A Holistic Approach to Anxiety

Contributor(s): Andrea Uptmor, MA, MFA
a lone silhouette standing in front of a sunset

One of the most powerful aspects of anxiety is its ability to convince you that you are alone in your suffering—that the fearful, shaky feeling is unique to you. But the truth is that everyone is affected by anxiety at some point, whether in response to a real threat or a perceived one. In fact, we’re hard-wired to want to flee when things get scary; it’s what keeps us alive and safe.

But when anxiety begins to arise regularly in the absence of an actual threat, it can have a negative effect on your physical health, your mood, emotional wellbeing, and even your relationships with others. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 40 million people suffer from an anxiety disorder. When anxiety begins to impact daily life, many people benefit from seeking professional help, such as psychotherapy and/or medication. They may also work with an integrative provider to benefit from therapies such as botanical medicine or functional nutrition or massage.

Whether or not you are seeking medical treatment, there are many things you can do on your own to feel better. Anxiety doesn’t have an on/off switch; rather, the choices you make can add up to an increased sense of calm. Here are some things you can do:

Pay attention

At the center of any kind of emotional work is awareness: the ability to notice what emotion is arising and what the triggers were.  Awareness is about paying attention—it doesn’t take a special effort, just a willingness to look at what’s happening with an attitude of nonjudgment and friendliness.  

So when a feeling of anxiety arises, ask yourself: is there a real threat here? If there is, do what you can to remove yourself from it. If there isn’t, then give yourself a break from participating in the drama and instead watch the energy of the feeling rise and eventually pass away on its own. If  the fear is not too intense, see what it feels like to sit with the feeling instead of trying to escape it. This might feel like hard work, but that’s okay—just keep renewing your commitment to pay attention, while being kind to yourself.

Ask questions

Sometimes anxiety arises in response to troublesome thoughts, such as “I believe I am a failure” or “Everyone is judging me.” When you notice anxiety arising from a thought, ask yourself: Is this thought true? Or is it a story I’m telling myself? Be honest about which thoughts are based on real evidence and which ones are only convincing because they “feel” powerful. (You may even want to write these thoughts down so you can reflect on them later, when you are feeling calm.)

Take care of your body

The mind-body connection is never more obvious than when we’re caught up in a state of anxiety—fearful thoughts prompt a biochemical response in the body (racing heart, shallow breath, dry mouth), and the mind interprets these physical symptoms as further evidence of something being “wrong.”

Sometimes our lifestyle choices can trigger this cycle: drinking too much caffeine, for example, produces a physical response that the mind may associate with anxiety, which can unleash a habitual wave of worrisome thoughts.

This tripwire effect can be managed more effectively by taking good care of your body. Limiting (or eliminating completely) caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol from your diet is recommended by most experts. Incorporating mindful movement can also help facilitate a strong sense of calm; a 2014 research review suggests that qigong can be an effective practice for reducing anxiety. Ensure good sleep by maintaining a calm sleeping environment—keep cell phones, computers, and televisions out of the bedroom.

Relax on purpose

Meditation, mindful breathing, guided imagery, and body scans are all good techniques that can induce feelings of relaxation. Many of these can be practiced anywhere—riding the bus, loading the dishwasher, sitting at your desk—and require nothing but a few minutes of your time. Try practicing purposeful relaxation at different times of the day, even when you are not feeling stressed or anxious.

Make your space a calm space

Our attitudes and feelings are often reflections of our surroundings, so creating a healing environment can help bring a sense of peace and joy to our lives. Here are some tips:

  • Paint your walls or buy a comforter in a color that you find soothing.
  • Let natural light in during the day.
  • Spend time near a window, or hang pictures of calm landscapes, such as a still pond or a tree blowing gently in the breeze.
  • Tuck lavender sachets in your closet, drawers, or file cabinets.
  • Have an “electronics-free” space where you can sit, away from the noise of the television and distraction of the internet—both of which can sometimes be agitating.

Talk about it

Last—but perhaps most importantly—be willing to open up about your anxiety. Some benefit from talking with a therapist, while others may find comfort in confiding in a close friend or sharing their feelings with an internet community. Trusted relationships have a measurable impact on wellbeing and can act as a buffer against the pain and fear of anxious feelings—especially when you realize that you’re not alone in your suffering.