Today’s world is potentially the most anxious society we’ve ever known, or at least in recent times. Sometimes it feels like there is so much constant anxiety and tension that you don’t know what to do to make it stop. Particularly since the pandemic, I have noticed that my own anxiety has gone through the roof and I am always feeling a sense of tension or worry.
A little disclosure – I have suffered from anxiety since I was a teenager. I was so anxious that I was referred to a specialist and therapist and to this day battle with myself. Since getting the treatment I have mostly been able to deal with my feelings of anxiety, but more recently I have struggled to cope. Whether it was the pandemic, or now war and trouble – plus the constant feed of social media rubbish.
So, today I thought I would put together some of the things I have found to work to relieve my own stress and anxiety.
Listen to your Anxiety – and do the opposite.
This is much easier said than done, but when I was at my darkest moment I used this as a way to slowly build habits which broke me out of my cycle.
There is truth to doing something that gets you out of your comfort zone every day (I will talk about some of the things I do to get uncomfortable in a second).
It is important to start small and build. When I was anxious I got to the point that I couldn’t leave the house – even to go shopping when I didn’t have any food. It was so bad I lost my job, stopped seeing people and just lived in my room watching TV. I got to the point where I knew I need to do something – and that included being harsh with myself and telling myself some home truths. I was feeling sorry for myself too much.
I was advised to do little things every day that got me out of my comfort zone and to listen to what my anxiety is telling me, and to do the opposite (within reason).
The theory is sound; when I didn’t want to leave, I knew I needed to leave the house. When I didn’t want to talk to somebody, I started a random conversation with a stranger. Now, when my anxiety is telling me that I am in danger and that I should maybe call into work – I’m like: let’s go!
Every day I still have anxiety but I listen to it – thank it for telling me there may be danger – then assess whether it is real danger or just my mind overworking – then I tell it what I want to do.
Cold Showers (& Sauna Time)
It sounds really stupid, but having a cold shower is a really really great way to relieve anxiety at the moment, and for the long term. The process of a cold shower (or cold pool / bath) is as much a mental battle, as it is a physical one.
For most of us, anxiety is a foreboding feeling of worry about something that may happen in the future. Often times these worries are completely existential and do not have any fixing in our reality. It is all in your head mate!
Sometimes we need to put ourselves into a situation that is much more uncomfortable than whatever it is you’re anxious about. It is why people climb massive rocks or skydives. The rush afterwards is awesome. For whatever reason, I find that doing something difficult and uncomfortable really helps me relieve anxiety (that includes doing the opposite to what my anxiety is telling me to do).
The cold water to start with is outright horrible and you may feel yourself wanting to pull away from it – but the key is to try and relax, settle your mind and do your best not to tense up. Just breathe.
Your body will be screaming at you and telling you to get away from the cold, but you need to practice telling your body that you’re in charge. The fact is, the cold water isn’t going to harm you in the short term- but uncomfortable enough to feel like you’re about to die.
The body reacts instantly to the cold in shock and tenses up to protect its own heat. If you can overcome the initial reaction your heart rate will calm down, and your nerves will not feel the cold as much as they had before. Focus on your breathing and just try and relax your body.
As your body gets cold it starts to flush warm blood around your body and pumps happy chemicals to your brain as a response to keep you warm and fighting the ‘physical danger’. Once you get out of the cold shower, dry off and put on some warm clean comfy pyjamas. You should start to instantly feel warm, relaxed and comfortable.
For me, I feel like my mind is clearer, and I have a lower base level of anxiety. It is the hardest thing I do in the day and I feel easy with the world. There is a lot of science behind this theory but try it and see for yourself.
I often combo with a cold shower/ sauna routine to cool myself down and warm back up in a cycle. You can read about the benefits of that here.
I have recently started telling people a lot that I ‘train for my mind, not my body’. I love to run, go for a swim and gym at least a couple of times a week. If I don’t go then I start to feel restless and struggle to sleep.
We all know that exercise is essential for ensuring that your body is working optimally – whether that be for general health (like heart health) or on a cellular level.
The benefits of our mind is based on a survival tactic. Human physiology works on a system of work and reward; you do something physically hard and your brain will reward you with a bump of serotonin (happy chemicals). It is an evolutionary process which helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors run all day to catch some food.
I find that my time on the treadmill is a time for me to be alone, have a podcast on and just let my brain relax a little bit. I also do my best to push myself to almost my limit while doing cardio and do weights where I need to use force and release my frustrations.
For whatever reason, a really hard session of suffering removes all of my other worries. Like the cold shower, it is a mental battle to keep going. The brain prioritises what is important to your survival so most of the rubbish that isn’t important gets shuffled out. Afterwards, my mind feels clear and I get a nice bump of happy chemicals (sometimes called the runners high).
I feel like my exercise routine is a little reset button that helps to relieve tension, stress and anxiety in the moment – but also for the long term. Since I started gyming regularly, I have noticed my general anxiety has lowered too. The more consistent I have been the better I gave felt generally.
If you’re not into going to the gym or thrashing yourself like a mad person then a long walk does the trick too.
Clean Eating & Supplements
The saying ‘you are what you eat’ is very true. If you eat like a sad person then it is likely that you will become sadder. Other than the psychological effect of rewarding yourself for feeling bad, our gut bacteria can play a huge role in how our brain is working.
A recent study found that the levels of certain bacteria in our gut have a palpable/ measurable effect on mental health. We all need to have a nice balance of different (healthy) bacteria in our guts to help process foods and protect us from ‘bad’ bacteria; if this ecosystem is working nicely then you are much less likely to feel anxious and depressed. We can cultivate our internal balance by taking a probiotic supplement or eating a wide variety of fruit, veg and meats – or fermented foods.
If you’re feeding your ecosystem with processed food (full of chemicals and preservatives), fatty takeaways or pounding down cans of high-sugar drinks then you’re encouraging an imbalance. This type of lifestyle (other than being extremely unhealthy) will affect your digestion and will absolutely make you feel worse about yourself. There is a scientific link between eating high-fat and processed foods and mental health issues. Sometimes relieving anxiety is as much about prevention, as it is about the cure.
The second thing I have been doing is supplementing; mushroom extracts and CBD/Hemp oil.
For a start, I have been learning that some Mushroom extracts have probiotic properties and are linked to improving your cognitive function. While there is not a lot of scientific evidence for the benefits of medicinal mushrooms, I feel that they have improved my general well-being and therefore improved my state of mind. I do feel the difference.
The second biggest change is taking CBD. This is a compound found in hemp which has anti-anxiety, anti-inflammation and other benefits (it helps me sleep too). I have been taking a regular supplement of CBD for a few months now and I can say it has had a huge effect on my life. I generally feel more rested, less anxious and way less tense in my daily life.
CyberFree Sunday & Morning/ Evening Digital Detox
I know that sometimes just frying your brain on tik-tok or Instagram is a great way to relax after work. But, we all may actually be making your anxiety worse in the long term.
Social Media is quickly becoming the leading cause of anxiety, and depression and is driving a wave of miserable people. We’re all now connected to the world, every second, of every day. Even when you sleep (if you keep your phone close).
The sad fact is that social media platforms have become so sophisticated that they can serve you content that gives you a little serotonin bump multiple times a minute – which is highly addictive. The hard truth is: we’re likely all heavily addicted to our phones and we don’t even realise it.
The issue with being plugged in all the time is that you never really give your brain a rest, and you’re potentially scrolling through negative content that compounds your negative feelings or sets off your brain’s alarm bells.
Our brain is wired to see a threat and send those signals around the body – often increasing the heart rate, drawing blood away from your brain and stomach, and into the limbs, it needs to escape the danger. The fact is that when you read something ‘threatening’ online, your body doesn’t know the difference between a ‘real threat’ and a ‘perceived threat’.
Unless somebody is directly targeting you, most of your negative social media interactions will cause you no harm at all. These are just people saying things from their bedrooms a thousand miles away – it isn’t a direct threat. A Twitter argument (even if you’re reading it) or an online article about rising crime can send your body’s alarm bells ringing. And if you’re consuming this for 5 or 6 hours a day, then you will add a base layer of stress and anxiety to your life that flies just under the raider. What I mean is that you may not feel ‘anxious’ but your brain is primed and ready for the straw to break its back.
The cycle here can cause toxic stress which will sprout out in random symptoms; from an eczema flair-up, hair loss, inflammation, digestive issues and feelings of extreme chronic anxiety.
I have recently been trying a few things to reduce the amount of time I spend on my phone. The first one is to turn the phone off at 8pm and not turn it on until an hour after I wake up. I find that it gives my brain time to relax, and a break away from the chaos of the world. I can sit, enjoy a cup of tea, and give my brain a rest.
I also have tried to remove my phone completely on a Sunday. I still use it for music or have it on in case I get an urgent phone call, but my social media is completely silent and out of bounds.
Let me be completely honest – this has been a real struggle and I haven’t always succeeded in my efforts. What I can say for sure is I have seen how dangerous and addictive digital media is – and how much it changes my mood. When I turn my phone off I realise I can focus more, feel less stressed and I worry less. I just enjoy being in the moment.
The thing that ties everything together is sleep! This is the most important thing you do in your life other than eating, breathing and maybe pooing. And wouldn’t you know how many people are constantly sleep-deprived? There is a case to be made for the idea that a lack of sleep is causing the vast majority of issues in our collective health (whether that be mental health all the way to heart health).
The function of sleep is to rest your brain and body – to repair, replenish and reset. Without enough sleep your body simply cannot function properly. Have you ever done an all-nighter? Or had a horrible night’s sleep? Don’t you just feel depressed, anxious, strange? Now, think about how much you sleep – is it enough? Could you be feeling anxious because your sleeping pattern is off?
There are billions of people walking around feeling anxious because they had stayed up the night before watching tik-tok. They are anxious and stressed because they are anxious and stressed, causing more sleep issues and before they know it, are stuck in a cycle of anxiety and sleep deprivation. How do I know? I’ve been there. Albeit before the days of social media.
What to do here is always based on your circumstances, sometimes your sleep deprivation is caused by factors you cannot change (like children, or work commitments). It is always good to get a healthy routine going and make sure to listen to your body. We don’t all need a sold 8 hours all the time, sometimes you can spread your sleep across the week.