If there’s one thing I’ve learnt since opening up about my experiences with anxiety on this blog, it’s that other people find comfort in knowing they’re not alone on their journey. Myself included! When people write to confide in me about their own mental health experiences I feel connected, supported and uplifted. I find strength and inspiration in the courage of others…and I’m determined to offer this back to the world in any way I can.
I wish I could tell you that I’ve found the perfect antidote to anxiety, but that would be a lie. Only last week for instance, I experienced panic attacks for the first time in my life, when I had been “anxiety-free” for over a year. But I promise you that these practices have helped me to change my relationship with anxiety to the point where it has become manageable 90% of the time.
Everyone is on his or her own unique journey and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you…but it might! So if inspiring you to try some or all of the following practices helps you to find your personal coping strategy, I’ll be one happy blogger.
Y’all knew this one would be first right?
Our minds and bodies are connected in ways that science is only just beginning to understand, but yogis have known this intuitively for thousands of years. I’m sure that all kinds of exercise can help to improve your mental wellbeing in some way, but let’s talk about an Ashtanga asana practice!
The Ashtanga yoga primary series was designed to strengthen and purify the mind and the entire body, from the muscles to the internal organs. I can’t tell you how impactful this has been for me. How can a “set of movements” be so transformational?! When you persevere through this challenging series, you face (and, over time, heal) your physical imbalances. As your psychological imbalances begin to present themselves, you will be equipped to heal them in the same way.
Not only this, but by focusing on your breath throughout the practice, you are training your mind to stay present and not to be distracted by thoughts. So many aspects of this practice work together to mould you into a stronger, healthier, happier version of you! Read more about how Ashtanga yoga helped lift my depression on this post.
If we are feeling anxious, it’s usually a sign that our thoughts have carried us away into the realms of “what if” (future) and “if only” (past). So it makes sense that we will feel better if we can retrain our minds to focus on the present – cue a mindfulness meditation practice.
Scientific studies have proven the benefits of a regular meditation practice, which stem from increased activation in the parts of the brain responsible for controlling emotional responses and worrying.
You don’t need to sit for hours everyday to see an improvement. Start small with just ten minutes a day in a quiet place, focusing all your attention on the physical sensation of breathing. Once I got used to ten minutes, I found that I actually wanted to sit for longer because it was helping me so much! Now I sit for 20 minutes a day before my yoga practice using the Headspace app to guide me.
Pranayama is the practice of consciously controlling your breath, which is the source of prana, or our life force energy. It might sound a bit airy-fairy, but science has officially caught up with the yogis on this one.
If you don’t believe me, check out this clinical study: scientists measured the levels of certain stress indicators in participants’ saliva before and after a pranayama practice. They found the levels of some of the stress-indicating proteins reduced significantly post-pranayama.
It makes a lot of sense: when we are stressed and scared, our breathing becomes fast and shallow, but when we’re relaxed our breathing is slow and deep. By manipulating the breath we can trick our nervous systems into dampening its stress response.
Ashtanga yoga focuses a great deal on breath control throughout the entire physical practice – a technique called Ujjayi breathing. But yogis also recommend having a separate, dedicated pranayama practice later in the day. I do mine daily for about 20 minutes before lunch – it’s astounding how it can impact your nervous system so quickly.
If you’re interested in starting a pranayama practice, have a look at your local yoga studio’s schedule or look for some beginners’ exercises online to do at home. Be sure to approach the practice gently and mindfully – if you push too hard too soon you will create tension in your body and nervous system, which may actually cause more anxiety.
I’m nowhere near perfect in this department but I am trying to stick to a few principles when it comes to my diet. These are a result of lots of research, experimentation and listening to my body. I urge you to do your own research on the subject because everyone responds differently to different foods! But there’s a wide range of research out there to suggest the following principles support healthy brain functioning (I’ll do a whole blog post of its own on this!):
Maintain balanced blood sugar (for me this means plenty of eggs, fish and low carbs). Imbalanced blood sugar = imbalanced hormones = anxiety
– No processed food
– Don’t be afraid of healthy fats – eat loads! (avocados, seeds, fish, olive oil, grass-fed butter). Our brains literally function off fat so stop opting for “fat-free” foods
– Eat an abundance and variety of vegetables
– Eat/drink probiotics (I like kombucha and sauerkraut)
– Take anxiety-relieving herbs and supplements (yep, some are clinically proven to be effective! Chamomile and Ashwagandha extracts in particular)
– Eat organic whenever possible – toxic pesticides can disrupt your hormones
5. Get outside
You know that feeling of awe you get when you gaze up at the night sky? Or how a majestic mountain range can leave you speechless?
Mother Nature has a magical way of making our problems seem small and insignificant, whilst also making us feel connected to something greater than ourselves.
For me, stargazing works like a dream. It’s impossible for me to look up at a night sky filled with twinkling stars and not feel my stresses and worries melt away.
Science supports this concept too. This study monitored brain activity in two groups of participants: one who went walking in nature and the other in an urban environment. They found significantly reduced activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for rumination) in the group who had spent time in nature. In other words, nature stops you from overthinking!
Make it a priority to take a walk in the countryside whenever you can; your mind will thank you for it.
6. Help others
Aside from the obvious fact that volunteering or just helping others in general is an amazing thing to do, when you give your time to other people, you put your attention on their problems instead of your own. This can help to diminish the sense of significance of your own worries.
Pick a cause you care deeply about and think about how you could give your time to have an impact on the wellbeing of others. For me, writing these blog posts and talking to other people suffering with mental illness has been a source of great strength. I’m inspired by their determination to overcome anxiety; whenever I feel overwhelmed with my own symptoms I draw strength from the courage of others who are facing much more severe problems than me.
7. Talk about it
When somebody first suggested I go to see a counsellor about my anxiety, I was terrified. I could hardly face my own thoughts in my head, so the idea of saying them out loud to another human being…a stranger? Surely that would just make me feel worse!
Actually, this turned out to be an incredibly important part of my journey towards feeling better. It helped me to make sense of my thoughts and feelings, empowered me to tackle my anxiety triggers and to identify what was making me feel better. It was a safe place I could bring up whatever I wanted without feeling judged or pitied, which was something I couldn’t feel when talking to friends or family. (Not that they ever did judge me of course, it was just the way I felt).
With a counsellor, you can confidentially discuss anything you want about your past/present/future and, over time, they’ll help you to create a narrative around the things that have happened to you in your life and perhaps even to draw meaning from them. Unlike a life coach, they won’t offer any advice or guidance – they will just hold the space for you to explore any issues on your own. Yes, you may cry and get upset during the session, but consistent therapy will truly help you to feel more able to cope with life’s daily stresses and worries.
When I was feeling at my worst I read more than 100 self-help books in one year. Say what! Everything from scientific texts about mental health to spirituality guides; you name it, I read it. I can’t even remember the last time I read a fiction or novel!
My reason for reading so much was to educate myself. I wanted to understand my condition (from both a scientific and spiritual sense) so I could find a way to feel better. I’m sure I gained something valuable from every book I read, but there were a few self-help books that I would say had a lasting impact and really played a role in my “recovery”.
It’s not really for me, but reading novels can be also be therapeutic as it’s a way of focusing your attention on something other than your racing thoughts. (It says a lot about my mind that the only reason I would ever read is to be productive and gather information…learn to chill out a little Nat!)
This is such a personal one so I would just encourage you to listen to your instincts. If you find it relaxing to read a novel, then do it! And if a specific self-help book speaks to you, buy it.
9. Treat yo’self
We are collectively so bad as a society at looking after ourselves. I can hardly stay soaking in a bath for 10 minutes without feeling restless and guilty that I’m not being “productive”.
SLOW THE F*** DOWN. Anxiety is the stress response of your body working on overdrive; if you’re constantly in productive mode then you leave your body in a chronic state of stress, which is obviously not helpful to those of us prone to anxiety.
Make a habit of taking time to do something that triggers the relaxation response in the body; taking baths, face masks, massages, saunas are all perfect for this. The more you do it, the more rest you give your adrenal glands (the ones that secrete adrenaline and cortisol) and the less likely you are to experience imbalances of stress hormones, which can contribute to anxiety.
10. Western medicine
I know, you wanted me to say I found all the answers through natural methods. But when I first encountered anxiety, I had no idea what it was. I thought I was going insane and I lived like that for a long time before I got a clinical diagnosis.
Living in that way made me depressed and I got to the stage where I didn’t want to get out of bed. I started taking antidepressants and continued for about 9 months. While the antidepressants didn’t necessarily provide a relief for anxiety, they really did help to lift my mood and enabled me to function normally whilst I addressed the root cause of the issue through the other practices I list above. When I felt more grounded and confident I slowly stopped taking them and had no side effects.
Of course I’m not a doctor so I could never advise you on whether any form of medication is right for you; that’s a discussion for you and your doctor. But in the name of open and honest blogging, this is something that gave me the mental stability I needed to explore all these other ways of managing anxiety.
Like I said before, I still experience anxiety now from time to time, especially during particularly stressful times in life or when I’ve been neglecting my self-care practices. But with the knowledge that the combination of these practices got me through it before, I find the energy to throw myself back into a routine that gets me back on track time and time again!
If you have any questions about anything or you’d like me to go into more detail about something I’ve mentioned in this post, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. 🙂
Lots of love, Nat x x x