We all feel anxious from time to time. For some people, anxiety is a fleeting feeling, while for others, it’s a constant companion. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that nearly 30% of adults will have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
“Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and can be helpful in some situations,” they write, explaining that anxiety can put us in danger and keep us on our toes. Experts say there are some habits that can make you anxious, even when there’s no threat to your safety.
When I begin to experience what I consider “floating anxiety,” I try to figure out where it’s coming from, usually without much luck. Could something I’m doing be contributing to my discomfort? Read on to find out what the therapists I spoke to had to say about five common habits that can put us on an unnecessarily edge—and how we can calm down.
READ THIS NEXT: 5 Unexpected Health Problems Anxiety Can Cause, Experts Say.
Even if I sleep in a different room from my phone, I almost always head over to that bright rectangle as soon as I wake up. While my coffee pot is bubbling (it’s decaf, of course I already know that caffeine makes me jittery and anxious), I scroll through my social media feeds.
This is my first mistake, he says Amy MezulisPhD, co-founder and clinical director of Joon.
“This behavior starts our day by bombarding our brains with information, making us feel anxious about whatever we need to get done before we have a chance to get our minds or bodies to wake up,” she tells me. “Those posts, news stories, and emails will still be there 15 to 20 minutes after your morning stretch, first cup of coffee, or morning meditation.” He says waiting will allow me to gather information “from a much quieter place.”
So what should I do instead of checking how many people liked the Instagram story I posted before bed? Daniel RinaldiMA, a therapist and life coach with Fresh Starts Registry, suggests implementing a new morning routine.
“Give yourself more time to unwind in the day and do things like meditation, or maybe journaling or listening to music. Create a morning playlist that you only listen to in the morning and it will put you at ease (or help you dance around the room !)”
Some people are always early; I’ve never been one of them. Born two weeks late, still trying to catch up or at least, that’s the joke I make whenever I stop just in time, sweaty and sorry. In fact, the reason I’m chronically late is that I overpack my schedule, thinking I can do more than I realistically can.
“Many of us, especially if we have a tendency towards perfectionism or overwork, have a hard time finishing when it’s time to switch tasks,” says Mezulis. “We keep thinking we should do just one more thing: re-read that email, check that we packed those shoes, mostly for fear we may have left something unfinished or incomplete.”
YES! This sounds like me. But how can I change my ways?
“One way to try and reduce this behavior is to set a specific time when you’ll stop and move on to the next activity, rather than saying ‘I’ll move on when I’m done,'” suggests Mezulis. “And if you know you constantly underestimate that time, practice building a buffer. If you think it’s going to take 10 minutes, give yourself 20 for a week to see what it feels like to not be late for everything. You might like it!”
An August 2022 study published in Health Communication found that people who obsessively consumed media were more likely to not only suffer from stress and anxiety, but also poor physical health. Bryan McLaughlinassociate professor of advertising in the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University and lead author of the study, said in a press release that the news of recent years – global pandemic, political turmoil, mass shootings, wars and wildfires – had impact many of us deeply.
“Witnessing these events unfolding in the news can lead to a constant state of high alert in some people, pushing their surveillance motivations into overdrive and making the world seem like a dark and dangerous place,” he explained.
And while she believes people should stay abreast of current events, she stressed that it’s also important to “have a healthier relationship with the news.”
Rinaldi suggests limiting your exposure to news, especially negative news. “Allow yourself only specific times to consume news, and preferably not right when you wake up or when you go to bed,” he says.
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What do many of us like to do after consuming a heavy dose of negative news? Go online and hop on our soapbox, bickering with our ‘friends’ on social media. But while you may feel like you are venting, you may actually be stoking the fire of your anxiety.
A May 2022 study published in Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking suggests that taking a break from this behavior for just one week could reduce anxiety and increase feelings of well-being.
Not ready to give up on social media, even for just a few days? Rinaldi suggests changing how you use it.
“Engage in positive interactions,” she offers. “Post positive content and avoid content that increases anxiety.” Maybe you’d like to share this lighthearted list of bee-based puns with your social network?
When I walk around, mentally going over my to-do list over and over again, I often find myself holding my breath. But am I having difficulty breathing because I am anxious or is my anxiety triggered by a lack of oxygen? Mezulis says it’s a chicken or an egg situation.
“Our level of anxiety and our physical state are closely related. When we’re anxious, our body’s sympathetic nervous system kicks in (you’ve heard of the ‘fight or flight’ response). Our pupils dilate, our heart rate increases, our blood flows from our extremities to our core muscles, we stop digestion and start breathing very quickly and shallowly,” she explains.
The problem, he says, is that this relationship goes both ways.
“Anxiety can make our breathing shallow, but even rapid, shallow breathing can make us feel anxious, as the body and mind are trying to synchronize their experiences.” He suggests “square breathing,” which I know is my first line of defense against a panic attack, but which I’ve always called “box breathing.”
“A square has four equal sides, so it’s a four-equal-part breathing pattern,” he notes. “Inhale for five seconds, hold for five seconds, exhale for five seconds, and hold on the exhale for five seconds. Do this five times and you’ll find your anxiety drops right away.”
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