I have struggled with anxiety since I was 9-years-old. I’ve had periods during which my symptoms have been all-consuming, and other times they’ve barely bothered me. It’s always lingering just below the surface though, threatening to rear its ugly head without warning. Major life events obviously tend to bring it on, but sometimes I feel anxious without even knowing why. As I’ve gotten older and researched all of the different habits that make anxiety worse, I’ve noticed that small lifestyle changes can help make my anxiety more manageable when it strikes. Read on for 15 habits that make anxiety worse!
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is the natural reaction our bodies have to a stressful event or situation. We all experience anxiety to some degree at various times throughout our lives – on the first day of school, when we start a new job, or when we do something outside of our comfort zone – but when the feelings are extreme, last longer than they should, and/or interfere with our ability to function each day, it can be a sign that we are suffering from an anxiety disorder.
What Causes Anxiety?
The exact cause of anxiety and anxiety disorders is somewhat of a mystery, but research suggests that many different factors play a role, including:
- Genetics. If a parent or close family member suffers from an anxiety disorder, you may be genetically predisposed to develop anxiety.
- Personality traits. People who have certain personality traits, like perfectionism, the need for control, and feelings of low self-worth and self-esteem, are often more likely to develop anxiety.
- Stressful life events. Big life events, like the loss of a job, divorce, a new baby, the loss of a loved one, abuse, and trauma can all trigger anxiety.
- Sickness. Anxiety can develop after someone is diagnosed with a serious illness, and may develop as a result of coping with a chronic illness, pain, etc.
- Side effects of other conditions. Certain medical conditions, such as hyperthyroidism and low iron, can cause feelings of anxiety.
15 Habits that Make Anxiety Worse
1. LACK OF SLEEP
Sleep has a direct impact on you physically, emotionally, and mentally, and if you already suffer from anxiety, inadequate sleep can make it harder to cope with your symptoms. Getting at least 8 hours of sleep each night is important, but as many anxiety sufferers already know, anxiety can make it difficult to fall asleep (and stay asleep), creating a vicious cycle that’s hard to break. For practical tips to improve the quality of your sleep, CLICK HERE.
If you suffer from anxiety, it probably comes as no surprise to read that caffeine is one of the top habits that make anxiety worse. Since caffeine is a stimulant, it not only increases the symptoms of anxiety, but it can also trigger an anxiety attack. Caffeine also has a negative impact on sleep, so it’s best to limit your cup of jo to the morning, or eliminate it completely if possible.
3. STRETCHING YOURSELF TOO THIN
We live in a day and age where we’re encouraged to over-schedule ourselves and our children as much as possible, which can make us feel overwhelmed and worsen the symptoms of anxiety. Stretching ourselves too thin makes it difficult for us to stay in-tune with our mind and body and leaves little time for self-care, which is especially important for those with anxiety disorders. We’re also more likely to use crutches such as caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine to help us cope when we feel overwhelmed, which can make anxiety worse.
While a sugary treat may offer immediate gratification in times of stress, the highs and lows it creates in our bodies can leave us feeling jittery, nervous, and irritable. Sugar makes it harder for us to cope with anxious thoughts and feelings, and if you also suffer from depression, it can heighten feelings of sadness. Sugar withdrawal can also mimic the feelings of a panic attack, so back off slowly and use sugar substitutes like honey and maple syrup where possible.
As someone who suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, I’ve done a lot of trial and error in trying to figure out the habits that make anxiety worse, and while a glass (or 2) of wine definitely helps me feel less anxious in the short-term, I’ve learned that alcohol consumption actually heightens my anxiety. Alcohol impacts sleep quality and changes serotonin levels, so once the positive effects wear off, it often makes our symptoms of anxiety worse.
Like alcohol, nicotine provides immediate relief from feelings of anxiety, but studies show that it can actually worsen anxiety over time. It’s also very bad for your physical health, so take steps to cut it out of your life once and for all.
7. LACK OF PHYSICAL EXERCISE
If you’re on the hunt for a list of habits that make anxiety worse so you can make lifestyle changes to help improve your symptoms, consider your level of physical activity. Exercise decreases our stress hormones and releases feel-good endorphins, providing a boost in both our physical and mental health. So if you’re not exercising, it’s time to start! Commit to getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day and see if it improves your symptoms. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised!
We all know H2O does the body good. From keeping us hydrated so we feel energized, to flushing out toxins and improving our complexion, to boosting our immune systems, water is where it’s at, but what few people realize is that dehydration can make the symptoms of anxiety worse. When you don’t drink enough water, your heart starts racing and you begin to feel sick and light-headed, which can make you feel as though you’re having an anxiety attack. Make sure to drink at least 8-ounces of water per day, and invest in a fruit infuser water bottle to add a little kick to your H2O.
9. LOW CALORIE DIETS
While cutting back on calories definitely helps us in the weight loss department, extreme dieting is one of many surprising habits that make anxiety worse. Under-eating puts undue stress on your body, making it difficult to function and leaving you feeling moody and light-headed. Make sure you’re consuming the right amount of calories for your body type and level of activity, and focus on good-for-you superfoods over empty calories that are high in sugar.
10. LOW CARB DIETS
In addition to low calorie diets, low carb diets can also be detrimental to your mental well-being. Carbohydrates are our bodies main source of energy, and while they’ve definitely gotten a bad rap in recent years, not all carbs are created equal. Complex carbs, like low-fat yogurt, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains fuel our bodies without the highs and lows of simple carbs. Complex carbs also increase serotonin levels in our brains, which boosts our mood and decreases feelings of anxiety.
11. LACK OF VITAMIN D
Vitamin D is known to prevent heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, cancer, and weight gain, and can also have a positive impact on our mood. Many of us are deficient in Vitamin D, and if you suffer from anxiety, it’s particularly important to ensure you are getting enough Vitamin D to help moderate your symptoms. Try to spend more time outdoors, open blinds and curtains when you can, and pop vitamin D on the daily. If that doesn’t do the trick, talk to your doctor about investing in a SAD lamp – an artificial mood light that supposedly helps you wake up and makes you happier throughout the day.
Of all the habits that make anxiety worse, avoidance is perhaps the most surprising. If you know that certain people or situations make you feel anxious and nervous, it may seem like common sense to avoid those things. What few people realize is that escape/avoidance behaviors actually maintain and intensify anxiety over time. Exposure Therapy (ET), in which a therapist works with you to break down specific anxiety-provoking situations into several, smaller fears can help. The idea is to expose yourself to each situation – starting with the one that causes the least amount of fear first – and stay within the fear-inducing situation until your anxiety has come down.
13. ISOLATING YOURSELF
While the idea of a quiet evening or weekend alone at home can seem like heavenly bliss – especially when you suffer from social anxiety – isolating yourself from others can actually make your symptoms worse instead of better. Social support and interaction is important for so many reasons, and spending significant time alone with your anxious thoughts can actually perpetuate your anxiety.
14. LACK OF OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS
If you’re a fan of fatty fish like salmon and tuna, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and plant oils, you’ll be happy to know that omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have positive effects on the symptoms of anxiety. If you’re not sure if you’re getting enough omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, talk to your doctor about supplements to see if they are recommended and safe for you.
15. SOCIAL MEDIA
The final item on my list of habits that make anxiety worse is one many of us are guilty of: spending too much time on social media. While Facebook and Instagram help us stay connected to the ones we love as well as those we aspire to become, it can also be quite damaging. While I’ve definitely seen a shift in people sharing more honest and raw glimpses into their lives without filters and photoshopped pictures, that still seems to be the exception rather than the rule. If you struggle with body image and self-confidence, and have low feelings of self-worth, be mindful of who you follow on Instagram and Facebook and don’t be afraid to take a break from social media when needed.
I hope this list of habits that make anxiety worse helps you see beyond your symptoms and identify which lifestyle changes you need to make in order to keep your anxiety under control.