant fear and worry about things, it makes it difficult to do normal, everyday tasks. And asking for help can seem a huge obstacle too.
Fortunately, help is available. There are things you can do today to begin taking your life back. And when you’re ready, a doctor or therapist can provide more help.
Anxiety affects some 40 million adults in the United States, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. That’s about 18 percent, or nearly one-in-five. Despite this prevalence less than half seek help.
The broad term “anxiety” may be applied to several different disorders including: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety, and separation anxiety, to name a few.
But generally speaking, anxiety is disproportionate worry or concern about some potential occurrence in the future.
This stress can cause you to avoid situations that you believe cause your panic, and your job and relationships can ultimately be affected.
Fortunately, anxiety is treatable. And asking for help is the first step. But there are many things you can do on your own to help your anxiety.
Following are some of the things you can do alone or with the help of a medical or psychological professional.
There is a long list of medications that may be used to treat anxiety. A doctor will know best which one might be right for you, given your symptoms and medical history.
However, one class of drugs is generally considered the first-line or go-to treatment: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.
Common SSSRIs include Celexa® (citalopram), Lexapro® (escitalopram), Paxil® (paroxetine), and Zoloft® (sertraline), among others.
SSRIs take a few weeks to begin working and may initially worsen your anxiety as your body gets accustomed to the medicine. But after the first few weeks, these effects generally subside.
Psychotherapy is a mainstay in the treatment of anxiety, and can be used in conjunction with medication and other treatment methods. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, in particular has proven quite effective in helping people manage their anxiety symptoms. In fact, people suffering from anxiety who use CBT have better outcomes than those who don’t, and this has been proven out in multiple studies.
Being inactive is a risk factor for numerous physical disorders, but also psychological problems, including anxiety and major depressive disorder. These conditions can create a vicious cycle, because it’s hard to find motivation when you’re struggling with anxiety.
However, research has indicated that regular physical activity is associated with decreased prevalence of anxiety, panic episodes, and even phobias.
And some research has found that patients suffering from anxiety see lessened symptoms when exercise is part of their treatment protocol.
Exercise can also boost your confidence and self-esteem, and feel empowering, all of which can have a positive effect on anxiety.
Current clinical recommendations suggest walking for 60 minutes, or running for 20 minutes to a half hour, at least four times a week. But the important thing is that you get moving and create the new habit.
The relationship between diet and anxiety is a complex one. It’s established — and you likely know it to be true — that our diet often turns to processed and unhealthy foods when we’re anxious or depressed.
And some, albeit small, evidence exists that “Western diets” filled with processed meats, sugars, sodas, and other junk foods, are associated with increased likelihood of anxiety.
We do know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your diet plays a huge role in your overall health. So it stands to reason this would extend to your mental health.
Scientists therefore recommend adopting a healthy diet for bettering general mental health.
This includes cutting sweetened beverages and caffeine, two things that have actually been shown to affect anxiety and depression.
You likely know that a lack of sleep can leave you grumpy and not on your A-game, but not getting enough sleep can also leave you more prone to anxiety.
Sleep is needed to replenish the neurotransmitters in your brain responsible for mood regulation.
Without high quality sleep, every night, you’re operating at a disadvantage.
In fact, some researchers have found that people who are sleep-deprived are more likely to view neutral images as negative, making everyday items “seem more menacing,” contributing to increased anxiety.
The words “menacing everyday items” may sound odd to someone who’s never suffered with anxiety, but for those who have, the concept is familiar.
Stress can be a significant trigger for anxiety, and finding ways to relax or counteract the stressors of daily life can be part of an effective treatment protocol.
Avoiding stressors is perhaps the easiest solution, but it isn’t always possible. If your job is a source of stress, but there aren’t other opportunities on the horizon, you have to learn to manage the stress rather than remove the stressor.
Breathing exercises, mindfulness, meditation, and yoga are good examples of effective stress-reduction techniques that can also help with anxiety.
These practices require you to focus on something other than what causes you stress, and can provide real perspective and a roadblock to your racing, anxious mind.
There is also evidence that meditation and breathing exercises can increase serotonin levels after just 20 minutes.
If you smoke or drink alcohol, your habits could be contributing to your anxiety.
This is due, in part, to your body being in a constant state of withdrawal marked by periodic intoxications.
In other words, between your last cigarette and your next one, or your last drink and your next one, your body is experiencing chemical effects of withdrawal.
While you might think drinking and/or smoking helps ease your stress and anxiety, the opposite is true. Both can predispose people to anxiety.
And while people with anxiety are just as likely as those without to want to quit smoking, they’re less likely to actually try, indicating their anxiety can make the habit more severe.
When it comes to treating your anxiety, there are several steps you can take today. Getting better, more consistent sleep, eating a healthy diet, practicing stress-reduction techniques, exercising and quitting unhealthy habits can all impact your anxiety symptoms.
Reaching out for help from professionals — for therapy or medication — can supercharge your efforts.
The bottom line: you don’t have to continue to suffer in silence. Millions of people struggle with anxiety, but help is available.
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Dr. Vicky Davis is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 20 years of experience in clinical practice, leadership and education.
Dr. Davis' expertise include direct patient care and many years working in clinical research to bring evidence-based care to patients and their families.
She is also an active member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.