By Dr. Mercola
Forty million Americans, or 18 percent of the population, struggle with anxiety disorders, which are, collectively, the most common mental illness in the US.1 While anxiety is a normal response to stress, in some people the anxiety becomes overwhelming and difficult to cope with, to the point that it affects their day-to-day living.
There are a variety of anxiety disorders, each with varying symptoms, but most involve what can be incapacitating fear and worry. A sense of dread is also common, and the feelings persist for months, even when there's no real reason to feel anxious. Examples of anxiety disorders include:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) Panic Disorder Social Anxiety Disorder Specific Phobias Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD, closely related to anxiety disorders) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD, closely related to anxiety disorders)
10 Behaviors That May Make Your Anxiety Worse
John D. Moore, PhD is an anxiety therapist in Chicago, Illinois. In a report for Psych Central, he explained there are 10 specific behaviors people engage in unintentionally that may make their anxiety worse.2
Dr. Moore suggests "rethinking your relationship with anxiety so that it becomes more manageable," and a first step to doing that is to recognize potentially self-defeating habits. Don't judge yourself if you recognize these habits, rather make a point to try to turn the behaviors around.
Do you deny that you suffer from anxiety? This can backfire and may amplify your feelings. This is particularly true if you struggle with OCD or specific phobias.
Hiding from your fears or apprehensions may seem like a reasonable way to beat anxiety, but it's likely to make your fears expand. Dr. Moore uses the example of a fear of driving on highways. If you avoid highways and opt for side roads, you may soon start to fear driving on fast side streets as well.
3. Fishing for Reassurances
Fishing for reassurance from those around you may reinforce your core irrational belief and contribute to toxic thinking. For example, if you feel anxious about your body image, asking someone "I'm not fat, am I?" will not make you feel better, because the question already implies you think you are fat.
4. Magical Thinking
Magical thinking is part of a family of cognitive distortions in which you cling to the hope that you'll receive an instant cure for your anxiety. You probably won't be able to "wave a magic wand" and have your anxiety disappear, but you can look toward improving and reducing your symptoms.
5. Relying on Herbal Drinks
Chamomile tea and other herbal beverages may provide some relief from your anxiety symptoms, however they won't help heal the underlying causes. If you become too reliant or hooked on herbal remedies, this temporary crutch may end up making your anxiety worse.
6. Thought Stopping
Some people with anxiety snap themselves with a rubber band or other device to stop anxious thoughts. This may offer momentary relief, but the thoughts will return, possibly with increased vigor than before. Dr. Moore notes, "The more you try to 'control' your anxiety, the more power you give it."
7. Relying Only on Medications
Relying on anxiety medications may offer some relief, especially if your anxiety is severe, but it shouldn't be viewed as an exclusive coping strategy. There are serious side effects to consider, and, like herbal drinks, medications are only a surface-level fix, not a "cure." As Dr. Moore explained:
"Think about it – what will happen when the medication doesn't work as well as it used to? Also, what will happen if you decide to come off the medication?
This is why it is important to combine medications with other treatment approaches, such as strength training and talk therapy – preferably with a CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy] slant."
Commonly prescribed medications include benzodiazepine drugs like Ativan, Xanax, and Valium. They exert a calming effect by boosting the action of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the same way as opioids (heroin) and cannabinoids (cannabis) do. This in turn activates the gratification hormone, dopamine, in your brain.
Since the identical brain "reward pathways" are used by both types of drugs, they can be equally addictive and also may cause side effects like memory loss, hip fractures, impaired thinking, and dizziness.
8. Analysis (Psychoanalysis)
Talk therapy that focuses on your childhood and past may offer emotional catharsis and healing for some people. However, research suggests it is not the most effective form of talk therapy for treating anxiety. Better approaches may focus on the present, here and now, as opposed to what's happened in the past.
9. Alcohol and Drugs
Alcohol and drugs may help you escape your anxious feelings temporarily but will likely make your anxiety worse in the long run. You may also become addicted to or dependent on them, adding to your mental health challenges.
10. Engaging in Learned Helplessness
Adopting a mindset that you're powerless over your thoughts and helpless to do anything about your anxiety perpetuates a vicious cycle that ultimately makes anxiety worse. According to Dr. Moore:
"Successful people have learned to avoid the trap of learned helplessness and instead, take active steps to work through emotional life challenges with an eye towards healing."
If You Suffer from Anxiety, You May Be 'Wired' That Way
Dr. Moore stated, "If you have an anxiety disorder, you were wired that way." What does this mean? It's thought that anxiety disorders may result from a combination of nature (your genetics) and nurture (your environment).
For instance, if you grow up in an environment with frequent yelling or abuse, it might make you prone to looking out for potential threats, even when they're no longer there. In a sense, your brain becomes "wired" for anxiety, such that any potentially undesirable event or emotion becomes cause for alarm.3
Worse yet, some people are so used to feelings of anxiety that they don't realize there's a problem and simply suffer in silence. As anxious feelings intensify, it can lead to social isolation, physical symptoms, and related mental health problems, like depression.
Anxiety actually involves the same "fight or flight" response that stress does, which means it ramps up your heart rate, circulation, and reflexes so you're prepared to fight off (or escape) a potential threat.
However, this stress-induced response is usually due to an external source (such as speaking in front of an audience) while anxiety is more of an internal process (such as worrying about an upcoming social event). Further, your brain is actively involved. The National Institute of Mental Health explains:4
"Several parts of the brain are key actors in the production of fear and anxiety… scientists have discovered that the amygdala and the hippocampus play significant roles in most anxiety disorders.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is believed to be a communications hub between the parts of the brain that process incoming sensory signals and the parts that interpret these signals.
It can alert the rest of the brain that a threat is present and trigger a fear or anxiety response. The emotional memories stored in the central part of the amygdala may play a role in anxiety disorders involving very distinct fears, such as fears of dogs, spiders, or flying. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that encodes threatening events into memories."
You Might Want to Think Twice About Taking Antidepressants for Anxiety
Benzodiazepines, such as Ativan, Xanax, and Valium, are commonly prescribed for anxiety. However, antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are sometimes prescribed for social anxiety disorder, which involves feelings of embarrassment or severe anxiety in public situations. SSRIs work by preventing the reuptake (movement back into the nerve endings) of the neurotransmitter serotonin. This makes more serotonin available for use in your brain, which is thought to improve your mood.
Most people have heard of the "chemical imbalance" theory, which states that depression and certain anxiety disorders are due to low serotonin levels. Most believe this theory to be true. But the theory was just that — a theory. It sounds scientific, but there was actually no hard evidence behind it.
Further, in the case of social phobias, research shows patients tend to produce too much serotonin in the amygdala, and the "more serotonin produced in this area, then, the more anxious people feel in social situations."5
Previous studies have revealed that increased nerve activity in the amygdala is part of the underlying mechanism that produces anxiety. Basically, those with social phobia have an over-active fear center. These new findings provide additional information, suggesting increased serotonin production in the brain may be part of this mechanism. Either way, when it comes to treating this anxiety disorder, increasing serotonin in your brain with an SSRI will not soothe your anxiety. It will increase it, making SSRIs a highly questionable treatment option.
Most People Do Nothing to Help Their Anxiety…
It's estimated that only one-third of people with anxiety disorders receive treatment,6 which is highly recommended if you're struggling with anxiety – but keep in mind "treatment" doesn't necessarily mean drugs. Energy psychology techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) can be very effective by helping you to actually reprogram your body's reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life.
This includes both real and imagined stressors, which can be significant sources of anxiety. EFT was developed in the 1990s by Gary Craig, a Stanford engineer specializing in healing and self-improvement. It's akin to acupuncture, which is based on the concept that a vital energy flows through your body along invisible pathways known as meridians. EFT stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations.
This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist. By doing so, you help your body eliminate emotional "scarring" and reprogram the way your body responds to emotional stressors. Since these stressors are usually connected to physical problems, many people's diseases and other symptoms can improve or disappear as well.
Recent research has shown that EFT significantly increases positive emotions, such as hope and enjoyment, and decreases negative emotional states, including anxiety.
Following a 2012 review in the American Psychological Association's journal Review of General Psychology, EFT is moving closer to meeting the criteria for an "evidence-based treatment." EFT is particularly powerful for treating stress and anxiety because it specifically targets your amygdala and hippocampus, which are the parts of your brain that help you decide whether or not something is a threat.7 EFT has also been shown to lower cortisol levels, which are elevated when you're stressed or anxious.8
In the following video, EFT therapist Julie Schiffman discusses EFT for panic attacks and anxiety relief. Please keep in mind that while anyone can learn to do EFT at home, self-treatment for serious issues like persistent anxiety is not recommended. For serious or complex issues you need someone to guide you through the process, as it typically takes years of training to develop the skill to tap on and relieve deep-seated issues like anxiety. That said, the more you tap, the more skilled you'll become.
There Are Natural Options for Treating Anxiety
Anxiety disorders can be debilitating and in some cases require professional guidance, counseling, and treatment. Two conventional treatments of anxiety disorders that have proven to be effective for many are psychotherapy and behavioral therapy. Behavioral therapy is defined as targeting the issue through breathing exercises and small increments of exposure to what is causing your anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy on the other hand, is designed to help you deal more effectively with situations that fill you with anxiety.
You can use these alone or in combination with energy psychology tools like EFT. In addition, get started on a regular exercise program. Some psychologists swear by exercise as a primary form of treatment for depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. Exercise leads to the creation of new neurons, including those that release the calming neurotransmitter GABA, while boosting levels of potent brain chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine, which may help buffer some of the effects of stress.
Many avid exercisers also feel a sense of euphoria after a workout, sometimes known as the "runner's high." It can be quite addictive, in a good way, once you experience just how good it feels to get your heart rate up and your body moving. Duke University researchers published a review of more than 100 studies that found yoga appears to be particularly beneficial for mental health,9 so you can try that if it appeals to you. I also recommend high-intensity interval training like Peak Fitness and resistance/strength training as well, in addition to flexibility and core-building exercises like yoga or Foundation Training.
What to Eat to Help Relieve Anxiety
Another little-known trick to potentially ease your anxious feelings? Eat fermented foods. Nourishing your gut flora with the friendly bacteria known as probiotics is extremely important for proper brain function and that includes psychological well-being and mood control. The probiotic known as Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001, for instance, has been shown to normalize anxiety-like behavior in mice with infectious colitis.10
Prior research has also shown that the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus had a marked effect on GABA levels in certain brain regions and lowered the stress-induced hormone corticosterone, resulting in reduced anxiety- and depression-related behavior.11 So if you suffer from anxiety, it would be wise to look into nourishing your gut flora, and the best way to do this is to regularly consume traditionally fermented foods, like fermented vegetables, that have not been pasteurized.
If you do not eat these types of foods regularly, then a high-quality probiotic supplement can help fill in the gap and give your gut the healthy bacteria it needs. Meanwhile, avoid the many factors that can throw your bacteria equilibrium way off balance, such as eating sugar, refined grains, and other processed foods or taking antibiotics.
Additionally, your diet should include a high-quality source of animal-based omega-3 fats, like krill oil. The omega-3 fats EPA and DHA play an important role in your emotional well-being, and research has shown a dramatic 20 percent reduction in anxiety among med students taking omega-3s.12 By combining the behavioral modifications with appropriate therapy, EFT, exercise, and dietary changes, you may be able to relieve your anxiety symptoms and enjoy life once again.