12 Common Habits that Make Anxiety Worse & How to Change Them

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What habits are making your anxiety worse?

Chronic anxiety can be caused by an array of external factors – such as trauma, chronic illness, death of a loved one, losing a job, and anxiety running in the family - often situations that are outside of our control.

But we can also have bad habits that make anxiety worse, and this is the part we can control. Once you are aware of your bad habits, and commit to changing them, you can begin to reduce and manage your anxiety.

A few common examples of bad habits that make anxiety worse include poor eating habits, not exercising, drinking caffeine, skipping meals, eating processed foods, reaching for sugar, not getting enough fluids, consuming alcohol, and going to bed too late.

During my nearly 20-year struggle with chronic anxiety, I knew that it was caused by war trauma, but unfortunately, I wasn't aware of my bad habits heavily impacted my anxiety levels over the years.

My lack of understanding eventually led to my anxiety spiraling out of control, and by the time I was in my 20s, and only a few years into my career in investment banking in London, I could no longer go to work.

This is how I learned - the hard way - that identifying our anxious habits is necessary to stop anxiety from taking over!

In this article, you’ll learn what are the 12 most common habits that make anxiety worse to help you start revaluating where you can take control.

So, please read on, as this is very important.

The following 12 habits are common amongst anxiety sufferers, and these are also the habits that I had to change to get my anxiety under control.

I know that this is not going to be an easy task for you, but I also know that it is possible to change these into something more positive and less anxious, and that it's worth the effort.

If you want to start reducing your anxiety, then read on and give it all you've got!

1. Drinking Caffeine

Caffeine is a major anxiety trigger, and while studies find that cutting down on caffeine benefits people with anxiety disorders, I had to eliminate it completely.

After monitoring the relationship between caffeine and anxiety for a few years, I realized that caffeine was causing havoc to my anxiety levels and sleep quality. Even when I went down to just one latte a day (weak coffee) I still noticed a negative impact on my anxiousness.   

So, despite my love for coffee, I made the decision to give up caffeine altogether for the benefit of my anxiety. 

Since then I have overcome my Generalized Anxiety Disorder, but I still do not consume coffee today, and I urge you to eliminate caffeine as well.

Think of caffeine as an “anxiety amplifier”. For example, if your anxiety is at level 5, few hours after consuming caffeine, your anxiety is likely to be at least at level 8, which will increase to 10 or more in the evening. Further, if you don’t sleep well that night, your anxiety will be even higher in the morning. But then you're likely to have your morning caffeine fix, triggering the same process all over again.   

One study looked at the effects of caffeine on patients with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) compared to normal subjects and found,

Patients with GAD are abnormally sensitive to caffeine.

This connection between caffeine and anxiety is not obvious because we temporarily feel good after consuming, and we don’t feel the anxious effects until hours later.

Caffeine is not only in coffee. It is also in black tea, green tea, soda, energy drinks, and even in decaf coffee to some extent, so to eliminate caffeine, you also need to eliminate these drinks. 

If you are not ready to give up caffeine for good, then at least try eliminating it for 30 days and track your anxiety levels during that period to keep a note of any differences. 

I have listed caffeine as number one on this list of habits that make anxiety worse, because

  • it is one of most common habits,
  • but it's also one of the worst anxiety triggers, 
  • and when I eliminated it, I noticed significant and positive changes in my anxiety levels and sleep.

One thing that I have learned, and would like to highlight to you,

Once coffee a day is still a big trigger for anxiety.


- Sandra Glavan

I have to be honest with you, because my only aim is to help you reduce your anxiety. And I wish someone said this to me. 

Recommendation: Start consuming a variety of lose leaf herbal teas. The best anti-anxiety teas are chamomile, valerian root, and oat straw.

2. Skipping Meals

Skipping meals can trigger anxiety!

In our anxiety-filled lives skipping meals is all too common. Either our minds are preoccupied with excessive worry and fear, or we have no appetite or the desire to eat.

But skipping meals causes hypoglycemia (when blood sugar falls below normal levels) that can lead to common anxiety symptoms such as irritability, nervousness, dizziness, light-headedness, and weakness.

According to research,

Recurrent hypoglycemia increases anxiety. 

In several other studies, poor eating patterns were associated with anxiety and depressive disorders. 

Dieting can also trigger anxiety-like symptoms, especially if you eliminate one of the major essential nutrients (carbs, fats, or proteins).

Recommendations:

  • Aim to eat every two hours five times a day (1. Breakfast, 2. Healthy snack, 3. Lunch, 4. Healthy snack, 5. Dinner)
  •  Eat a variety of natural whole foods rich in complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, proteins, vitamins and minerals. 
  • Examples of natural foods - vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fruit, nuts, seeds, herbs, fresh meat, and fish
  • Click here to read how to adopt an anti-anxiety diet

3. Eating Processed Foods 

The consumption of processed foods can negatively impact your anxiety and health. 

Common examples include, microwave meals, sugary foods, refined carbohydrates, cold meats, sauces, dressings, and foods with long list of ingredients.

Processed foods are likely to contain chemical ingredients and additives, and according to research these ingredients added to foods can promote anxiety, while reduce mood and social behavior.

The following additives are some of the worst culprits, 

Dyes and artificial sweeteners are neurotoxins that have shown to disrupt the nervous system, leading to increased anxiety levels.

According to research

Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, has been linked to behavioral and cognitive problems. Possible neurophysiological symptoms include learning problems, headache, seizure, migraines, irritable moods, anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

Recommendations: 

  • Swap packaged, processed and refined foods for natural whole foods.
  • The easiest way to do that is to make vegetables, and whole grains the bulk of your daily calories. These foods are a good source of complex carbohydrates that will provide a slow release of energy, keep your blood sugar stable and help to manage cravings for unhealthy foods.
  • Click here to watch a video on how to create a healthy plate.

4. Reaching for Sugar

Sugar is bad news for anxiety and needs to be avoided.

But unfortunately, even if we know we should cut down on sugar, it's common to crave sugary foods when feeling anxious.

According to research sugar has the ability to temporarily suppress an area of the brain usually active when anxious, by pausing the release of  stress hormone (cortisol). This is why we can experience a snippet of anxiety relief when eating something sugary, that often leads to us to crave sugar and become reliant.  

But consuming sugar increases anxiety and reactivity to stress, leading to more anxiousness.

The consumption of sugar triggers sudden spikes and dips in blood sugar, known to cause irritability, nervousness and low-mood, thereby negatively impacting your state of anxiety.

One study published in 2017 found that sugar can increase the risk of mood disorders in men and women,

[There is an] adverse effect of sugar intake from sweet food/beverage on long-term psychological health and suggests that lower intake of sugar may be associated with better psychological health.

Furthermore, sugar has been linked to inflammation, nutrient deficiencies, weight gain, diabetes, obesity, heart, kidney and liver disease, and multiple studies show that these conditions can result in more anxiety and other mental health disorders.

So,

To manage your anxiety, you need to start eliminating sugary foods. I know this is not easy as I also had to do this after being a sugar addict for most of my life. But with time and commitment, I managed to reduce my sugar cravings, and gradually, eliminate refined sugar from my diet. You can do this too!

To begin with avoid the obvious culprits such as cakes, cookies, chocolate, puddings, pastries, ice-cream, milkshakes, waffles and similar.

But also get into the habit of reading labels the ingredients list on food labels as 75% of packaged foods contain added sugar. Also, be ware that even the so called healthy foods such as granola bars, muesli, yoghurts, smoothies can contain added sugar.

So, what can you eat instead?

Fruit has many beneficial nutrients and can serve to satisfy your need for sweet foods. But you should also limit your fruit intake to 2-3 piece a day.

Fruit is high in simple sugars and if consumed in large quantities can affect your blood sugar and anxiety levels.

A healthy and balanced diet can help you increase your intake of natural whole foods, leaving less room for anything that's processed and contains added sugar! Eating healthily will also reduce your sugar cravings.

Recommendations:

  • Consume two - three pieces of a day of less sweet fruits. For example, apples, pears, green bananas, mangos, and papaya.
  • Stevia is the best natural sweetener. 
  • Start eating sweet vegetables to manage your sugar cravings, such as squash vegetables and sweet potatoes. 
  • Click here to read how to cut down on sugar
12 Habits that Make Anxiety Worse infographic 2.0 pink background

5. Not Getting Enough Fluids 

If you don't get enough water daily, this can affect your anxiety.

Dehydration causes stress to your body, and when your body is stressed, you can experience common anxiety symptoms.

One study looked at the effects of water on mood and found that,

Restricting water intake resulted in a decrease in contentedness, calmness, positive emotions and vigor/activity, while increasing water consumption led to a decrease in fatigue, confusion, and thirst.

Studies also show that dehydration can cause low mood. Mild dehydrated can trigger feelings of anger, confusion, tension, and fatigue.

That's why staying hydrated is important when you are prone to anxiety, but it's also essential for your overall health.

What's more, water has natural calming properties.

So, ensuring that you are hydrated each day will not only help you avoid unnecessary dehydration-related anxiety, but according to Harvard Medical School drinking enough water can help you relieve anxiety.

According to the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, women need to consume about 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluids a day, while men need 15.5 cups (3.7 liters).

Recommendations:

  • Consume 11 cups of fluid daily if you are female, and 15 cups if you are male.
  • Fruit and vegetables contain liquid and that counts towards your fluids. 
  • You can consume water and organic loose leaf herbal teas. Avoid herbal tea bags as they can contain caffeine. 
  • Sip on your water or tea throughout the day, rather than consuming too much in one go. 
  • Have a cup of chamomile tea every day

6. Poor Eating Habits 

Unhealthy eating habits can heavily affect your anxiety levels.

For example,

  • eating too little or overeating
  • not having enough vegetables, whole grains and other natural whole foods,
  • consuming too many processed foods and drinks, which are high in fat, salt and/or sugar, or low in dietary fiber, and 
  • not chewing your food properly.

These poor eating habits can affect your intake of essential nutrients - carbohydrates, protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals - that are necessary for mental health and the functioning of the nervous system.

Studies have shown that a deficiency in certain nutrients can affect mood and anxiety levels.

One study showed that, nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin C and E, magnesium, selenium, and omega 3 fatty acids are likely to be deficient in people with anxiety disorders and other mental health issues.

One study found, that unhealthy eating habits are correlated with mental health problems.

Unhealthy eating patterns are common predictors of mental health problems, and that there is a a significant association between unhealthy eating patterns including ‘snacking and convenience’, ‘planning ahead’ and ‘meal skipping’ eating patterns with mental health problems.

Recommendations:

  • Adopt a healthy and balanced diet, rich in vegetables and whole grains, avoid processed foods
  • Eat regularly and in moderation
  • Chew your food properly, to optimize your intake of essential nutrients. 
  • Practice mindful eating

7. Consuming Alcohol 

Alcohol is a common coping mechanism for anxiety.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA),

About 20 percent of people with social anxiety disorder also suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence, and a recent study found that the two disorders have a stronger connection among women.

But while alcohol temporarily stimulates "happy chemicals" in the brain (such as serotonin, and dopamine) making you feel happier and less anxious, it can also raise your anxiety levels within just a few hours after consuming.

As alcohol starts to wear off, you're likely to feel more anxious, tired and down, than before you had a drink.

Drinking alcohol in excess can also result in hangovers - with symptoms including nausea, dizziness, headaches, dehydration, and low blood sugar - further contributing to your anxiety problem.

But that's not all, overconsumption of alcohol increases the risk of chronic disease and other mental health disorders.

One study found a significant link between the level of alcohol consumption and mental health problems and academic performance.

Students who consumed alcohol [in excesswere more likely to experience moderate / high psychological distress and more likely to experience academic problems.

Recommendation: Eliminate alcohol while trying to get your anxiety under control. Then, as you begin to manage your anxiety symptoms, you can have the occasional drink.

8. Not Exercising 

Not being physically active is another habit that can cause anxiety. If you sit down all day, and never exercise, your physical and mental health is likely to suffer as a result. 

That's because, your body is designed to move, and certain bodily functions depend on physiological movement.

For example, the lymph system requires breathing and muscle movement to help move fluids and remove waste from your body. If you don't have a habit of moving your body sufficiently, these processes begin to work inefficiently. Excess toxins in your body can trigger anxiety.

Studies have shown that sedentary lifestyle (sitting all day) increases the risk of anxiety and depression,

Higher sedentary time (≥8 h) increased the odds for anxiety and depression, and moderate to high physical activity decreased the odds for anxiety and depression.

Inactivity also increases the risk of diabetes, and obesity, cardiovascular diseases, colon cancer, osteoporosis, lipid disorders, and high blood pressure.

The World Health Organization (WHO) claims that physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death globally, resulting in an estimated 3.2 million deaths worldwide.

In contrast, regular participation in aerobic exercise has shown to decrease tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. 

One study showed,

There is strong evidence from animal studies that exercise and regular activity positively impacts the pathophysiological processes of anxiety. Numerous studies and meta-analyses show that exercise is also associated with reduced anxiety in clinical settings.

But what if you suffer from weakness, low energy or lack motivation?

Start with short walks around your building, house or neighborhood.

For example, walking 10,000 steps throughout the day is a good way to ensure continuous movement.  If you can't walk this much at first, don't worry, that's fine. Do what you can, and work your way up to this. 

Recommendations:

  • I have found that the best exercises for anxiety are walking, yoga and hiking, though any physical activity can help you reduce your anxiety symptoms.
  • Choose a form of exercise that you like and practice at least 3 times a week.
  • Fill up the rest of the week with short and long walks.
  • At the weekends, go for longer walks, or do something that's physically active. 

9. Lack of Sleep

Sleep problems are a common symptom of anxiety disorders, but not getting enough sleep can also make you more anxious.

According to research, 

Sleep deprivation is positively correlated with anxiety, as well as, tension, nervousness, and irritability.

One recent study showed that getting less than eight hours sleep can increase repetitive negative thoughts, and make it harder to let go of negative stuff  - symptoms that are characteristic of anxiety. 

Recommendation:

  • Aim to get 8 hours of sleep each night
  • Try to go to bed around 22:00 and no later than midnight
  • Make your room dark at night - close curtain, screens or blinds, and turn of electronics.
  •  Avoid eating three hours before bedtime.

10. Watching the News

Anxiety is characterized by excessive worry and fear, and watching the news can exacerbate that problem, leaving you feeling moody and anxious afterward.

One study found that,

Watching the news on television triggers persisting negative psychological feelings.

The participants as part of that study experienced an increase in anxiety, and total mood disturbance (TMD), only 15 minutes after watching the news.  

While it is important to keep up to date with what is going on in the world, watching or reading the news first thing in the morning can set an anxious tone for the day, while engaging with negative images and words last thing at night, is likely to affect your sleep quality.

Now that you know news has this kind of affect on anxiety, make sure you avoid anything news-related first thing and last thing of the day.

Recommendation: Get into the habit of doing something positive when you first wake up and just before you go to sleep such as meditation, stretching, journaling,  affirmations , and yoga.

11. Comparing Yourself to Others 

In today's world with social media and the internet, we have instant access to images from peoples' lives, making it easy and common to have a habit of comparing yourself to others. 

But when you do this on a daily basis, you cause unhappiness, low mood, and negative thoughts, that lead to anxiety. 

Also, comparing yourself to others is unrealistic and unfair, because you're likely to focus on someone's best aspects in comparison to your weakest.  

A flower does not think to compete to the flower next to it, it just blooms.


- Zen Shin

I compared myself to others for most of my life and it caused me a lot of pain and suffering. During that time it never occurred to me that I have anything great to offer. But when I copied others in their style and personality traits, I wasn't pleased with that either.

It was only when my anxiety became unbearable and I started to read self-help books that I understood, each person on this planet is unique and has unique strengths and talents. When something is unique, by definition it cannot be compared to someone or something else.

This is when I began practicing returning focus on myself, and letting go of what others are doing and achieving. This was liberating, a feeling that I want you to feel as well.

I also understood the following,

The only person you should try to be better than, is who you were yesterday.


- Anonymous

The more you focus on your own abilities and achievements, the more you will love yourself. And when you learn to truly love yourself, comparison and anxiety are likely to disappear.

Recommendations:

12. Ignoring Your Anxiety

Your anxiety is a signal that is trying to indicate that there is something you need to work on or change. If you ignore this signal, it is going to get louder, until it is heard

I was someone who ignored my anxiety for over 15 years, while carrying on as usual, but eventually, my anxiety took control over me and my life! 

In my experience, it is much better to start paying attention to your anxiety as soon as you can, to identify your negative thought patterns and bad habits before things get out of hand.

For example, start keeping a daily record of your

  • Anxiety levels 
  • Daily Activities - meals, exercise, journaling, affirmations, etc.
  • Worries and fears  
  • 15-minutes brain dump

By doing this, you can identify the things that makes you more anxious, or less anxious, and then make changes accordingly. 

This is how I came up with the above list of bad habits, and how you can also become aware of any other habits that need your time and attention.

Recommendations:

Final Thoughts on Bad Habits that Make Anxiety Worse

Your anxiety disorder could have started as a result of something that was outside of your control, such as trauma or death of a loved one. 

But you can adopt habits that make your anxiety worse, and that is something you can try to change.

Some of the things that can make your anxiety worse include lack of exercise, poor diet and eating habits, dehydration, additives, refined sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and not enough sleep.

Make a list of your bad habits, and set small actionable goals to make your first steps in changing them.

Once you start take action to manage your anxiety, you can expect to relieve your symptoms. 

The power is within you. If you want to do this, you can, I promise you!

Love, Sandi

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Sandra is the founder of Amosuir and anxiety expert based on personal experience. Her anxiety advice has been featured in Best Life, Human Window, Life Hacker Guy, Morning Lazziness, Clockify, Blunt Therapy, and Outwit Trade.

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