None of us are strangers to anxiety. At this point, it’s almost a cliche to begin pointing out all of the ways that our modern lifestyle causes us to stress big time. Regardless, it doesn’t make it any less true. Last week I wrote about how I’m a recovering ruminator. I’ve struggled with anxiety and stress levels that have lead to some pretty huge implications for my overall health. Meditation helped me with much of this. But for so long, the only answers I came across for combatting anxiety were trite platitudes that often just told me to “stop thinking about problem X so much”. When you’re a ruminator, that is laughable. It’s like telling a sugar addict to stop eating so many cookies.
The reality is that reducing anxiety quite often requires a lifestyle change. It’s not the sexiest thing. There isn’t a single pill that’s going to cure you (sadly, the ones that attempt to cure cause a host of other problems in the process). The following are 5 ways that I went about reducing my own stress and anxiety. Most of them are very realistic, but they may also require you to rethink the way you currently live your life. I hope they help in times of high stress, or if you’re a ruminator like me and are sick of letting your mind dance circles around you.
1. Start a daily meditation
I’ve already talked about meditation in a past post, but I think it can be far and away the most effective lifestyle change that can help you improve anxiety and stress. And thankfully, it’s not just my own experience that can back this up! One study showed that patients who were about to have a MRI screening had significantly lowered stress levels when they were given the opportunity to perform a 12 minute relaxation exercise. Another study which looked at both exercise and meditation as interventions for anxiety found both meditation and exercise to be effective at lowering anxiety. These methods worked both for those with “normal” levels of anxiety, as well as those that were considered to be highly anxious. These are just a few of the studies showing that meditation can be a game changer for people who suffer form anxiety of all types.
2. Find your exercise routine
I think the idea of exercising to relieve stress resonates with a lot of people. Unfortunately, I struggled with exercise for much of my young life. I wasn’t getting the stress-relieving benefits of those runs that my college friends and roommates frequently went on. Now that I’ve found my motivation to live a healthier life via climbing, I can speak from my own experience: getting exercise will undoubtably help with your anxiety. Whether it’s strength training or cardio, studies have found that it helps reduce anxiety. Even walking, which I’m committed to doing every day, is a great way to relieve anxiety.
3. Listen to your favorite music
As a young introvert, I was almost obsessive about bringing my headphones with me where ever I went. I often considered them a buffer from the real world. It turns out, listening to music probably also helped with my anxiety. To this day I still listen to music in times of high stress, and I know personally it helps me feel better. Studies have specifically looked at anxiety in patients who are about to undergo a stressful medical procedure. Patients that were given music to listen to before the procedure reported both lower anxiety and pain once the procedure was done!
4. Take a probiotic or eat probiotic foods
We all have bacteria in our gut, and they actually outnumber the the cells that make up our body by 10:1. That’s pretty incredible. As research advances, we’re becoming more and more aware that our mental health is closely linked with the health of our gut. And the health of our gut is very closely tied to the balance of those bacteria. An imbalance can affect how our nervous system fires and can dictate how we deal with stress. This is one of the many reasons that I include probiotic foods in my diet.
Probiotics, which are live bacteria and/or yeast, have been shown to be effective at helping many people cope with stress. Although we don’t know the exact mechanisms, it seems likely that the reason for this is that probiotics help balance the bacteria in our gut. My inability to deal with stress from adolescence through my early 20s left me with abysmal gut health. From what I know now, that likely actually worsened my struggles with stress. It was a vicious cycle. On my own journey to heal my gut, incorporating foods like homemade yogurt, saurkraut, kefir, and (especially) kimchi has helped quite a bit.
5. Spend some time outdoors
As humans, we can all benefit from spending time outdoors in nature. When I spend an afternoon on a hike through a nearby state park or exploring a nearby garden, I can definitely feel the benefits. Whatever banal thing that was bothering me before pretty much melts away. I usually feel more resilient and focused. All of these things help me deal with anything my mind is going to try and throw at me the rest of the day.
Can’t get out to nature on a regular basis? Studies are showing that even exposure to images of nature can help improve mood and mental health. I have all of my computer backgrounds set to beautiful nature scenes for this very reason. However, if you can get out to a real green space regularly (which I highly recommend!), the benefits are also pretty huge.
How do you cope with stress and anxiety? Let’s discuss in the comments section!