Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue in the US. More than 19 percent of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder each year and more than 31 percent will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Anxiety disorders are also among the most common co-occurring conditions in people with substance use disorders. One large study found that 17.7 percent of people with substance use disorders also have an anxiety disorder and that study excludes obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, which increases addiction risk far more. What’s more, studies show that in about 75 percent of cases, the anxiety disorder precedes the substance use disorder, suggesting that substance use is often a way of coping with anxiety symptoms. That’s why it’s crucial to find an addiction treatment program that can treat co-occurring conditions. It’s difficult to recover from addiction with an untreated anxiety disorder. Even people without anxiety disorders may feel anxious when facing stressful situations in recovery and this may lead to cravings. Here are some healthy ways of coping with anxiety.
When you’re anxious, your sympathetic nervous system, or your fight-or-flight system, is in charge. Your heartbeat speeds up, you get tense, and you feel short of breath. It’s hard to control your heart rate but you can control your breathing, which indirectly controls your heart rate. When you feel anxious, take a few slow, deep breaths. Slow breathing activates your vagus nerve, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts the fight-or-flight system. Slow breathing also improves your heart-rate variability and helps you absorb oxygen more efficiently. When your heart is pounding and your hands are shaking, try breathing in for a count of four and out for a count of six. Do this about 10 times and you should feel calmer.
Exercise is one of the best things you can do to decrease anxiety in both the short term and the long term. Exercise has been shown to release brain chemicals that improve your mood right away. These include endorphins, endocannabinoids, and serotonin. So if you feel anxious, one of the best things you can do is get some exercise, even if it’s only a short walk. Exercise also makes you less anxious in the long term. Exercise is thought to reduce anxiety by making your brain less reactive to stress by influencing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis. These areas are heavily involved in processing threats and negative emotions and they are also related to addiction.
Adequate sleep is essential to mental health and even moderate sleep deprivation is closely associated with anxiety. One study from UC Berkeley found that deep sleep was essential for keeping anxiety in check. The study split participants into two groups–one that got a normal night’s sleep and one that stayed up for 24 hours. The sleep-deprived group reported an average of 30 percent higher anxiety levels the next day. And when participants’ brains were studied in an fMRI, the sleep-deprived group showed more activity in the threat-sensitive amygdala and less activity in areas related to emotional regulation. In other words, sleep deprivation made them physically less able to control their anxiety.
There are a number of ways writing can reduce anxiety. One study from the University of Chicago found that students who experienced test anxiety improved their scores by an average of a letter grade by taking 10 minutes to write about their worries just before the test. This allowed them to focus more on the test than on their worries. Writing about whatever is making you anxious essentially gives your brain permission to stop thinking about it. Other studies have shown that writing about things you are grateful for can indirectly reduce anxiety by boosting feelings of gratitude.
We don’t often think of relaxation as a skill but it’s actually a pretty useful skill. Anxiety causes tension in the body. Just as breathing slower slows down your heart rate, relaxing the body makes your mind less anxious. Make a point of consciously relaxing every day. A common way to do this is to progressively relax every part of your body, starting at either your head or your feet. Before bed is a great time to do this. Relaxation does two things for you. First, it releases tension and is like hitting the reset button. Second, you are better able to let yourself relax during the day whenever you feel stress, anxiety, and tension creeping up on you. A mind-body practice like yoga or tai chi might help you improve your ability to be relaxed and focused.
Caffeine is useful for keeping us alert and focused but the physical effects of caffeine are the same as those of anxiety. Your heart rate increases, you get tense, your pupils dilate, and you generally are prepared to deal with a threat. This is fine if you’re trying to stay awake at work but it also amplifies anxiety. Perhaps more importantly, caffeine can disturb your sleep. It has a half-life of four to six hours so if you drink a lot of caffeine or consume caffeine late in the day, it can keep you from sleeping or keep you from sleeping deeply, which, as noted above, can make you more vulnerable to anxiety.
If you have a loved one who is struggling with addiction, Hired Power and our team of dynamic, experienced recovery professionals are here to guide you every step of the way. We offer many services, including helping you choose the best treatment program and transitional services, including interventions, sober monitoring, and personal recovery assistants. Call us today for information on our recovery services: 714-559-3919.
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