You can worsen your anxiety symptoms unknowingly just by going about your day as normal. Simple things like drinking too much coffee, stress-eating, and even procrastinating can intensify your temptation to crawl under your desk and curl up into a ball. Since no one should go through life with that much anxiety, it’s time to learn more about the most common bad habits that will intensify it, and how you can form better habits to feel less anxious.
1. Skipping meals
Whether you do it on purpose or unintentionally, for some, skipping meals can have a major impact on their feelings of anxiety. When you don’t eat, your body starts to run low on glucose, which it uses for fuel. This results in a drop in blood sugar. And Mayo Clinic points out anxiety itself is a symptom of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. To further complicate things, symptoms of hypoglycemia also mimic common anxiety symptoms, such as heart palpitations, irritability, and shaking.
If you’re not up for a full breakfast in the morning, at least try to eat something small, like an egg or a piece of fruit. It’ll give your body the energy it needs and to keep your blood sugar from dropping.
2. Staying indoors
Staying indoors comes with a multitude of side effects, Time points out, including a higher risk for depression and related mood disorders. In fact, a lack of natural sunlight, minimal movement, and a tendency to depend on tech for entertainment can all increase your anxiety over time. It’s just not healthy to avoid the outside world, regardless of your reason for doing so. Try to get outside — your happiness could depend on it.
3. Constantly checking your email
Technology has the power to connect you with anyone at any time. In many ways, this is a good thing. In others, it can be harmful — especially when it comes to mental health. According to an American Psychological Association report, the majority of adults in the U.S. use at least one social media platform regularly — and it’s a significant stressor for most of them. The fear of missing out can keep you connected to the internet at every waking moment, but in most cases, it’s not good for you in the long-term.
Taking some time each day to unplug, especially an hour or so before you go to sleep, can help relieve anxiety and train you to not depend on tech. If you can, try to not check your work messages when you’re not on the clock. Just because others might be glued to their phones doesn’t mean you have to be.
4. Not sticking to a sleep schedule
If you’ve ever had a hard time sleeping because of stress, you know the two have a significant connection. However, not sleeping enough can also increase your anxiety. Sleep deprivation wears your body down quickly. Research even shows not getting enough sleep too many nights in a row can increase anxiety and make it harder to cope with psychological stressors.
Researchers seem to think this has something to do with the combination of negative side effects that come with poor sleep. Hormone regulation, blood pressure, and blood sugar all depend on your body’s sleep and wake cycle. Try going to bed and waking up around the same time every day to get yourself on a schedule you can stick to.
What to do when you can’t sleep
If not sleeping well increases anxiety, then what are you supposed to do if anxiety makes it difficult to sleep? Breathing exercises might not work for everyone, but start with that if you’re lying wide awake long past your bedtime. If that doesn’t work, the National Sleep Foundation recommends getting out of bed after 20 minutes of lying there. In order to avoid creating an association between your bed and being awake, go somewhere else to read, think, or whatever activity may help you relax. Also, try to avoid caffeine in the afternoon to increase your chances of falling and staying asleep throughout the night.
5. Drinking coffee
You already know coffee wakes you up whether you need it to or not — but why? Consuming caffeine indirectly activates your nervous system’s fight or flight response. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, which would typically help you outrun a vicious predator if you needed to. Too much of a stimulant like caffeine, however, can start to mimic anxiety symptoms — a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms, even dizziness and shallow breathing. If your hands start shaking, you’ve already overindulged.
Try spacing out your coffee intake if you need more than one cup in the morning, and don’t drink caffeine after lunchtime. If you’ve already built up a tolerance, it might take some time to get used to having less. Start cutting back on a Saturday to give your body a few days to adjust to the change.
6. Engaging in negative self-talk
When something bad happens to you, what’s your immediate reaction? Do you just brush it off and move on with your day, or do you instantly blame yourself for something that might be out of your control? If you find yourself doing the latter, it might be time to make a change. Negative self-talk destroys confidence, can influence your behavior and decision-making, and can even increase feelings of anxiety and stress. Positive thinking, Mayo Clinic says, can reduce stress and leave you better equipped to approach negative situations with greater strength and determination. When something doesn’t go your way, instead of tearing yourself down, vow to do better next time.
7. Eating too much junk food
Your body reacts to junk food almost the same way it reacts to no food. Processed foods are largely made up of simple carbohydrates, which don’t provide long-term energy to keep your body functioning. Eating junk food can also make you crave more junk food, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Filling up on these simple carbs may provide an initial spike in blood sugar, but that’s almost always going to lead to a crash. As mentioned previously, a sudden drop in blood sugar can mimic anxiety symptoms. That handful of cookies might seem like a good idea, but you’re going to regret it later. Try snacking on foods high in complex carbs instead.
What to eat when you’re anxious
There are a variety of foods you can eat throughout the day to get a better handle on anxiety. Mayo Clinic recommends eating meals and snacks high in protein and complex carbs, such as oatmeal, eggs, beans, green vegetables, and potatoes. Both of these nutrients help keep your blood sugar stabilized for longer, meaning there’s less of a chance it will drop and cause both physical and mental stress. Food won’t cure you, but it might be able to help keep you calm.
8. Drinking alcohol
Do you drink to unwind? You might actually feel more anxious after its effects wear off than you did before drinking at all. Why? Initially, alcohol increases serotonin, which can make you feel great — until it wears off, and serotonin levels drop dramatically. Livestrong.com explains changes in serotonin levels in certain parts of the brain can affect your mood, and make you feel anxious. So, while there’s nothing wrong with a drink or two when you’re out with friends, using alcohol as a way to relieve anxiety actually has the opposite effect. In the end, it will just make things worse.
The same way alcohol doesn’t actually calm your nerves, smoking isn’t doing your anxiety any favors, either. According to the Mental Health Foundation, smoking may calm you down at first, but the effect is temporary. When you smoke cigarettes, you become addicted to nicotine. The more you smoke, the more intense your cravings for nicotine become. But when you don’t smoke, you experience withdrawal symptoms, very similar to those associated with anxiety. Even though you might assume a quick smoke break will relieve your anxiety, the feeling won’t last.
10. Sitting too much
Sitting is bad for your physical health, but it can pose a risk to your mental health as well. A BMC Public Health study found sedentary behavior and anxiety could share a significant link. While more research is needed to fully understand the significance of this relationship, it’s important to consider how many hours a day you actually spend sitting.
This goes beyond all the sitting you do at home. You also likely sit during your commute and while you work, too. Taking a break from sitting every 30 minutes or so throughout the day can help keep anxious feelings at bay.
11. Not hydrating enough
Managing stress and anxiety isn’t just about what you eat, but also what (and how often) you drink. A lack of fluids might not cause anxiety, but it can contribute to worsening symptoms. Dehydration can cause many anxiety and panic-triggering symptoms, including lightheadedness, increased heart rate, and muscle fatigue. Without an adequate water supply, you can’t concentrate. Your blood pressure drops. Your muscles lose their ability to relax and contract properly.
It’s easy to become dehydrated and not even realize it, so it’s a good idea to make sure you’re drinking water as often as possible throughout the day.
12. Avoiding exercise
Too anxious to work out? Going through with it anyway could help improve your symptoms. If you avoid exercise when you’re anxious, you’re missing out on a major opportunity to make yourself feel better. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, regular physical activity can help relieve stress, improve concentration, and increase alertness.
Exercise produces hormones that elevate mood and decrease the production of other chemicals like stress hormones. So, instead of avoiding exercise when you’re feeling anxious, go for a walk, do yoga, or find an activity you really enjoy that also gets you moving. Chances are, you’ll feel much better once it’s over.
Procrastination happens for a number of reasons, ranging from a lack of interest in an activity to the fear that you’re going to fail miserably. A study published in the journal Personality found anxious people have a greater tendency to procrastinate. However, procrastination itself can make anxiety even worse. (We’re all familiar with that uncomfortable feeling we get when we’re doing one thing and know we should be doing something else.) Like sleep deprivation, this is a vicious anxiety-driven cycle — you’re too anxious to get to work, yet not doing your work makes you more anxious.
The best way to combat this is to break large tasks into small pieces to help you feel less overwhelmed. It typically becomes much easier to finish a task once you actually start it.