If you, or someone you know is experiencing anxiety or depression there are a number of steps that can be taken to prevent, minimize, and treat the symptoms. Ultimately it comes down to asking for help, finding the right treatment plan, and then reducing the stress triggers in your life.
That third step is incredibly important because there is a very strong link between psychological stress and depressive or anxious episodes. If you can reduce the stress in your life, you will likely experience fewer, or less intense, anxiety and depression episodes.
There are a number of natural ways (with no medication) that you can use to reduce stress triggers in your life. These generally fall into three categories:
- Allocate more time to the things in your life that reduce anxiety and depression
- Incorporating new habits into your life that can reduce stress
- Reprogram your brain pathways which cause you to react the way you do to stress
Exercise is one of the most important things you can do to combat stress. Physical stress can relieve mental stress, and the benefits are strongest when you exercise regularly.
How does exercise alleviate stress?
- Stress hormones (such as cortisol) are lowered
- Endorphins that improve mood are enhanced
- Exercise improves sleep quality
- Confidence and competence are enhanced when you exercise regularly which gives you a sense of well being physically and mentally.
It is important to find an exercise activity that you enjoy. Whether you enjoy walking, running, yoga, dancing, kayaking, spin classes – or anything in between – simply moving more will help reduce the stress in your life.
People experiencing anxiety and depression have essentially have experienced something which has triggered their brain to go into “survival mode” where it signals the body to go into a “fight-or-flight” response. When the perceived fear is gone, the brain should tell all systems to go back to normal, but under anxiety or depression the brain does not send a relaxation response. This impacts your body in many ways, but deep breathing exercises help activate your parasympathetic nervous system which controls your relaxation response.
There are several types of deep breathing exercises that you can use, but the goal is to focus your awareness on your breath, making it slower and deeper.
Try this breathing exercise:
- Breathe in deep through your nose, filling up your belly, expanding your rib cage, and raising your chest
- Hold your breath for 5 seconds
- Slowly release your breath through pursed lips
- Hold for another 5 seconds
This breathing exercise helps to slow your heart rate, allowing you to feel more peaceful, calm, and relaxed.
Having social support from friends, family, and loved ones gives you a sense of belonging and lifts your self-worth. The fewer social connections one has, the more likely they are to suffer from anxiety and depression. Women especially experience a release of oxytocin when around people they love, which is a natural stress reliever and counteracts the stress response.
Furthermore, when around loved ones you may experience more laughter, which relieves tension in your muscles, relieves the stress response, and can improve your immune system and mood.
Cuddling, kissing, and sex can all also help relieve stress by releasing oxytocin, lowering cortisol, and lowering blood pressure.
Also don’t forget about your furry friends! Spending time with a pet, whether it’s yours or a borrowed one, causes your brain to release oxytocin which improves your mood. Spending time with a pet can also keep you active and provide companionship which aid in stress reduction.
Caffeine is a stimulant that can increase anxiety. It is found in coffee, tea, chocolate, and energy drinks. Each person has a different threshold for how much caffeine they can tolerate, and if you notice that caffeine makes you anxious, you may want to consider cutting back.
Learning to avoid procrastination is another way to take control of your stress and be able to follow through with your priorities. If you are constantly procrastinating, you are constantly trying to make up for lost time, which leads to negatively affecting your mental and physical health, and especially your sleep quality.
If you don’t currently have a system to organize your tasks, try allocating time each week to make a prioritized your list of “wants”, “needs” and “shoulds”. This can help give you a realistic time frames and keep your stress levels low.
Incorporate new habits that can reduce stress
Yoga balances your body and your mind through body and breath awareness. It can be as effective as an antidepressant for depression and anxiety as it affects the nervous system and stress response, lowers cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate, and it increases gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) – a neurotransmitter that helps mood disorders.
Be sure to let the instructor know of any injuries or limitations you may have so that the exercises can be adapted to you.
Pick a time each day that works best for you, that you’re going to practice journaling every day. Even if it’s just a few sentences, you can write down what you’re grateful for. Acknowledging what you are grateful for helps relieve stress by focusing your thoughts on what’s positive in your life.
8. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness practice helps to anchor you to the present moment. It helps to lower negative rumination or thinking that causes stress, anxiety, and eventually depression.
There are several methods for increasing mindfulness:
- Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy
- Cognitive self-hypnosis
- Neurofeedback (that is like a “fast track meditation”)
- Yoga classes that incorporate mediation.
- These types of mindfulness reduce or eliminate symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression and can increase self-esteem.
There are several supplements that promote stress, anxiety, and depression reduction:
- Lemon balm has anti-anxiety effects.
- Omega-3 fatty acids can reduce anxiety symptoms.
- Ashwagandha is an herb used to treat stress and anxiety.
- Green tea contains many polyphenol antioxidants which provide health benefits, and can lower stress and anxiety by increasing serotonin levels.
- Valerian is a root that has a tranquilizing effect and is used as a sleep aid. It contains valerenic acid, which alters gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors to lower anxiety.
- Kava kava is a psychoactive member of the pepper family and is used as a sedative to treat mild stress and anxiety.
Using essential oils or burning a scented candle has been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety, and can improve sleep quality.
Some of the most calming scents:
- Roman chamomile
- Yang ylang
- Orange or orange blossom
Reprogram your brain pathways which cause you to react the way you do to stress
When you encounter a stressful event, and you go into “survival mode” or a “fight-or-flight” response, your brain reacts with unconscious programming that you developed from childhood. This programming cannot be altered simply with counselling, mindfulness, or the above techniques. In order for you to change your unconscious programming, you need to use one (or a combination) of the following two techniques.
Neurofeedback trains the brain to be more flexible and resilient. It uses a Neuroptimal device to monitor your brainwaves and the devices gives subtle cues to your brain when it detects inefficient functioning. With practice your brain will become more flexible and resilient, and you will then respond better to hypnotherapy, cognitive self-hypnosis, and other mindfulness practices.
Hypnotherapy is when you work with a hypnotherapist to reprogram your unconscious programming. We all go through a state of hypnosis every hour and a half. You may notice this when you are reading a book or watching a movie – tuning out other things in your environment. In this state you are relaxed and capable of heightened imagination and suggestion.
When you are in a state of hypnosis, your unconscious programming is open to positive suggestion. Your hypnotherapist guides you through addressing your negative programming, and replaces them with positive programming. Similar to how one might direct a play, your hypnotherapist guides you, but ultimately it is you who decides which directions to take, which suggestions to accept, and whether to explore what is being suggested.
Navigating all of the options above may seem overwhelming, or you may not know where to start. We work with individuals every week who are seeking to reduce and manage their anxiety, stress, or depression. You can request an appointment online or call our office at (604) 770-3038.