Worrying more? You’re not alone.
The American Psychiatric Association has found America’s anxiety is on the upswing, with more of us stressing out about health, safety and paying the bills.
Concerns about politics and relationships are also plaguing more people, perhaps to a lesser degree.
Anxiety disorders—when fears and worry exceed normal levels, zapping the joy from people’s lives—are the most common mental illness in the U.S., according to an American Psychiatric Association poll.
Anxiety affects 18.1% of the adult population, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Keep in mind that a certain amount of anxiety isn’t just normal—it’s necessary.
“It’s good that we worry about a teen who isn’t home by curfew, for example,” said Adelle Cadieux, PsyD, a psychologist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “Or whether we can meet a looming work deadline.”
In those cases, worrying can inspire helpful actions.
But when anxiety completely takes over—excessive vigilance, for instance, or chewing constantly on the same fears—it’s time to take charge.
Dr. Cadieux recommends these solutions for wrangling worries:
Ask yourself: Will worrying about X, Y or Z have any impact?
“There are some things truly out of our control—like traffic—where our worrying truly can’t change the outcome,” Dr. Cadieux said. “The more we recognize that, the faster we can see that this specific worry is wasting time and energy.”
It also helps to write out the consequences you’re dreading, just so you can see that you’re losing perspective: “If I miss the deadline, I’ll disappoint my boss, jeopardizing my job. I’ll get fired, and wind up homeless and unemployable.”
Exercise is a highly effective tool against anxiety. It relieves stress, distracts us from our troubles and releases chemicals that make our brains feel better.
To those who don’t exercise often—or at all—just a single session can truly help. “Just getting out and moving your body can alleviate the discomfort that comes with worrying,” Dr. Cadieux said.
Clean up your diet
The link between nutrition and anxiety might seem like a bit of a leap, but it’s a plain fact that most of us tend to seek out unhealthy foods when we’re stressed.
“It’s so easy to indulge in something like ice cream, because we imagine it’s going to make us feel better and less stressed,” Dr. Cadieux said. And it does, “but only momentarily.”
Once the gratification of an indulgence passes, you’re still left with the anxiety—plus a side serving of guilt.
Master your sleep hygiene
Worries may have you tossing and turning, but research has shown that the better your sleep habits, the lower your anxiety. People with insomnia are 17 times more likely to suffer from anxiety, according to the Sleep Foundation.
Try and stick to the basics, like going to bed and rising at the same time. Cultivating a relaxing bedtime ritual also helps. Stay away from screens and bright lights for a period before turning in. Sleep in a cooler room, with the temperature between 60 and 67 degrees.
Ease up on java
America loves its coffee. Upwards of 65% of us have at least a cup a day.
While that may be fine for many, “it can increase the sensations that feel like anxiety,” Dr. Cadieux said. “We feel jittery and it increases our heart rate.”
Learn relaxation techniques
From simple deep breathing to progressive muscle relaxation, the mindfulness movement has produced all kinds of easy-to-follow methods for calming down.
Check out free resources from authorities on the mind-body connection, such as the University of California at Los Angeles, or free apps like Insight Timer and Stop, Breathe & Think.
Shape your schedule
As silly as it may sound, you can learn to put anxiety on a schedule. If you find yourself constantly worrying about something like a health problem or a job search, it helps to say, “OK, from 4 p.m. to 4:15 p.m., I’m going to sit down and do nothing but worry about ‘X.’”
When the worry crops up later, you can dismiss it with the thought, “Nope, I’m done for now. I’ll think about this again tomorrow at 4 p.m.”
Stray anxieties can circle like gnats. We might worry that we’ll forget about them if we don’t keep thinking about them, Dr. Cadieux said.
Solution? Keep a notepad handy, or use the notes function on your phone to help capture those persistent concerns.
Create a dialogue
Instead of beating yourself up with worries, talk your anxieties over with someone. Sometimes, simply telling another person what’s got us so wound up relieves pressure, Dr. Cadieux said.
While excessive venting can backfire and make us more tense, “one of the great things about sharing is that sometimes the more you talk, the less intense the anxiety feels,” she said.
Hunt for mood changers
Cultivate some awe and wonder. Scientists are increasingly finding that moments of awe and wonder—a bright sunset, the lake at dawn—are powerful mood changers.
Not only do they reduce stress, they can also help us transcend the self and gain a fresh perspective. Check out the steps to a 15-minute awe walk from experts at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley.
Start a letting-go ritual. Some people toss rocks in the water, each one symbolizing a concern, Dr. Cadieux said. Others might write worries down on a piece of paper, then rip them up or burn them in a fireplace.
“It helps people visualize what they are trying to do,” she said.
Take time away
Fleeing the country isn’t usually a realistic solution, but it can help to pretend.
Take the afternoon off from work for an afternoon and go see a movie, or skip some errands and head to the park. Disengaging from your worries for a few hours can work wonders.
If your worries are interfering with your daily life, you should seek professional treatment. Only about 37% of people with anxiety seek treatment, but a short course of therapy can be life-changing, Dr. Cadieux said.
While some people benefit from medication, cognitive behavioral therapy is especially effective, too.
Many people have suffered for so long with the often invisible symptoms of anxiety, they can’t quite believe change is possible, Dr. Cadieux said.
“But they learn how to handle anxiety in new ways,” she said. “And find relief from these damaging, worry habits.”