Although we may not always realize it, many of us are stuck in a cycle of perpetual anxiety. Between being swamped at work, juggling relationships and trying to maintain our health and well-being, our anxiety rates are increasing—affecting as much as 10 percent of the population in Western countries.
How can we combat this problem?
Our Busy Lifestyles
Everyone is busy. Whether you’re a single, working man juggling dating, friends, the gym and work or a working mum, busy with that set of a million responsibilities, no one has time. Or do we?
Health and wellness thought leaders are pointing to “perceived urgency” as the culprit of anxiety caused by busyness. Creating endless “to-do” lists, making unrealistic commitments to relationships and friends and trying to cram in too many yoga classes or appointments leaves you feeling overwhelmed and unsuccessful because you can’t live up to your own expectations. Add to that the unrealistic demands of bosses and clients based on the trend of “next day delivery” and we’re all left gasping for air. If everything is urgent, nothing can ever be prioritized, and the list is never finished.
Try This: Instead of an endless to-do list, prioritize only three urgent tasks and leave the rest for another day. You’re likely to actually manage that amount of responsibility, which helps relieve the mental stress of a streaming to-do list.
Science & Sleep
After a busy day at the office, unwinding in front of an episode of your favorite Netflix show is hard to resist. Unfortunately, the backlit screen, the moving digital images and the stimulation of a particularly violent episode of Game of Thrones (for example) keep your brain working overtime. Sure, you might fall asleep in front of the screen, but it’s likely to take longer and your mind won’t have the time to unwind in the process. Wellness pros recommend avoiding screens two hours before bed to help you fall asleep faster and sleep better.
Try This: Sleeping longer is key too. It turns out that your body doesn’t run well on six hours a night, so grab a nonviolent book and head to bed half an hour earlier this week. In a month, try going to bed another half hour earlier, and soon you’ll be getting eight hours of shuteye.
Our Favorite Vice
Coffee is delicious. Sipping away on the dark, tantalizing beverage is alluring for the experience as much as the taste. Unfortunately, relying on coffee to combat your lack of sleep and keep you alert for your endless list of urgent tasks doesn’t help you get more done; it scrambles your brain, making you more distracted.
Caffeine fires up your nervous system. Your pituitary gland then thinks there’s some sort of emergency, so it releases hormones that tell your adrenal glands to produce adrenaline—your fight-or-flight hormone. Your body is primed to outrun a tiger or fight to the death; your blood pressure rises, your muscles get more blood and blood flow to the stomach slows. You’re raring to go, but you’re just sitting at your desk. The accumulation of adrenaline means your body is in a heightened state of anxiety, and your racing heart serves no purpose other than to leave you feeling wired.
Try This: One cup a day is fine—let’s not get too extreme! But instead of starting the day with a coffee, try a hot water or decaf. Then your daily coffee will feel like a treat rather than a necessity.
Nervous System Reset
Modern busy people are stuck in a cycle of sympathetic nervous system activity or the fight-or-flight response.
Think of a tree with forked branches. The tree is your autonomic nervous system (controls things you don’t have to think about like breathing) and the fork is divided into your Parasympathetic System (PNS) and your Sympathetic Nervous (SNS) System. The PNS is also called the “rest-and-digest” symptom, and it helps you conserve energy by slowing your heart rate and increases intestinal activity. The SNS is in charge of your fight-or-flight response. If you’re constantly activating your SNS, your nervous system is constantly stimulated and never has time to rest. Remember: the nervous system originates in the brain, so relentless SNS activation means your mind is stuck in a state of anxiety.
Try This: Clever researches have found that by lengthening your exhale, you can change the state of your nervous system from SNS to PNS. So, try five long exhales in the morning. I’ve also found Bowen therapy—a remedial body technique—has been really useful in treating patients with anxiety, as it’s said to change the activation of the SNS to the PNS.
You know adrenaline slows blood flow to the stomach, so—with excessive adrenaline pulsing through your body—your poor digestive system is expected to work without a good blood supply. High anxiety may be to blame for the increasing prevalence of IBS (or Irritable Bowel Syndrome), particularly in women. You may be blaming tomatoes and bread, but it could be to do with your intestinal blood supply and your body’s anxiety levels.
Try This: Try avoiding coffee and stressful situations (like a meeting with a difficult client) when your digestive system needs extra help—like after lunch.
Make A Change
So many people suffer from panic attacks in the modern age, but it’s not something we should accept. By understanding the nature of your anxiety and trying to lower your risk factors through lifestyle changes, you can enjoy a calmer state of mind and a healthier, more consistent holistic system.
Try This: Every day try 20 minutes of yoga, meditation or deep breathing. Try swapping coffee for decaf, hot water or herbal tea. Exercise regularly—even a walk around the block—and avoid your laptop just before bed to get out of the cycle of being accidentally anxious.
--Caitlin Reid. Caitlin Reid is a physical therapist and wellness consultant. She is the founder of Aprivé Wellness, an exciting, innovative company offering retreats, retreat hosting and individual consultations to help everyone live well. Say “hi” to her anytime at www.aprivewellness.com.