health

Easing anxiety with healthy habits can help make life easier.

By Karen Burge and staff writers at the ABC.

Most of us have experienced the racing heart, sweaty palms, feelings of dread and snowballing worries that are the calling cards of anxiety.

Feeling anxious or stressed when you’re going for a job interview or moving house is not unusual. It’s how most us respond when we’re under pressure or feeling threatened. Usually these feelings fade once we feel safe.

But sometimes anxiety is not fleeting or a ‘proportionate response to our surroundings’, says Associate Professor Peter McEvoy.

One in four of us will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in our lives, so this means we’ll find our heart races and our worries snowball, without any obvious cause and more often than we would expect.

The good news is most people will be able to get a handle on their anxiety with the right treatment, which might involve psychological therapies, medication or e-therapies.

Associate Professor McEvoy says there are also some simple acts that can help you to better deal with your anxiety and make you less vulnerable to stressors.

Keeping your stress levels in check can help you feel more on an even keel and in control.

Clinical psychologist Dr Cindy Nour, director of MindFrame Psychology, says stress can exacerbate anxiety if you are vulnerable to it.

We all have different ways of coping with stress, for some of us it’s yoga and for others knitting. Whatever you do, it has be something that works for you.

In its most recent survey, the Australian Psychological Society found there are a range of ways most of us try to cope with stress.

Mindfulness, breathing exercises and relaxation practices are other tools to add to the tool box, says Dr Nour, and there is good evidence they can work well when it comes to worrying.

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Prioritise sleep

Very few of us function well if we don’t get enough sleep, but research shows insomnia is closely associated with anxiety as both a symptom and a potential trigger.

Psychiatrist and Brain and Mind Institute co-director Professor Ian Hickie says a good night’s sleep is essential to “breaking up anxiety and not letting yesterday’s worries carry over to today”.

“People don’t realise that you can stay quite anxious throughout the night even though you are asleep,” he says.

“The resulting disturbed sleep and light restless sleep is a result of not switching off anxiety before going to sleep.”

Get moving

Whether it’s pounding the pavement on a daily run, clocking up laps in the pool or salsa dancing, those who make a habit of exercise often talk about how it makes them feel good.

Associate Professor McEvoy says studies have found exercise can be particularly helpful when it comes to managing anxiety.

Indeed not only does research show regular exercisers have better mental health and emotional wellbeing and lower rates of mental illness, but studies that track people over time show taking up physical exercise seems to reduce the risk of anxiety in the first place.

For instance, a 2011 Dutch study of more than 7,000 adults found that doing exercise reduced the risk of developing a mood or anxiety disorder over the following three years, even when taking into account socioeconomic factors and physical illnesses.

What type of exercise is best? Pretty much anything that you will enjoy doing – and if you do it with a friend you will you have the added benefit of social support.

Challenge your thinking

With anxiety we’re interpreting everyday non-threatening situations as threats. So you need to learn to question your thoughts.

If you are looking at a situation as being catastrophic – thinking everything will turn out terribly – then you might want to challenge this thought, Dr Nour explains.

“I’m a CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] therapist so for me it’s really about how can we get someone to look at the situation differently and change their behaviour,” she says.

“They may worry that they can’t cope yet they have coped before and will cope again.”

For example, someone might think they are going to be feeling this anxious forever or that they are never going to be able to do things they want because of their anxiety.

Associate Professor McEvoy says he often gets his clients to flip their thinking around.

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“I talk to them about their successes and the things they have been able to achieve while living with anxiety,” he says.

They are then in a better position to see themselves as having considerable strengths and abilities, which they can use to move closer to their goals and values, rather than seeing their anxiety as an obstacle to change.

Talk with someone

Try talking to those around about how you are feeling and let them know what they can do to help you out.

It can help to share any goals you have about your mental health with loved ones, as they may be able to help you achieve them. It might be some planned time away from children so that you can exercise; a regular coffee with a friend to stay connected; or that added motivation to hit the pools for a relaxing swim when your mind is filling your head with excuses.

But sometimes you’ll need to seek help from a trained mental health professional for your anxiety, especially if they have been struggling with it for some time, says Associate Professor McEvoy.

“Sometimes people have been able to manage their anxiety on their own for a long time, but they get to a point where they need help because that situation is not working for them anymore.

As well as providing a listening ear, a trained mental health professional can help ensure you get the treatment that will work best for you and teach you skills and strategies to help you cope with your anxiety.

Manage your stress

This post originally appeared on ABC News.

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