habits to reduce anxiety

Here’s what I’ve learned after more than a decade of being in therapy or coaching, holding coaching sessions myself for hundreds of different individuals, working with thousands of students in the college system, intimate conversations with friends and family, reading hundreds of self-help books, years of meditation and studying Zen Buddhism including sitting at the feet of monks who had been meditating and working with people for years, taking courses at the college and graduate level in human psychology and counseling and diagnosis, and reviewing a few gazillion research studies (wootwoot for Google Scholar) on neuropsychology, habit-formation, psychological courage, epigenetics, autoimmunity, and more…

…anxiety is something of a human condition.

Like, it’s actually not that there’s this large group of people who rarely ever worry, and then the rest of us worry about things or fear things or ruminate, and we need to get our lives “balanced” so that we can live like those people.

Nope. Actually, most of us worry about things, fear things, and ruminate. There are, yes, some people who just don’t tend to worry or let much bother them. They are the exception, not the rule.

Anxiety—fear—is something of a human condition. It’s the existential dilemma of being alive in a world that is fundamentally beyond our control.

Call it what you want: self-doubt, nervousness, lack of confidence, worry, guilt, uncertainty, anxiety, thinking too much, over-thinking, second-guessing, etc. Really, it all belongs in the same bucket: FEAR.

Yes, there is such a thing as anxiety that is so excessive, so deeply impacting someone’s life that it is labeled an anxiety disorder because the anxiety is causing the person to shut down (and I totally support someone getting help from their doctor and a prescription for medication in such cases).

But in the case of ordinary, chronic, low-grade worry about world politics, about how you looks and if you’ll ever lose those ten pounds and about why you still care about the stupid ten pounds, having enough money to pay the mortgage, being liked, handling parenting challenges, being good enough. I’m talking to the people who aren’t shutting down in the face of their worries, but they are definitely exhausted by them…

To you, I say: you’re actually normal. Since the dawn of time, people have been worried creatures.

Also, I say: our society has some deeply dysfunctional aspects to it that heighten your worry, so I’d love to tell you about three habits to reduce anxiety. Yes, anxiety is probably here to stay—and—yes, there are habits that you can adopt that will reduce some of yours.

How Habits Work

We typically think of habits as things like “remember to brush your teeth” or “a daily meditation habit.” In fact, social scientists estimate that nearly half of our daily behavior is habitual (and much of the time, we don’t realize it).

Habits work on a cue-routine-reward loop. We experience a cue (not always consciously), we go into a routine (not always consciously), seeking a reward (often, the alleviation of anxiety).

So, for instance, someone who feels stress (the cue) and drinks alcohol (the routine) is seeking to alleviate the stress (and much of the time, in the short term, the alcohol works…until it doesn’t).

Arguing with a partner and feeling stuck? Chances are good that when he gets a particular kind of pot-shot in (the cue), you go into your own routine (fighting back harder, or disconnecting), and the “reward” might not immediately be apparent, unless you consider that an argument is about a power struggle. The “reward” of a routine like disconnecting might be feeling more in-control (“I won’t let him get me upset!” or “I’ll give him the silent treatment!”).

These are probably almost never conscious thoughts.

So consider for yourself, how you react when…

…you get the notice that your property taxes went up and your escrow is short.
…your kid gets a note home from school.
…you see that family member that you don’t get along with, pop up on your phone, calling you.
…you work really hard on something at work and your arch-nemesis co-worker, as usual, makes some critical remark in front of everyone at a meeting.

You probably respond to these scenarios in patterned, habitual ways. The question on everyone’s mind becomes, “How can I respond, differently?”

There are two places where you can change the habit: the cue, or the routine. Most of the time, the routine is the most effective point of change because you have less control over the cue (after all, you can’t really do much to set up life so that property taxes are never raised or so co-workers are always kind).

However, it is possible to address habitual responses at the “cue” level if you adopt three habits to reduce anxiety right where it can often be heightened: biochemically.

Three Habits to Reduce Anxiety

Okay, back to this “society is dysfunctional” comment that I made, earlier. Consider for a moment that a hundred years ago, everyone got more exercise, more sleep, and ate more vegetables than they do, today. Consider that a hundred years before that and a hundred years before that, this was also true. Consider that modern society is the only society that we’re aware of where people are this sedentary, this driven to be up at all hours, and this overloaded with crap food.

Biochemically—at the level of how your brain, body, and hormones work together—you are always going to be dealing with more anxiety if you are not handling three specific things: getting sleep, getting exercise, eating vegetables.

I’m not talking about striving to fit into a Photoshopped sort of thin-ideal. I’m talking about habits to reduce anxiety that really add up to basic biochemical self-care: get sleep. get exercise. get vegetables.

These are the three habits to reduce anxiety as indicated by a large body of different research studies conducted over decades (try searching for them; it won’t take long). Not getting enough sleep, exercise, or healthy foods are all correlated with heightened rates of anxiety (depression, malaise, disease, whatever you want to call it).

Point blank: if you feel heightened anxiety, yet you neglect the sleep-exercise-vegetables trifecta, you’re probably going to keep feeling that heightened anxiety. The research indicates, too, that it can even get worse (it becomes a compound problem where the effects of neglecting these three things build up over time).

There’s a lot that you can’t control, in this world, and feeling anxiety is normal. But if you adopt habits to reduce anxiety then you won’t be as impacted when the stress hits.

“But I Can’t!”

First? Yes. You can.

You’ve got to be ruthlessly committed to this idea. 99% of the people reading this have access to the tools to create enough sleep, exercise, and vegetables, and they simply aren’t using them. That’s who this piece is speaking to (and in case you are curious, yes, a portion of my time and money goes towards causes to help those who don’t have access to these resources).

The average person with chronic, low-grade anxiety needs to get their bases covered. Sleep, exercise, vegetables are those bases.

Sleep–if you have insomnia, see your doctor. I dealt with insomnia for years, and it surprised me when I told my doctor and instead of giving me a pill, I got “sleep hygiene education” and several behavioral interventions that I hadn’t thought of. I implemented a few of them, and within a week, everything shifted. Years of insomnia, gone! It’s a beautiful life. And if you don’t have insomnia but you do things like stay up late watching Netflix, it’s a choice to get thyself into bed, earlier.

Exercise–forget exercise to lose weight, and instead, get into exercise to move your body and dissipate anxiety. Exercise is one of the biggest co-factors that helps depression and anxiety. You don’t need to run marathons or become a triathlete. You really only need to do about 20 minutes of exercise that gets your heart rate up, and not sit for long periods during the day. Set a timer on your phone or kitchen stove that will go off and remind you to move, or grab a FitBit that will buzz at you to get moving every hour.

Vegetables–a salad a day. Forget trying to overhaul your eating to adopt the “perfect” diet. Start with getting a salad a day into your diet, and see where you can go, from there.

If you have the ability to make better choices about sleep, exercise, and vegetables, but you don’t? Expect continued anxiety or worsening anxiety.

Reduce Anxiety (And Feel More Courageous)

Much of the time here at Your Courageous Life I’m talking about things you can do to live with more courage from a psychological perspective, or I’m talking about how you can improve your relationships with others.

It might seem odd that I’d want to talk about basic wellness, but I believe in a biopsychosocial model of health. Bio = body, Psycho = psychology, Social = your relationships or the society you live in.

If you want to reduce anxiety and feel more courageous, you can’t ignore the biological side of things. You’ve got to create better habits to nourish your biochemical, biological health. Right now, as you read this, biochemical processes in your body are impacting everything from how fast you read and process to how you comprehend it to what you will retain to your emotional response to the material.

Adopting habits to reduce anxiety that impact your biological health, is critical. When I talk with people about cultivating courageous habits, the first thing I talk about is the step to “Access the body.”

Fear isn’t logical; it’s primal. We feel it in the body, so we need to deal with it in the body. If you want to start shifting something so that you’re not feeling that low-grade chronic anxiety, you’ve got to cover the basics of your biological health. Yes, some level of anxiety is simply the human condition when it comes to getting through our complex, complicated, nuanced lives. Yet we can also do our part to create habits to reduce anxiety in service to feeling more courageous.