How to Handle Anxiety In A Healthy Way
By: Sarah Richards
For most women, occasional anxiety — how you feel before public speaking or buying a big-ticket item, such as a car or house — is a normal part of life. But what happens when you have trouble turning off the cascade of worries in your mind? Nearly every one of the 1,000 women who responded to a Woman’s Day and HealthyWomen survey said she experienced anxiety, and a whopping 81% of them suffered from it at least weekly.
“Anxiety is becoming the norm — most of our friends and family members are going through the same thing. We need to start talking about it,” says Beth Battaglino, R.N., CEO of Healthy Women. What’s more, most of the respondents felt that anxiety interfered with their day-to-day lives. The feelings can hijack your well-being, wrecking your sleep and concentration and leaving you with hard-to-shake nerves.
But these expert-approved tricks below will help you handle your worries when they strike and find greater calm.
What’s Making You Anxious?
Women’s top worries center on thriving at work and having enough money — especially as they get older and start thinking about retirement — and such concerns are often more intense for women than for men. (And that’s not true just for money and job worries: Overall, women are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.)
Why the disparity? “Women often believe they should be hitting the bull’s-eye in every area of their lives — if they’re not, they think they’re failing somehow,” says Jennifer Shannon, a psychotherapist in Santa Rosa, California. “There’s a tendency to want to be perfect, never yell at the kids, keep the house clean, stay on budget, and nail it at meetings.” Women end up feeling responsible for everyone, she adds.
When to Talk to a Doctor
Good news: 57% of women surveyed said they weren’t shy about bringing up anxiety with a health care provider, and 64% of those respondents were glad they had. So how do you know if you should book an appointment? “When your symptoms disrupt your daily life,” says Shannon. If you experience insomnia at least three times a week for two months or more or are having weekly panic attacks, make the call. Your doctor might suggest that you see a counselor who can help determine whether regular therapy sessions or medication is right for you.
Why You Need Sleep
If your mind is whirling before bed, you’re stimulating yourself, which makes it hard to drift off, says Pelin Batur, M.D., an internist who specializes in women’s health at the Cleveland Clinic. A lack of sleep triggers the brain regions linked to emotional processing and excessive worrying, a study from UC Berkeley discovered. It’s a vicious cycle that can wreck your well-being. On top of that, half of women surveyed usually slept less than seven hours — not ideal.
To sleep soundly, try rethinking your routine. Carve out some time during the day to write down your worries and come up with ways to address them. “This way, the issues that are bothering you are less likely to invade your thoughts at night,” says Dr. Batur. If you find your mind spinning at 3 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep, keep paper and pen next to your bed and jot down your thoughts. Just don’t reach for your phone: “The bright screen will wake you up even more,” she says.
The Menopause Factor
Eighty percent said menopause gave them anxiety. Estrogen plays a role in regulating mood, sleep, and your overall sense of well-being, and levels of this hormone start fluctuating during perimenopause. Even if you were relatively relaxed before, research shows that you’re more susceptible to higher anxiety during and after the menopausal transition.
On top of hormones going haywire, hot flashes can disrupt your sleep, delivering another blow. What to do? Your doctor might recommend hormonal therapy, such as low-dose birth control, that can temper hormonal fluctuations. Also, give yourself some TLC, and avoid stressful to-do’s when you feel off.
How to Soothe the Panic
Sixty-one percent of women surveyed have experienced a panic attack — a sudden and overwhelming feeling of fear followed by heart palpitations, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, and an unmistakable sense that something bad is going to happen.
If you feel one coming on, try breathing slowly or into a paper bag, says Edna Foa, Ph.D., a psychologist and director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. If you can’t prevent it, it’s fine to let it happen, she says. It will pass — panic attacks typically last no more than 10 minutes.
But since the constant grind of anxiety can do a number on your body and your mind, it’s important to find ways to deal when symptoms hit — like these methods.
Take some deep breaths: There’s a reason why health experts encourage doing so — it increases the supply of oxygen to the brain, which helps calm your nervous system. Try this technique from Foa: Breathe in deeply and say “Relax” in your head while counting to four, then exhale. Continue for a minute — or longer if you’re stuck in traffic.
Give yourself a hug: Seriously. Human touch releases calming endorphins, and we don’t get enough of them in our lives, says Gin Love Thompson, Ph.D., an Orlando, Florida, psychotherapist. If a friend or your partner isn’t around, she suggests this DIY version: “Rub up and down on your forearms, then wrap your arms around yourself and squeeze.”
Repeat soothing words: Chanting not only focuses the mind but also reduces heart rate and blood pressure, both of which spike when you’re anxious. And the practice stimulates the vagus nerve, which helps regulate mood. Not sure what to chant? It doesn’t matter — “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and Stevie Nicks lyrics will have the same effect.
Take a brain break: It’s easy to feel overstimulated with streams of texts, social media updates, shows to watch, and podcasts to listen to, says Thompson. To tune out, shut off your phone, sit in your backyard, and take in your view. “When you look at the sky, the sun, the grass, and the trees, your problems feel a lot smaller,” says Thompson.
Ride it out: Anxious feelings pass. “It helps to learn to surrender and relax into the discomfort so it can leave you naturally,” says Shannon. When you feel tightness, instead of thinking I have to get rid of this or I need a glass of wine, think I can cope with this feeling right now.
Reality-check yourself: Write down what’s bothering you, then ask yourself, What’s the probability that this will happen? What evidence do I have that this will happen? What can I do about it?“You’ll soon realize that everything will be all right, there’s nothing to panic about, and you’re not going to lose control,” says Foa.
Practice meditation: Similarly to repeating soothing words, practicing meditation can have a calming, centering effect that eases anxiety. Part of mindfulness is realizing that certain recurring thoughts you may have don’t have to make up who you are as a person, so instead of focusing on a certain worry, like being late, you can recognize that you’re having that thought you often have, and allow it to take place and pass, according to Harvard Health.
Do some yoga: Yoga is an ancient practice that has all sorts of physical and mental benefits. Moving your body is often a great way to reduce stress in your life, and yoga combines the benefits of physical movement with an emphasis in gaining mental clarity as well. According to Harvard Health, yoga can modulate stress response systems, which has physical effects including a reduced heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and eased breathing, all of which help with anxiety.
Get in the kitchen: Sure, this might sound a bit strange, but there’s a reason so many people procrastibake and anxiety-bake; it’s because baking really is shown to reduce anxiety. It’s a mix of scents that soothe us like vanilla and citrus, and the rhythm that we get into physically when baking. Plus, at the end you’ll have a treat to eat, which is always nice.
Are You Coping Well?
Forty-four percent of women say they watch television. Experts say: Go ahead and cue up Netflix. “A little bit of escapism isn’t a bad thing,” says Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D., a psychologist based in New York City. But limit stressful news shows and watch whatever relaxes you. Also, avoid binge-watching, which has been shown to hinder sleep.
Forty-one percent of women say they turn to food. Experts say: Rethink the habit. High-fat and high-sugar grub can shift your focus away from stress and light up your brain’s pleasure centers, but it leads to sugar highs and then lows — not what you need when dealing with anxiety. Fight the brownie urge and opt for healthy options as much as possible.
Thirty-three percent of women say they exercise. Experts say: Wise decision. For example, yoga helps to soothe your nervous system, in part because the practice centers so much on breathing. Not a yogi? Stroll your way to calm. Harvard researchers found that even a 20-minute walk could clear the mind and reduce stress hormones.
Thirty-three percent of women say they avoid social situations. Experts say: If you’re anxious, it’s smart to dodge people who don’t make you feel good, but interacting with positive folks can help you manage anxiety. “As humans, we’re wired for connection,” says Carmichael. If you’re struggling, ask a friend to meet you for a chat.
Thirty-one percent of women say they read a book or magazine. Experts say: A good read takes your thoughts to a new place — exactly where you want to be if you’re worrying. “It’s a great way to block out your anxious internal monologue,” says Carmichael.
Thirty-three percent of women say they journal or do other creative activities. Experts say: “Taking time to be artistic helps release what’s on your mind,” says Carmichael. Try signing up for a regular class, like pottery or writing, to routinely put yourself in an inventive space.