It’s impossible not to feel it these days. Between COVID-19, the economy, and even the weather (Fires in California! Power outages in Texas! Snowstorm slams the East Coast!), there’s a lot to be stressed about. So if you’re feeling anxious lately, it basically means you’re human.
Anxiety—defined by the American Psychological Association as “feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure,” but understood more colloquially to mean anytime your heart starts pounding and mind begins racing because of something you see, hear or experience—is both ubiquitous and highly individual. Take a house fire. Everyone agrees it’s a distressing event, yet it can trigger feelings of anxiety in one person and feelings of defiance in another. How each of us reacts to anxiety-inducing scenarios is something experts are still trying to sort out. “Anxiety isn’t something you can just make go away, but some people have developed better coping skills for dealing with it,” says New Jersey-based psychologist Dr. Lisa DeGuire, PhD, author of Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor.
Anxiety is the most common mental disorder in the U.S., affecting about 40 million adults, or 18 percent of the population, in varying degrees of severity. In general, anxiety moves from the unpleasant-but-fact-of-life list to the talk-to-your-doc list when it begins to interfere with your ability to go about your daily business, and when your emotional reaction to run-of-the-mill stressful situations becomes so outsized that it paralyzes you from making healthy decisions, according to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “In diagnosing anxiety, we look at how long the symptoms have been present for and how much of a person’s life is being affected by the disorder,” says Dr. Carla Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Let’s take a closer look at the variables that can lead to anxiety—and what you can do about them.
Understanding COVID-19 anxiety
If your life pre-2020 wasn’t stressful enough, last year was a doozy for tipping the scales on anxiety. A report published by researchers at the University of Bristol found that anxiety levels in young adults have doubled since the emergence of COVID-19, while other surveys found it has caused sleep loss and increased rates of depression. “COVID pushed all of our ‘what if’ buttons that are at the heart of anxiety: What if I get sick? What if I lose my job? What if I can’t pay my mortgage?” says DeGuire. “At the same time, it took away the tools through which many people successfully cope with anxiety: no physical contact, no socializing, no exercise if your gym was closed.” It’s been the perfect storm of extra stress and fewer outlets for relief, she says, so it’s no wonder that anxiety is at an all-time high.
The important thing to remember is that the pandemic is temporary—by 2022, most of us will have received a vaccine that virtually eliminates the risk of getting sick. In the meantime, along with social distancing and mask-wearing, getting into an anxiety-busting groove with daily exercise and exploring approaches like stress-relief podcasts can help.
The relationship between menopause and anxiety
When it’s not a deadly virus causing you angst, maybe it’s … menopause? Before you laugh, hear us out: The swings in hormones women experience during this phase in life have been shown to cause an array of emotional disturbances, including anxiety. The hormonal changes, particularly in estrogen and progesterone levels, can influence neurotransmitters in the brain, which in turn, can elevate heart rate, increase blood pressure, and trigger shortness of breath—essentially, triggering a panic attack. One study in Biological Psychiatry found that women who had artificially lower estrogen levels due to medication experienced greater anxiety than those with normal levels, while women treated with additional estrogen therapy were less anxious.
It can be hard to separate biological and neurological changes that occur during this time of life from your emotional reaction to those changes, but increasing evidence suggests that if you’re going through menopause and feeling more anxious than usual, it’s less likely to be due to waves of nostalgia about life cycles and more likely to be related to a drop in estrogen, and for that reason, hormone therapy may help (talk with your doctor about this option).
Related: Your Guide to Perimenopause, That Mysterious In-Between Period of Womanhood
How to cope with anxiety
Given that anxiety-causing scenarios promise to keep coming at us in 2021, coping skills are at a premium. The tools you need will depend on your unique triggers for anxiety, as well as what type of anxiety you’re dealing with (there are five major types, ranging from general anxiety disorder to post-traumatic stress disorder).
The severity of your symptoms determines your coping strategies as well. For instance, if you are having anxiety attacks (a slow build-up of fear and stress that culminates in an inability to sleep or relax) or panic attacks (a sudden sense of loss of control that results in hyperventilating and a rapidly rising heart rate), a therapist might prescribe one set of coping strategies. These likely will include some form of deep breathing exercises, as several studies have shown that deep breathing affects the central nervous system’s regulation of emotional responses, rapidly reducing stress cortisol levels and improving feelings of calm in anxiety-inducing situations.
On the other hand, if your issue is social anxiety, where being in a large group of people causes a high level of stress, there are other techniques a therapist might suggest, like cognitive behavioral therapy. “The first step is to talk with a therapist, because we’ll use an approach that is tailored to your specific needs and the type of anxiety you’re dealing with,” says DeGuire.
Related: 10 Breathing Exercises for Anxiety that Work
Best natural remedies for easing anxiety
For cases of serious clinical anxiety, a psychologist or psychiatrist may prescribe a combination of talk therapy and medication. In less-severe cases of anxiety, you might want to consider natural anxiety remedies to help you relax. These are some of the options to think about:
Meditation can help with anxiety
When your mind is racing and your heart is pounding, sitting still and letting go of your thoughts can sound like a bad joke. How, exactly does meditation help? While meditation is a tool that requires practice, it’s well worth your time. One small study at Michigan Technological University found that a single 60-minute session of guided meditation lowered participants’ resting heart rates and blood pressure, as well as scores on anxiety-measuring tests. And a meta-analysis of 47 existing studies by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore found that regular meditation was a benefit to people experiencing symptoms of anxiety.
Here’s why it works: “In neurobiology, there’s something called Hebb’s Law—neurons that fire together, wire together,” Manly explains. “We are hardwired to keep returning to the response we use most frequently in stressful situations. So if your response to stress is increased anxiety, it creates a feedback loop in your brain that becomes part of your neurobiology.” On the other hand, breath-focused meditation activates your parasympathetic nervous system, breaking up the anxiety feedback loop and helping you stay calm, Manly says. The more you practice it, the more you rewire the neurons in your brain to seek out this calmness in stressful situations.
So how do you get started? There are many types of meditation, from guided imagery to a transcendental style. If you’re new to the practice, you might want to begin by using a video or meditation app where you’ll hear someone’s calm voice guide you through the session. (And don’t be frightened off by stories of experienced practitioners who meditate for hours on end: You can still reap the benefits from just 10 minutes a day.)
Related: 15 Guided Meditations for Anxiety
Research shows yoga is can help relieve anxiety
If meditation is good for stress relief, its close cousin, yoga, might be even better. There is ample reason to believe that yoga can counter the effects of anxiety on the body, starting with a study published in February in the journal Plos One, which measured the anxiety levels and overall well-being of 688 people over a 10-week period. Those who included yoga as part of their daily routine had the lowest levels of anxiety of anyone in the study.
Another recent study, led by researchers at New York University Grossman School of Medicine found that over the course of three months, people following a regular yoga routine experienced a 54 percent improvement in anxiety symptoms compared with just 33 percent improvement for those following a traditional therapy approach. The findings, say researchers, suggest that yoga should be included in patient-doctor conversations about ways to lower anxiety. While any form of restorative yoga will likely help with your anxiety, the three yoga poses here may prove especially beneficial.
Related: What the Heck is Restorative Yoga?
Essential oils may help you relax
The evidence for essential oils easing anxiety is more anecdotal than scientific—but there is some research that suggests it could help. For example, hospital patients who inhaled peppermint oil for 20 minutes a day over the course of five days showed a significant decrease in stress compared to those who did not, according to a study in the Journal of Medicinal Plants. And a study in BMC: Sleep, Science and Practice found that inhaling lavender essential oil improved sleep quality by helping people relax. “There are definitely studies that support lavender for anxiety,” says Manly. “Anecdotally, I have 12 essential oils in my office, and my patients head straight for them when they arrive because they believe it will make them feel better.”
Other experts believe the angst-reducing powers of essential oils may be tied to scent recall: i.e., floral or woodsy smells may trigger pleasant vacation memories while warm, spicy scents might tap into happy holiday ones. Whether or not that’s scientifically true, there’s little downside to using essential oils to relax during stressful times. To try it, dilute the essential oil with a carrier oil first, then apply a drop or two to your skin. (You might also use a diffuser.) Because some people may have an allergic reaction to certain oils, it’s always wise to try a small drop on a single area of your body first.
Weighted blankets are a newer option for coping with anxiety at night
In the category of DIY anxiety remedies, weighted blankets are one of the newest entries. But is there any heft behind the hype? In theory, this is how it works: Lying beneath a soft blanket filled with weighted beads or other heavy filler applies pressure to points in the body akin to acupressure, increasing the parasympathetic arousal of the autonomic nervous system and reducing sympathetic arousal. In English: This form of deep pressure produces a calming effect.
Despite anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness, rigorous scientific data on weighted blankets for anxiety is slim. One small study in the journal Occupational Therapy in Mental Health found that 63 percent of people who slept beneath a 30-pound weighted blanket reported lower anxiety after use. Another study, published last year in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, measured the effects of using a weighted blanket on people who had insomnia caused by anxiety or depression. After four weeks, researchers found 60 percent of participants experienced a 50 percent or greater improvement in their sleep issues.
Does this mean using a weighted blanket will solve your anxiety issues? It does not. But it does mean that if anxiety is keeping you up at night, you have little to lose by investing in a weighted blanket. At worst, you still can’t sleep. At best, you may have one more tool to cope with the effects of anxiety, if not the anxiety itself.
Related: Why Can’t I Sleep?
Trying an anti-anxiety diet may help you cope
So you’ve got your calming scents and your cozy blanket. Now, how about some comfort food? It’s not so easy to eat your way out of anxiety, of course, but you might be surprised by some legit research findings that suggest certain foods may help you shed stressful emotions. Specifically, the electrolyte magnesium and mineral zinc have been shown to enhance feelings of calmness and better mood. Meanwhile, caffeine, a stimulant that raises your heart rate, and sugar (which can cause a high-low energy roller coaster) are two things to steer clear of when you’re feeling anxious.
In large part, says DeGuire, it may be less about the foods you eat and more about your associations with them that can ease your anxiety. “People have sweet memories of feeling cared for as a child by being fed certain foods by their family or relatives,” she says. “There are long traditions of eating certain foods at times of stress.” The bottom line: Following a diet that prioritizes your health while including the occasional “comfort foods” of your youth makes you feel all-over good, which can lessen your anxiety.
Related: 15 Healthy Alternatives to Caffeine
Best journals, apps and podcasts for Anxiety
For moments when no comfort food or sweet-smelling oil is able to rid your head of anxious thoughts, there’s something to be said for grabbing the proverbial bull by the horns and facing your anxiety straight on. To this end, journals, apps and podcasts that help you delve deeper into what you’re feeling and make sense of it all can be helpful.
Journaling doesn’t have to be super time-intensive and full of flowery thoughts (if that’s not your jam). Many people find simply writing down the things that are stressing them out, then writing down two or three ways they are going to try and cope, is helpful. Other research shows that making gratitude lists, where you counter the negative thoughts you’re having with a list of things you feel grateful for, can have measurable health benefits (in addition to calming your mind).
From the massively popular meditation app Headspace to the cutting edge concept of Brain.fm, an app that taps into brainwave rhythms with sounds that soothe, this list of apps for anxiety is where you should start when deciding which is right for you. For an even broader list of apps that boost your mental wellness, these 30 options are worth checking out. (Anxiety-focused podcasts may also be helpful, especially if your stress is work-related and you’re able to listen to one of the podcasts during your commute.)
Related: 50 Ways to Practice Gratitude
How celebrities deal with anxiety
If you’re a celebrity gawker (and seriously, who isn’t?) you may be familiar with the weekly tabloid column, “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!” They take out their trash, wear sweatpants to the supermarket, get parking tickets and, yes, battle anxiety. Except unlike most of us, they still need to get on stage or in front of the camera and perform like there’s nothing wrong.
That takes guts—and a strategy for coping. LeAnn Rimes, for instance, turns to breathing exercises. Fellow singer Jewel uses meditation. (“It’s like a biceps curl for your brain,” she explains.)
Kristen Bell finds anxiety relief by working out, while the unstoppable Lizzo turns her biggest moments of anxiety into fuel to give it everything during her concert performances. And Camila Cabello uses cognitive behavioral therapy in her battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety.
From Kate Hudson (“Meditation has saved my sanity”) to Jillian Michaels (“Sometimes a 20-minute workout hurts the emotional stress right out of me”), this list of celebrity quotes on anxiety is proof that we’re not all that different, after all. (Plus or minus the sports cars, fan clubs and Golden Globe awards, of course.) You could say anxiety is a great equalizer, but it’s also a great uniter when you realize you are not alone as you tackle your fears head-on.
Up next, here’s everything you need to know about magnesium and anxiety.