12 proven habits that make anxiety worse and how to change them

Nervousness, panic attacks and feelings of sadness plague more of us than you might think. Mixed anxiety & depression is the most common mental health problem in Britain, and around 8 million people in the UK have some form of an anxiety disorder, affecting around a third of people at some stage in their lives.

But everyone’s experience of anxiety is different, and what causes people to suffer from it differs from person-to-person. But did you know that there are particular daily habits that might be contributing to your anxiety? 

Fortunately, swapping bad habits with good habits is a helpful — and free — coping mechanism for anxiety. Here are some common daily habits we’re all guilty of that could be responsible for amping up stress levels, encouraging negative thought patterns, and making you more anxious and panicked.

1.  Skipping meals

Skipping meals releases hormones like cortisol to increase energy. This causes stress on the body and can lead to symptoms like irritability, mood swings and nervousness. 

Alternatively, eat regular meals. If you avoid eating breakfast because your mornings are manic, try making breakfast in batches to save on time. 

2.  Drinking caffeine

While caffeine can give you a quick much-needed boost of energy, it’s actually an “anxiety amplifier” that stimulates your fight or flight response, which can make anxiety worse and even trigger an anxiety attack.

Alternatively, try decaffeinated drinks. This can trick your mind into thinking you’re still getting your normal amount of coffee and may help you have fewer cravings.

3.  Reaching for sugar

Sugar might act as a quick-fix to initially calm your stress response, but it can lead to more worry and anxiety as your blood sugar spikes, sending you through that reliable old sugar rush cycle — something that can mimic an anxiety or a panic attack. 

Alternatively, keep your blood sugar stable with nuts, dark chocolate and cherries, which contain antioxidants like quercetin and help promote feelings of calmness.

4.  Eating processed foods

Processed food contains additives, and according to research these ingredients have been linked to linked fatigue, headaches, depression and anxiety. 

Alternatively, eat a well-balanced diet full of vegetables and nutrients. These can improve your mood and sense of wellbeing, increase energy, and even help you think more clearly.

5.  Not getting enough fluids

Dehydration stresses out your body, and when your body is stressed you can experience common anxiety symptoms.

Alternatively, hydrate with plenty of water and drink at least six to eight glasses of water — around 1.2 to 1.5 litres a day. Keep a bottle at your desk and aim to refill it a few times in between your usual tasks. 

6.  Not exercising

Research shows low physical activity is linked to anxiety and depression. This is in part because when your energy hasn’t been used, this can cause your body to turn the accumulated physical tension into mental tension. 

Alternatively, exercise daily to help you feel good and maintain your health. If you’re new to exercise, start by walking and gradually pick up the pace. 

7.  Drinking alcohol

While alcohol gives you temporary relief from anxiety, making you feel happier and less anxious in the moment, it actually changes levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain. This means relying on alcohol will repeatedly set off your heightened anxiety in the long term. 

Alternatively, minimise your drinking and choose low strength or non-alcoholic drinks. Have several drink-free days during the week, and be mindful to avoid temptation in social settings. 

8.  Lack of sleep

Not sleeping enough can increase repetitive negative thoughts. Without the rejuvenating effects of sleep, the prefrontal cortex is less able to control how you process anxiety, and will allow fear to spiral.

Alternatively, get 8 hours of sleep each night and practise good sleeping habits by keeping a consistent sleep schedule, creating a relaxing bedtime routine, and turning off electronic devices 30 minutes before you go to sleep. 

9.  Watching the news

Anxiety is characterised by excessive worry and fear, and watching the news can exacerbate this and leave you feeling moody and anxious. One study found that people showed an increase in their anxiety after only 14 minutes of watching the news. 

Alternatively, read a book to feel more relaxed. This lowers your heart rate and eases the tension in your muscles. A study carried out by the University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress by up to 68%.

10. Ignoring your anxiety

Your anxiety is a signal trying to indicate that you need to change something — so ignoring it will only make it louder. The trouble with dismissing anxiety, or simply trying to “deal with it” in unhealthy ways is that there’s the potential for it to develop into a more serious case of depression.

Alternatively, tell friends and family how you’re feeling by letting them know you’re overwhelmed and accepting their help. You might also want to talk to your GP, therapist or one of our wellbeing specialists for advice. 

11.  Comparing yourself to others

Comparing yourself to others can cause unhappiness, low mood and negative thoughts that lead to anxiety — and the more you compare yourself to others, the worse it’ll get. 

Alternatively, be aware of your triggers and take steps to avoid them. Focus on your own strengths, acknowledge the toxicity of comparison and practise gratitude. 

12.  Too much time on social media

Studies have found a strong link between heavy social media use and an increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts.

Alternatively, have a digital detox and spend some time away from screens by going out for a walk or finding a new hobby — and, if you do go on social media, be mindful of your feeds and who you follow so you aren’t needlessly triggering yourself. 

Replace the old with new

Once you realise these habits can increase your anxiety, it’s easy to replace them with healthier practices. Addressing anxiety by adopting a more deliberately mindful approach and making little tweaks to everyday habits can help you to feel empowered and more in control, which is a great step to a happier, healthier, and less anxious you. 

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