One of the most important ways that I manage anxiety is by shaping my life in a way that makes me feel healthy and happy. Over the years I’ve noticed that, while it can sometimes seem like my anxiety “flares up” for no apparent reason, there is usually something going on in my life which is triggering it.
I’d like to share 7 of the main “lifestyle” factors which can trigger anxiety for me, in the hope that it will be helpful for you. Sometimes you just need a reminder from someone else that the reason you feel anxious about a million different things today might actually be because you’ve hardly slept in a week, or because you’re working 12 hours a day.
It can be so easy to get caught up in the content of the anxious thoughts that you lose sight of the real reason you’re feeling anxious. I might wake up after a night of drinking a little too much and losing sleep, start feeling anxious, latch onto a “reason” why (maybe it’ll be the way I look, something my boyfriend said, how much money I spent last night, etc…) and get myself extremely wound up and worried about something that would seem kind of irrelevant on another day. But the real reason is because I drank too much wine and had 3 hours sleep!
These won’t be helpful to everyone as we are all affected by different things, but these factors really increase anxiety for me (even if I’m feeling well otherwise). However, ongoing anxiety disorders are often very complicated so I would 100% recommend reaching out for a professional help if you are struggling. I just believe that shaping your lifestyle to promote health and reduce stress gives you a better chance of getting (and staying) well.
1) Lack of Sleep
This is such an important one for me which is why I’ve put it first. I have suffered from chronic and severe insomnia a number of times (usually during bad periods of anxiety) and it is (as anyone who has struggled with sleep will know) absolute hell. When you can’t sleep you feel miserable, anxious, agitated, angry, sad… you just feel horrible. And the next day you feel like you’re only half alive (if that). It makes you feel really anxious.
For me, I usually get anxious about the fact that I can’t sleep itself, which means the insomnia spirals and I’ll go without properly sleeping for weeks or months at a time. You can’t really tell someone with sleep anxiety to just “get more sleep and then the anxiety will go away” because that’s the exact reason you’re so desperate to sleep (and the desperation to sleep is what’s keeping you awake).
All I would say is that if you’re feeling really anxious and you didn’t sleep last night, try to remind yourself that these thoughts are probably the tiredness talking and you can just let them be until you’ve had a proper rest. You can always delay your worries/anxious thoughts a little while until you’re in a better frame of mind to deal with them. If you don’t have a sleep disorder but just aren’t getting your full 7/8 hours a night (maybe because of work/socialising/TV/social media/bad habits etc), I would urge you to make this a priority! I know everyone says it but, for me, it makes an enormous different to my mental health.
If you do have a sleep disorder, I can’t urge you enough to seek professional (or medical) help. I will always struggle with insomnia from time to time, but I have developed a lot of techniques for coping with it. Let me know if you’d be interested in me writing a post about this!
2) Lack of Nutritious Food & Exercise
Again, massively important. If you are someone who generally eats well and exercises regularly, you instantly feel the difference when you don’t. When I eat rubbish I just feel like my whole body is clogged up, I feel sluggish, my brain feels kind of “fluffy” and my thoughts become negative. The same if I don’t exercise (as in, am just completely inactive and sitting down all day). I feel lazy and unmotivated and my mood drops. Just from a day of lying around eating sugary foods my thoughts become 10x more anxious by the end of it.
If you’re living like this all the time (which I definitely have been at certain points in my life!), it can be really hard to notice the difference. So you just get used to the way you feel when you don’t take care of your body, and you don’t realise how much better you could feel mentally.
I definitely don’t think that you should NEVER have lazy days where you eat fatty and sugary foods (unless you don’t ever want to) – part of staying well involves a balance. But, for me at least, if I want to stay well mentally I have to take care of my body. By doing so, I just give myself the best chance of being happy and healthy.
If you want to take better care of yourself physically, but struggle to do so, there are SO many resources out there. You can see your doctor, professional nutritionists or personal trainers. You can join exercise or cooking classes. There are (probably) millions of online resources – just make sure you look for qualified professionals when it comes to your health and well-being.
3) Too Much Alcohol
I know that (obviously) drinking a lot of alcohol is bad for your health, and at University I learnt about what it does to your brain (especially how involved it is with anxiety!). But because drinking is so normalised in our culture, when I was younger I (intentionally?) disregarded the link. If I drink a lot of alcohol, I usually feel very relaxed immediately (though sometimes tired/emotional too), but when the alcohol wears off it’s another story. I have had some of the most severe panic attacks on a hangover. I would say that alcohol definitely doesn’t have as bad an effect on me if I’m otherwise happy and healthy (it’s more likely to cause severe anxiety when I’m already stressed), but I just hate the way hangovers make me feel. I still love wine and cocktails, but I know my limits really well compared to when I was 18 and I very rarely (if ever) go over the top. It’s just not worth the suffering afterwards.
I know that talking about alcohol can be a very sensitive topic, and I know that if you rely on alcohol it is certainly not helpful for someone to suggest that you should “just cut down”. But I’m pretty sure that any kind of excessive drinking or alcohol addiction isn’t going to be helping you if you’re struggling with anxiety.
There are so many resources available to you if you need some help to cut down on the drinking! Speak to your GP, find a professional that you like, check out https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/ or https://www.allencarr.com/easyway-stop-drinking/.
I don’t have any anecdotal or professional expertise when it comes to alcohol, but I do know that (for me at least) drinking too much has always made anxiety worse.
4) Being Too Busy
I love being busy, but I cannot function properly if I am too busy. The kind of “busy” that can make me stressed is when I am working all week, going away at the weekend and getting home late on a Sunday night, then going straight back to work on Monday. Too much travelling. Loads of social events. Going a full month without any ‘free’ weekends. Being away from home for too long. Lots of socialising after work on week nights. Just the usual stuff…
It can be really easy to get over excited about plans, and say “yes” to everything, without thinking about the reality of having to do it. Travelling a long way to visit a friend after a full week at work just isn’t as fun if you’ve also done it the last three weeks in a row.
This is something I still find really difficult, but I am trying to become more aware of my own energy levels and how much I can deal with before it starts becoming too much. I think that being in lockdown has actually really helped with this, because I have become so aware of how much healthier and happier I feel when I have more time to rest. Some of my “rules” for myself now that we’re coming out of lockdown are:
- I need at least one “no plans” weekend a month
- Avoid travelling long distances more than once (or twice maximum) a month
- Don’t make social plans midweek (after work) if I’m going to be socialising all weekend
- Prioritise down-time and working out/yoga just as much as socialising and work
If you struggle with being too busy, I’d definitely recommend setting yourself some guidelines as well (even if it’s just mentally), so that you can refer to them when you’re making plans. It’s not that you need to follow them 100%, it’s more about reminding yourself so that you don’t get exhausted 🙂
This one is self explanatory and we all know that overworking isn’t good for our health. Something I have had to learn is that the definition of “overworking” is different for everyone. Some people seem to be able to work and work and never get tired, while others become overwhelmed quite quickly when their workload picks up.
Personally, I am somewhere in the middle, and I’ve had to accept that. It would be great, at times, to be able to work 12 hour days and still function well, but it just isn’t going to happen for me. Equally, I try and empathise with people who have a lower threshold. It’s not always that people are less willing to work, it’s just that they become overwhelmed far more quickly.
I really think that it’s worth spending some time working out how much you can cope with, and still remain happy and healthy, and then choose a job or career path that matches you. Ideally you want a challenging role that you can work hard at, but don’t lie awake all night worrying about it.
Even if you do have a really demanding job and you enjoy it, you will still have a tipping point. If you’re come home feeling anxious, stressed, nervous, or aren’t able to sleep (because of work), it’s really worth thinking about whether you’re doing too much.
6) Not Enough Alone Time
For me, it is so important to have time alone (properly alone) to reset. My social relationships are probably the most important thing to me in the world, but I get so exhausted from socialising too much. It takes a lot of energy to really give people your time and attention, and we all need time to re-charge!
If I socialise for too long (or too often without proper breaks), I can start to feel stressed in my body (I’ll get shortness of breath, increased adrenaline, struggle to shut down at night). I can usually tell when I’m socially exhausted because I’ll go very quiet and find it really difficult to make conversation (it’s not that I feel uncomfortable necessarily or awkward, just exhausted!).
Some of the things I like to do to properly relax when I’m by myself are:
- Watching YouTube videos
- Taking long baths
- Listening to music
- Working out
- Reading (sometimes – I can literally never finish a book these days)
7) Too Much Alone Time
So this is the opposite of the last point, but (for me) can be equally detrimental when it comes to anxiety and my mental health in general. It is so important that I keep in touch with people and socialise regularly (which has been really difficult since lock down, especially as I am still working from home and my family live so far away).
Spending time with friends and family makes me feel light and happy, and gives me purpose! These are some of the things that happen mentally when I spend too much time alone:
- I have a lot more time to ruminate on things, leading to worrying (and sometimes anxiety)
- I feel lethargic
- I often feel lonely, which can make me feel down
- I feel bored
- I don’t know what to do with my thoughts (as I don’t have anyone to talk about things with)
If you relate to any of the above, I would recommend reaching out to family and friends as much as possible! Since we began to come out of lock down, I have made as many socially distanced plans with friends and family as possible (it really helps to actually see people in person). I’m also really lucky as I live with my boyfriend so can spend a bit of time with him in the evenings and at weekends. If you just fancy a chat, send a nice long message to a friend (I’m sure they’d appreciate it) or ask for a call.
I think we can all sometimes get lazy with keeping in touch with friends and family, but if you are feeling a bit lonely then make it a priority! 🙂
So that brings me to the end of this post. I hope that you enjoyed reading it, and that it was helpful in some way – I know I always like to read about what other people do to keep their mental health in check and take care of themselves! Let me know if you have any questions or comments 🙂
As ever, I want to add that I am not a medical or mental health professional, I simply enjoy sharing my own experiences in the hope that they might help someone. If you are struggling with your mental health, please reach out to your doctor as soon as you can! Don’t suffer in silence ❤