Lifestyle Habits for Stress and Anxiety
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
What a few years it has been! The collective state of mental health in the US has taken a nosedive as we’ve dealt with the pandemic, political crisis, social issues, climate disasters, mass violence, inflation, and so much more. No wonder so many people are feeling stressed out, burned out, and anxious.
If you are feeling the weight of the world, I see you. It makes sense. The world is heavy right now.
Today’s article will offer lifestyle tools to help manage stress and dampen anxiety.
However, it’s important to differentiate the benefits of self-help from when outside help is needed. If you have a hard time coping with stress or don’t feel like yourself, please talk with your doctor, therapist, or other healthcare provider for support. You can also call 988 to reach the national suicide and crisis lifeline to connect with a listening ear and resources.
Keep reading to learn more about:
- Anxiety vs. stress
- Stress and anxiety symptoms
- The gut-brain connection
- 15 self-care tools for anxiety management, stress management, and a calmer mind
Let’s jump in!
Stress Definition and Stress Physical Symptoms
Stress is the body’s physiological response to life challenges. When the brain interprets a threat, it sends signals to release stress hormones. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, helps mobilize energy so we can run or fight, hence the “fight or flight” response.
When we are in an acute stress, fight or flight state, our:
- Blood sugar rises
- Blood flows to our large muscles
- Breathing becomes shallow
- The heart beats faster
- Immunity is enhanced
- Brain function is enhanced
Fight or flight is our fundamental survival response and is entirely normal. It allows us to hunt for food and escape predators. And, when the threat is gone, the nervous system shifts to return the body to balance.
However, when the stress doesn’t end and becomes chronic, over time, it may lead to:
- Disrupted sleep
- Jaw clenching
- Stress eating and weight gain
- Digestive symptoms
- Lowered immunity
- Decreased memory formation
- Increased risk for chronic disease, including metabolic, cardiovascular, and autoimmune
- Anxiety and depression (more on anxiety below)
What Causes Chronic Stress?
We typically think of stress meaning mental/emotional stress caused by external factors. These include:
- Life changes – moving, loss of a loved one, new baby at home
- State of the world, stress from world events
The kicker is that the body responds to stress, whether real or imagined. That’s right, if you are sitting around thinking about how an old boyfriend did your wrong, or worried about a war far from home, your body will have the exact same response as if a lion was chasing you.
In addition to mental and emotional stress caused by outside factors, physical stress on the body also contributes. Other sources of stress to consider are:
- Chronic infections (think gut infections or viruses)
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Toxin exposures
- Lack of sleep
Anxiety Definition, Causes, and Symptoms
Anxiety is a sense of nervousness, uneasiness, and fear. It is a typical response to stress or danger.
Anxiety is an occasional symptom, but when it becomes overwhelming or persistent, it could be an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders include panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and others. An anxiety disorder needs care and attention beyond the ideas presented here.
Anxiety often stems from stress but may also be exacerbated by a gut imbalance, nutrient deficiencies, or other anxiety causes. Those with stress or trauma early in life, while the nervous system is developing, may be more prone to stress and anxiety later in life.
Anxiety physical symptoms include:
- Increased pulse
- Increased blood pressure
- Change in appetite – anxiety eating or loss of appetite
We used to think that the brain controlled the gut in a top-down fashion. We now know that gut-brain communication is a two-way street. This connection is called the gut-brain axis, and more recently, the microbiome-gut-brain axis, which affects not only digestive health but also the nervous system and mood.
One example of the gut-brain connection has to do with neurotransmitters. We think of serotonin, the happiness neurotransmitter, as living in the brain. But surprisingly, the vast majority is produced in the gut and impacts the brain via the gut-brain axis.
When working to reduce stress and anxiety, paying attention to gut health is key.
15 Ways to Crush Stress and Anxiety with Lifestyle Habits
Stress and anxiety symptoms often overlap, and many of the same strategies work for both. The following isn’t a comprehensive list, but a starting point. Take what resonates and leave the rest. Work to build consistent health habits and notice how it shifts your mood and how you feel over time.
On a side note, habit change is hard. Be sure to read Five Roadblocks to Changing Your Health and What to do Instead for practical, healthy habit-building tips.
Now, here are some stress management techniques to help you find anxiety relief and build resilience:
Nourish your microbiome. What you eat affects your microbiome, gut, and brain health. Fiber-rich plant foods (fruit, nuts, seeds, beans, etc.), greens and colorful veggies, omega-3 fats, fermented foods, and probiotics are all supportive. Learn more here.
Eat enough protein. Protein is needed for nervous system structure and neurotransmitter production. Find out if you are eating enough protein in this article and how to increase it.
Don’t miss your micronutrients. Magnesium, B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D, and others are critical for maintaining a healthy stress response. If you aren’t getting enough from your diet, consider adding a multivitamin.
Practice mindfulness and meditation. Anxiety breathing exercises, guided meditations, and mindfulness practices pull us out of worry and fear and into the present moment. Spend time being present each day.
Schedule bodywork. Massage, acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, and other bodywork and energy work modalities create a dedicated time and space to shift into a relaxed nervous system state.
Increase movement. Exercise is a fantastic tool for being present and releasing stored tension and stress. While we often tout the physical benefits of exercise, don’t discount the profound mental and emotional benefits too. For added benefit, combine exercise with social time or join a community for support.
Talk it out. Whether it’s with a trusted friend, therapist, or partner, tell someone how you feel. Time spent connecting with loved ones boosts feel-good neurotransmitters and reduces stress and anxiety symptoms.
Write it down. Try keeping an anxiety journal. Each night before bed, write down your worries and fears, so you don’t have to ruminate about them through the night.
Prioritize sleep. Lack of sleep can contribute to stress and anxiety symptoms. If you feel anxiety when trying to sleep, consider a gentle sleep supplement.
Check your caffeine. Caffeine can make you jittery, affect sleep, and contribute to anxiety. Try taking a caffeine break or replace coffee with green tea (or matcha), which is high in l-theanine, for a calming effect.
Stay hydrated. The brain interprets dehydration as stress, so be sure to hydrate. Shoot for around eight glasses of water per day and more if you live in a hot or dry climate, exercise, or drink caffeine and alcohol. Replacing electrolytes is helpful here.
Take a media break. If the news or social media triggers stressful or anxious thoughts, take a break. Perhaps give yourself a nightly media curfew, take a break one day per week, or set another boundary with media. There is no need to be connected all the time.
Listen to music. Music decreases stress and anxiety. Put on your favorite tunes and give your day a soundtrack.
Try yoga. Yoga combines movement with mindfulness, breathing, and relaxation. Like other forms of exercise, yoga helps to reduce stress.
Get outside. Sunlight on your skin supports vitamin D production and an improved mood. Bonus points if you can get outside surrounded by nature, which is natural anxiety support.
The way we live our days has a profound impact on our mental and emotional health. Healthy lifestyle habits reduce stress, ease anxiety, and lessen the weight we carry with us. It can be as simple as eating well, moving the body, and adopting consistent self-care strategies. Or, if it feels more complex for you, layer on additional strategies by working with your healthcare team.
The contents of post are for educational purposes only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider with any questions regarding changes in mood, a medical condition, starting an exercise program, etc.
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Ryah helps clients use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, pregnancy, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah and her private practice at econutrition.co.