How can we beat back stress and anxiety when they can feel so overwhelming? Stress and anxiety have been the topic of thousands of research articles, books, workbooks, videos, and blog posts.
Read this book, remember this acronym, do this ritual, drink this tea, take this supplement. It can be hard to wade through all the information. Knowing which steps to take–to know which new habits are worth the time and energy investment, can be a challenge.
The research available to us poses several useful interventions. These interventions consistently surface across a variety of books, articles, research trials, and from experts and coaches.
This post provides a list of some of the most useful interventions backed by research, at a glance! Choose one, choose five, choose them all, whatever works for you.
Like many health challenges we face, there are no single silver bullet solutions. Combine healthy habits for increased effectiveness.
As always, consult with your healthcare provider if you are experiencing any symptom that is interfering with your ability to function, your quality of life, or that presents as a danger to yourself or others. This post is for informational purposes. It is NOT a substitute for professional help. The CDC provides a list of resources that can be helpful for those with severe depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
Stress and anxiety research-backed interventions at a glance!
- Sleep management: most people need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Ideally, at least 2 of those hours occur before midnight. Poor sleep is associated with depression and mood disorders. If you want research-backed tips on improving sleep, see my post on my experience overcoming a serious and prolonged personal bout of insomnia!
- Mindfulness meditation practice (guided or silent, the target of 10-20 min per day) may improve sleep, reduce anxiety, and improve immune response. A great free site with 3 min options all the way up to 45 min options is here.
- Positive social interactions scattered throughout each day can induce oxytocin release, which in turn lowers stress hormones and counters our stress response.
- An exercise routine 5-7 days per week, including both cardio and resistance training, can significantly improve mood. Exercise in natural outdoor settings during daylight, such as walking outdoors, can be particularly helpful for mood.
Food & mood: eat well to feel well!
- Eating a Mediterranean-style diet: these diets lower inflammation levels in the body and brain, and some research shows these diets can improve mood. Mediterranean diets are rich in:
- Minimally processed foods including legumes, beans, vegetables, whole grains, some fruit, limited olive oil, and lean protein sources.
- Provide omega 3 fatty acids through consumption of fish, nuts and seeds. Algae oil supplements provide a plant-based alternative source for the omega 3 fatty acids found in fish–EPA/ DHA. Look for supplements that are GMP certified or NSF certified.
- Emphasize plants over animal-based foods. Minimize cheese and dairy (consider the use of soy milk as an accepted dairy alternative). Limit eggs to 2-3 eggs total per week, if at all. Limit fish to 3 oz three times a week or skip altogehter. Reduce meat to small portions (such as 2 oz) a few times a week, or eliminate altogether.
- Learn some no-meat meal entrees. Examples include a variety of bean-based chilis, meat-free soft whole-grain taco wraps with brown rice, beans, veggies, salsa, whole grain pasta w/ veggies, and countless other options. Shift towards consuming these meal options more frequently than meat-based entrees.
- Vegetarian and vegan diets require supplementation with vitamin B12 and often, 1,000 – 2000 IU vitamin D (or as prescribed by provider) daily. Vitamin B12 is a must!
- Vegans and vegetarians may consider adding an algae oil supplement to obtain DHA/ EPA omega 3 fatty acids.
- Vegetarians, vegans, those on a calorie restricted diet: may consider a low dose multivitamin (with most nutrients provided at around 100% or less of the required daily value).
It’s not the meat, dairy, and fish…
- Health improvements found with the Mediterranean diet more strongly correlate to the amount of plant-foods consumed according to research. In other words, the benefits appear to be due to the plant-based foods and in spite of the fish, dairy, or meat.
- For more information on benefits of a vegan diet, as well as myths and misconceptions about vegan diets, see my post Plant-based Diets Myths and Answers.
Expand beyond yourself: explore how YOU can make a positive difference in the lives of others!
- Purpose-driven activities and goals are linked to improved mood, lower anxiety, and an improved sense of life satisfaction. Options include volunteering, giving to a cause you believe in, working towards a positive goal to motivate yourself and inspire others around you, among others.
- Altruism– giving to those who can not repay you/ helping others without expecting something in return has been linked to lower rates of mortality, improved happiness, and lower anxiety.
Garbage in, garbage out, so–change it!
- Positive messaging to counter the current widespread negative influences–positive affirmations are useful according to research in improving adherence to goals and healthy behaviors. See the list of uplifting/motivational books, podcasts, or documentaries below.
- Daily personal positive affirmations: written and/ or said aloud (such as when driving) in the present tense. “I am strong” “I am healthy and lean and fit” “I learn quickly and easily” “I learn from mistakes and become better” “I make wise decisions in my life,” etc. The more you say or write these things, the more real they become for you. How you think about yourself, and think about your potential, influences choices you make. Choices you make influence outcomes you experience.
- Avoidance of harmful substances such as alcohol in excess (avoid amounts greater than 1 drink per day for women and greater than 2 per day for men). Avoiding tobacco and other harmful substances are useful strategies in lowering mood suppressing inflammation.
- Ditch the porn? A discussion of trading out harmful media for helpful media would be incomplete without mentioning porn. New sex partners are powerful stimulants of the pleasure hormone dopamine. Over-stimulation of these receptors thanks to porn consumption appears to down regulate the pleasure centers in our brains. I cover the fascinating research in my post How Porn is Wrecking Your Sex Life! (and more): Current Research.
Stress and anxiety? See the light!
- Natural daylight exposure when possible up to 1 hour per day ideally, and ideally in the morning (helpful for our mood, as well as for our internal clocks and sleep cycle rhythms according to research). More is better. However, an hour is a reasonable goal as it can be combined with a morning walk outdoors.
- Spiritual/faith practice: those who actively practice a religious faith report a higher sense of wellbeing and generally higher health per research.
- Gratitude practice: write in a journal or give thanks for 3 things or more daily (look hard–chances are, we have some things each day to be grateful for, even on bad days—do you have food, drink, shelter, clothes, etc? Focus on even small things!). Early research has linked gratitude journaling to improved heart rate variability and lower inflammatory markers in the blood. Not surprisingly, this habit also created a greater general sense of gratitude.
All work and no play…
- Work/ life balance: total hours spent working per week should be kept to less than 55 hours weekly as a rule. According to a study released by the World Health Organization, work hours exceeding this amount were associated with increased risk of heart disease and premature death.
Mind your health: talk to your healthcare provider!
- Medical management may be necessary for anxiety disorders, depression, and various other mood disorders. Our brains are organs too! Sometimes we need help with our hearts, blood pressure, various medical conditions…our brain is no different in that respect. Coordinate with your health care provider when mood disruptions interfere with work, quality of life, and/ or daily function.
“Are you a ‘glass half empty’ or ‘glass half full’ type of person…”
- Cultivating an optimistic mindset: Researchers note that we can learn an optimistic mindset. Optimism has been linked to improved physical health and improved stress coping skills. Those who have an optimistic mindset are more likely to adopt health-promoting behaviors according to research. Suggested tactics for cultivating optimism have already been noted above. These include:
- Reduction of negative media consumption, replace with more positive media sources (motivational podcasts, shows, documentaries, books, etc).
- Positive affirmations
- Gratitude journaling
- Performing acts of kindness
- Acknowledge the positive and the negatives in life. Accept what you can control / influence, and also accept what you can not control or influence.
Stress and anxiety: acceptance over resistance
- Accept stress as a natural by-product of a life full of meaning. We feel “stress” because we care about things. We care about our job security, our family, our health, and our performance at work. Goals, and a variety of other things may also generate emotions. Because we care, we seek to protect these things against threats. This creates a natural tension within. Rather than seeing stress as an “enemy,” recognize that:
- Short-term stress boosts immunity, task performance, and mental clarity. The hormones released can boost motivation to take action, and a desire to connect with others whom we trust.
- Breaking stress up into waves by using the above techniques can prevent acute stress from becoming chronic stress.
- Positive interactions with others counter these stress hormones. Stress can lead us to seek out emotional support. Turns out, this is by design. Positive social interactions can lower stress hormones back to baseline thanks to counter actions of oxytocin. We were designed to solve problems in teams/ tribes/ families!
Emotions can help us! Learn, then move forward.
- Accept negative emotions and thoughts. Negative emotions and thoughts are a part of life because they can serve a purpose. Habitual acceptance of our thoughts and emotions has been linked to lower overall negativity. Additionally, this habit leads to an improved sense of wellbeing, less depressive symptoms, and over better psychological health.
- Hurt, shame, regret, fear, sadness, anger–these can all serve as signals for us. They can prompt us to evaluate a circumstance, situation, a prior course of action. Or, they may lead us to evaluate potential barriers to a desired course of action.
- As we accept these emotions, we can next evaluate our options. We can collaborate with our social support systems (social supports that aide in problem solving as opposed to rumination and victim mentalities). We can next determine what positive steps we wish to take moving forward.
- Once the emotion has stimulated meaningful learning and, if necessary, actions, let it go. It has served its purpose.
- Acceptance of thoughts, feelings, and emotions as they come and go is a cornerstone of mindful meditation practices.
Drink away your stress and anxiety? Lemon balm, tulsi tea and other mint herbs
In my post Wired for Success! Brain and Nerve Nootropics, I cover fascinating human research concerning tulsi tea (Holy Basil) and lemon balm, as well as other members of the mint family.
Numerous herbs found in the mint family in addition to tulsi and lemon balm (such as sage, spearmint, peppermint, and rosemary) all appear to have anti-inflammatory and nerve protecting properties. Human trials (which I cite in the linked post above) repeatedly find nerve-enhancing effects such as decreased anxiety, improved sleep, improved memory and cognition, among other effects.
Will tea alone turn you into a tranquil monk? Probably not, but it is a tasty way to compliment practices described in this post. While these herbs are generally safe, do not exceed recommended amounts, and talk with your healthcare provider if you are on medications, have health conditions, or are pregnant.
Stress and anxiety research summary
There are many, MANY habits you can cultivate to help you cope with the stressors you face in life. When you think about how many people feel stressed and burnt out…how many of them truly exercise most days of the week?
How many of them eat plant-based? Gratitude journaling, intentionally cultivating optimism, getting 7-9 hours of sleep…are your stressed-out friends and family members doing these things? What about you?
How about selecting motivational books, podcasts, and documentaries instead of the media trash that is so readily available…
If our current habits are not leading us to feel our best, why not try replacing them with healthier alternatives? Negative emotions, negative feelings, and stress are all a part of life. They can serve as fuel to teach us lessons, to prompt self-exploration and self-development, and can motivate positive action.
The power to tame stress and anxiety, and use it to our advantage lies within us and the choices/ habits we make every day. Try some of these out, and live well!!!
My favorite podcasts for boosting my mood, motivation, and confidence are here:
Motivation Daily by Motiversity: this is a powerful, motivating podcast with nearly daily updates. Featured speakers overcame poverty, abusive relationships, learning disabilities, and other adversities to become doctors, NBA players, successful entrepreneurs, etc. They share their mindsets and habits that got them there.
Achieve Your Goals with Hal Elrod : Think you have a stressful life? Hal Elrod was revived back to life at the scene of a horrible car crash during his college years. Doctors told him he would never walk again. Against the odds, he achieved full recovery. Years later, Hal overcame business and financial ruin. Then, while filming a documentary about beating his prior challenges, he was diagnosed with cancer. Using powerful mindset techniques and daily habits, he has adapted to a life of constant challenge, beating the odds repeatedly. He shares these practices with constant podcast updates as well as in his numerous books.
Books for taming anxiety and stress
The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal Ph.D.: this book challenges the notion that stress is a leftover response mechanism only useful in our saber-tooth tiger-fighting past. Citing many research studies to back her points, Dr. McGonigal makes a profound argument for the usefulness of our stress response in our modern daily challenges. She also provides strategies to help us re-appraise our situations and tame our stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Dr. Danny Penman: a great book for people who are new to meditation and do not really know where or how to begin. Dr. Penman outlines the research which provides motivation to cultivate the habit. He then provides a gradual, eight-week plan to build your confidence and promote forming the habit of mindful meditation.
The Bible: Yes, the Bible. That’s fine if its not your thing. But for me and millions of people through the years, passages found in Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Phillipians, and many more have provided comfort during dark times and guidance at any time. I would be omitting a major source of personal comfort if I did not list this.
Freemindfulness.org/ free resources tab: This is my go-to site for free guided meditations. Meditations vary in style and length, from 3 minutes to 45 minutes and everywhere in-between. This site is an excellent resource for unwinding, especially when taking a hot bath in the evening before bed!!!