When you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, it can be difficult to know where to start. I’m Emma McAdam. I’m a licensed therapist. And in this post we’re going to talk about the first steps you can take to start treating your anxiety.
First, an anxiety disorder diagnosis does not mean that you are defective. It doesn’t mean that it’s your fault. You’re not broken. The disorder is treatable, and it doesn’t have to be permanent.
Anxiety is a real and challenging condition where our physiology, our mind, and our experiences get caught up in this cycle of increasing worries and physical symptoms. But that cycle can be turned around with the right knowledge, skills, and practice. It may be difficult to break the pattern on your own, but with the right support and resources you can overcome an anxiety disorder.
1. Talk to Your Doctor to Explore Options for Treating Anxiety
The first thing you could consider is to see a doctor. Now, you can look into medication options, but that’s not the reason I think you should do this first. You should see a doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions.
Before spending tons of money or effort on therapy or psych meds or other treatments, you should just make sure that your body is healthy. Knowing that your heart and lungs are just fine will help reassure you that your symptoms are anxiety-induced rather than otherwise.
Anxiety is also associated with medical conditions, so you may want to get tested for vitamin D, Bs, magnesium, zinc, iron, and other common nutrient deficiencies that can impact sleep, energy, and mood, and just get checked for general physical health.
And you might want to consider blood tests to rule out things like thyroid disorders, diabetes, sleep disorders, MS, Lyme disease, food allergies, gluten intolerance, endocrine disorders, hormonal changes.
I’m not saying that you have any of these conditions, but you could consider getting checked just to make sure that you’re healthy because many physical disorders mimic anxiety. So if it turns out to be, you know, a magnesium deficiency or some other thing that’s really impacting your mood, then that’s something that’s a lot more easy to treat than spending months in therapy.
Now, I’m a therapist. I love therapy. I think it’s incredible that anyone can do therapy. But your physical health also really matters.
And the other thing you could talk with your doctor about is supplementing with some of these supplements that have a lot of research showing their effectiveness at improving anxiety. So B-complex, zinc, magnesium, vitamin D, and fish oil.
For many people these supplements do nothing, and the research is still in progress to determine effectiveness, but there is some evidence that these supplements may be helpful with anxiety symptoms for people who are nutrient deficient, and they also tend to be inexpensive, and they tend to have few, if any, side effects at the correct doses.
Now, medication can be an effective way to kickstart or supplement or maintain the treatment of anxiety, but it’s generally not the best long-term solution. There’s a lot of options, so just discuss them with your doctor and with your therapist.
2. Find a Therapist who specializes in treating Anxiety
Number two: Find a therapist or a support group or an education group that can help you find resources and explore the underlying causes of your anxiety and help you solve problems.
Therapy literally changes brain chemistry and structure. It’s effective for up to 85% of people who seek help.
Now, different therapists use different approaches to anxiety, so it may take you a few tries to find a therapist who you feel comfortable with and who also helps you stretch and learn and grow. So don’t quit if the first therapist or the first couple sessions don’t work out. Try someone else if the first one you try doesn’t work.
3. Know Your Treatment Options for Anxiety
After starting with that, it’s really good to know your treatment options. The following treatments have been shown to be effective at treating anxiety, and I would just recommend that you choose from this long list of effective treatments. I would just choose one that’s going to be easy for you. Choose one thing that you could work on every day. You don’t have to do them all.
So this is your third option. Learn about anxiety. Learn how it works in the brain and the body and the nervous system. Understanding anxiety can give you the tools to beat it.
This includes learning about the fight/flight/freeze response and the parasympathetic nervous system, learning about perceived danger and actual safety, learning about the anxiety cycle, and how avoidance feeds anxiety, and also how to use gradual exposure to beat anxiety.
Now, I teach about the first part of this, what anxiety is like in your body, in my free course Grounding Skills for Anxiety, Stress, and PTSD, so check that out if you want to learn more about that.
4. Exercise is Awesome for Anxiety
Number four: Exercise. Just start adding a little movement to your day, even if it’s just a little bit. So in studies, exercise has consistently been shown to be more effective than medication at treating anxiety, and it’s great for your body too.
Don’t don’t get overwhelmed. You just choose a small goal, like adding in a walk every day. For some people intense cardio yoga or tai chi is most effective. But the most important thing is that you just find some type of physical movement that you enjoy.
5. Practice Mindfulness
Number five: Mindfulness. Okay. Mindfulness is very hot. It’s a buzzword right now. Everyone’s talking about it. Some people love it, some people don’t. At least just give it a try. There’s a bunch of free videos on YouTube that you can use, or you could also use an app like Headspace or Calm.
Mindfulness has been shown to help reduce anxiety and help people develop skills to manage the physical symptoms that accompany anxiety.
6. Decrease Caffeine Consumption
Number six: Decrease your caffeine use.
Most people don’t know that caffeine impacts brain chemistry for up to 72 hours after consumption. So it literally shuts down the calming and relaxing chemical adenosine in your brain.
If you think caffeine may be impacting you, just try a seven-day fast from caffeine to see if that impacts your anxiety levels. Or if that just seems too difficult, try drinking less or drinking only early in the day.
7. Improve Your Sleep
Number seven: Improve your sleep. Anxiety and insomnia are really closely linked, and improving sleep has been shown to decrease anxiety. When our brain is rested, it can work through emotions and challenges more effectively.
So there’s a couple ways to do this, but the first thing is to practice good sleep hygiene. Like, turn your screens off an hour before bed, and make your sleep environment cool and dark and quiet. I’ve got a video on this if you want to learn more about it.
8. Manage Your Stress
Number eight: Stress management. The reason medication isn’t the most effective long-term treatment is because there is no medication out there that’s going to teach you how to manage your stress.
So a really effective long-term solution is just to learn some relaxation techniques, some self-regulation techniques. And these include guided imagery, deep breathing, grounding, progressive muscle relaxation, and others.
So our body and our brain, they’re in a feedback loop. They tell each other when to be anxious and when to be calm. And often it’s easier to calm our body first, and that’ll trigger our mind to relax, rather than telling ourselves, “Don’t be anxious,” which usually backfires.
So again, I teach these skills in my free online course.
9. Learn Willingness
And speaking of skills, number nine is willingness. So my favorite skill from acceptance and commitment therapy is willingness, and it’s all about developing these active emotional muscles to notice and explore and accept your present-moment experience.
When we learn that we can feel what we’re feeling and it won’t injure us, we develop the ability to directly face our emotions and challenges without needing to escape or avoid them, and this gives us control back over our lives.
So willingness can help you face your fears, and when you do that over time, anxiety generally goes down. And I teach a really in-depth approach to this in my course How to Process Your Emotions. Another great resource to learn this is the book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.
10. Focus on Your Purpose
Number 10: Focus on a purpose for your life. Find a reason for you that makes it worth it to face scary and uncomfortable things as you work to overcome anxiety’s grip on you. “He who has a why can endure any how,” Nietzsche said.
So long story short, the anxiety cycle is when you feel anxious and you avoid something. You tell your brain that that thing is actually dangerous, which makes you more anxious. So one of the ways to treat anxiety is learning to face your anxiety directly, face your fears directly, and to do those hard things, and then that rewires your brain to be less anxious.
But in order to be willing to do that hard thing, we need to have a purpose.
So when you have a purpose and a values-driven life, you’ll be more willing to go to that party that scares you because you value being with people. Or you’ll be more willing to speak up at work because you value contributing. And that’s going to help you overcome anxiety and not be controlled by the anxiety that has paralyzed you in the past.
And in that way your life’s going to become more full and more rich. So exploring your values, for me I consider that a key to learning to reduce anxiety. So if you’re interested in learning how to do that, I would recommend doing the values exercise that is section 30 in my Emotion Processing course.
And remember, you don’t have to do all these things. Just pick the easiest one first and do that one, and then you can try the next one. Just consider it a fun chance to explore what might work best for you.
I know that you can learn the skills to decrease your anxiety and change your relationship with anxiety if you’re willing to try some new things.
If you would like more Anxiety help, check out my free resource, the Quick Start guide to Anxiety, below.
Okay. I hope that helps. Thank you for watching, and take care.