The only people that truly understand anxiety are people who have experienced it. It’s hard to explain to friends and family why simple tasks can feel overwhelming or why normal social situations can feel unbearable. Have you recently thought, “Anxiety is ruining my life. What do I do?“
This comprehensive guide on what to do when anxiety is ruining your life compiles everything I’ve learned in my experience with anxiety.
For a while anxiety ruined my life. I wanted to do the things I feared, but the fear always won. The more avoidant I became, the more intense the fear became.
Anxiety doesn’t have to ruin your life. You can manage and overcome anxiety with proven techniques, from affordable therapeutic modalities to free lifestyle changes.
Table of Contents
- What are the different types of anxiety?
- You are not your anxiety diagnosis.
- How to stop anxiety from ruining your life.
- Optimize your physical health
- Reduce caffeine to manage anxiety
- Eat well to manage anxiety
- Exercise regularly to manage anxiety
- Regulate your breathing to manage anxiety
- Change your thought patterns
- Cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety
- Mental techniques to improve anxiety on your own
- Hypnotherapy for anxiety
- Face your fears
- How to face your fears
- Apply the five-second rule
- Put things into perspective
Before I launch into what to do about anxiety I want to share a little bit about my experience.
When my anxiety started I had no idea what was going on. I used to enjoy going to dance class and performing on stage as a kid. When I entered middle school, the anxiety hit. A hobby that once brought me joy started to incite intense fear. Eventually, I stopped showing up to the studio and started avoiding my interests altogether.
This pattern continued as I got older. I feared driving, going to interviews, getting a job, going to parties, walking through campus, speaking up in class, wearing clothes I wanted to wear, taking a bus alone, entering the gym, moving to a new place, long-distance travel, going on dates, the list goes on.
It’s normal to feel a healthy degree of fear and discomfort in many of the situations listed above. Few people feel perfectly content in a high-pressure job interview or a first date, however, anxiety takes discomfort to a different level.
Anxiety can escalate from sweaty palms to panic attacks. People who experience panic attacks have a unique fear which is the fear of having another panic attack.
Anxiety is Ruining My Life. What Do I Do?
Anxiety is not forever. I was able to walk through fear and overcome anxiety step-by-step using a combination of lifestyle changes, mental exercises, challenges, and powerful shifts.
- I went from avoiding doctors appointments to actively managing my health.
- I went from being unable to raise my hand in a small classroom to leading presentations in a work setting.
- I went from physically being sick and cancelling dates to dating without experiencing discomfort.
- I went from having panic attacks taking public transportation to flying across the world and travelling through over five countries alone.
What are the different types of anxiety?
There are five major types of anxiety disorders. The following definitions are directly from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and act as a starting point for understanding anxiety.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder, GAD, is an anxiety disorder characterized by chronic anxiety, exaggerated worry and tension, even when there is little or nothing to provoke it.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, OCD, is an anxiety disorder and is characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviours (compulsions). Repetitive behaviours such as hand washing, counting, checking, or cleaning are often performed with the hope of preventing obsessive thoughts or making them go away. Performing these so-called “rituals,” however, provides only temporary relief, and not performing them markedly increases anxiety.
- Panic Disorder
Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder and is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.
- Social Phobia (or Social Anxiety Disorder)
Social Phobia, or Social Anxiety Disorder, is an anxiety disorder characterized by overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations. Social phobia can be limited to only one type of situation – such as a fear of speaking in formal or informal situations, or eating or drinking in front of others – or, in its most severe form, may be so broad that a person experiences symptoms almost anytime they are around other people.
When anxiety is ruining your life, remember that you are not your anxiety diagnosis.
When I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) I started to associate my identity with my anxiety.
“I have anxiety” and “I’m an anxious person” were unhelpful labels that made it easier for me to avoid scary things. If I cancelled a commitment I would use my diagnosis to justify my avoidance.
I started to perceive myself as different from my friends who were able to be comfortable in social situations, apply for intimidating jobs, and travel to far-away places.
“They don’t have an anxiety disorder.” This thought process created a self-limiting belief and a list of things I wouldn’t do. I was able to break free from this limitation by recognizing the following:
- Anxiety isn’t unique: Anxiety affects 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older every year.
- Anxiety is not a personality trait: Anxiety is highly treatable and doesn’t define who you are.
- Anxiety changes: Although it may feel like you’re anxious 100% of the time, anxiety comes and goes (if even for a few seconds) and it’s not a constant reality.
Read the full article Your Anxiety Diagnosis is Bullshit for more on the labelling theory.
How to stop anxiety from ruining your life.
It’s not the symptoms of anxiety that ruin your life, it’s the decisions to avoid situations and experiences that make you anxious in exchange for comfort.
Anxiety shrinks your life. It limits the places you will go, the jobs you will apply for, and the experiences you will have. Anxiety puts you into a tiny box and if you have anxiety you know what I’m talking about.
When you choose comfort over fear by cancelling the date, not speaking up, or deciding not to show up to the doctor’s appointment, you may experience the following:
- You feel temporarily relieved and then you feel uneasy like you did the wrong thing.
- You feel angry at others, at the situation, at yourself, and at the anxiety.
- You feel disappointment and sadness at the lost opportunity.
- You feel regretful about your decision.
- You feel hopeless.
- You feel trapped.
If these feelings are familiar to you, it’s time to reclaim your power and conquer anxiety one step at a time.
Warning: overcoming anxiety can be scary.
You need to walk through the fear to realize it was all an illusion. The good news is, the place you’re standing right now — stuck, afraid, and anxious — is worse than the fear you’re about to face.
1. Optimize Your Physical Health
After I sought help from a mental health professional following a panic attack while driving, I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication. I left the office with the paper slip and messy scrawls in my hands and made a decision that day to change my physical lifestyle and optimize my mental health before I decided to fill the prescription.
Disclaimer: I decided not to fill the prescription. The modalities I outline below were effective for me and I have not taken medication for anxiety. People find success with anti-anxiety medication. I believe the following lifestyle changes are important for everyone (medicated or not).
Reduce caffeine to manage anxiety
If you’re a coffee lover like me you will find this truth painful. Your caffeine habit has an effect on your anxiety.
Experts even coined the term “caffeine-induced anxiety disorder” to describe individuals who regularly consume enough caffeine to trigger symptoms that can be classified as anxiety. Caffeine-induced symptoms are similar to anxiety:
- trouble sleeping
- fast heart rate
- gastrointestinal problems
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Trusted Source recommends 400 milligrams of caffeine a day (approximately 4 cups of coffee) to avoid negative effects. Everyone is unique and factors like body weight, metabolism, and preexisting anxiety affect this daily intake recommendation.
I decided to try this out for myself and gave up caffeine for two weeks. I’ve quit caffeine during two-week long meditations retreats but it was hard to differentiate if the reduction in anxiety was attributed to being caffeine-free or meditating for eight hours a day.
The true test was when I gave up caffeine while working at my busy 9-5 office job after regularly consuming anywhere from 3-6 cups of coffee a day. The effects were tremendous. I saw a significant reduction in my anxiety and despite the initial withdrawal symptoms, I felt incredible after the first week.
Despite these results, I continue to drink coffee. However, if you feel like anxiety is ruining your life, eliminating caffeine for a trial period is a great place to start.
Eat well to manage anxiety
Researchers at Harvard University published the paper “Eating well to help manage anxiety” and shared a few simple dietary guidelines that can help people with debilitating anxiety. The suggestions are basic and intuitive and yet I bet neither of us are checking everything off the list:
Here’s what Harvard suggested will help anxious people reduce symptoms through diet:
- Eat a healthy and balanced diet along the lines of a Mediterranean diet.
- Cut back on sugar and processed foods.
- Cut back on caffeine, alcohol, and smoking cigarettes.
- Eat foods rich in zinc, like whole grains, oysters, kale, broccoli, legumes, and nuts.
- Eat foods rich in magnesium: fish, avocado, dark leafy greens.
- Eat foods rich in vitamin B, such as asparagus, leafy greens, meat, and avocado.
- Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, for example, wild caught salmon.
- Eat probiotic-rich foods like kefir, yogurt, and other fermented foods.
- Eating regular meals to prevent hypoglycemic states.
- Adequately hydrating with at least six to eight glasses of plain water a day.
Sugar is a big one. The researchers at Harvard said that sugar highs can actually trigger anxiety attacks and that balancing blood sugar can be very effective at reducing anxiety-like symptoms.
Exercise regularly to manage anxiety
Can exercise help treat anxiety? Yes, exercise is extremely effective at reducing anxiety and I can personally vouch for it. Once again, Harvard has reported that exercise is an effective treatment for anxiety by achieving the following:
- Engaging in exercise distracts you from the thing you are anxious about.
- Moving your body physically decreases muscle tension, lowering the sensation of anxiety in the body.
- Getting your heart rate up changes brain chemistry, increasing the availability of important anti-anxiety neurochemicals, including serotonin, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and endocannabinoids.
- Exercise activates frontal regions of the brain responsible for executive function, which helps control the amygdala, our reacting system to real or imagined threats to our survival.
- Exercising regularly builds up resources that bolster resilience against stormy emotions.
The idea of going for a run or going to the gym used to cause me anxiety. Start simple, engage in free at-home workouts like dancing, yoga, pilates, body weight strength training, HIIT, the list goes on.
Yoga and running are the most impactful for my anxiety. I run when I feel a build-up of stagnant energy, agitation, or panic. Running changes your brain chemistry, boosts feel-good hormones, and is a positive release for emotional heat.
I step onto my yoga mat when I’m feeling stuck in my head. If I’m obsessively thinking about something, spiralling, or worrying I will engage in a fast-paced yoga flow and sync my breath with my poses. This practice is grounding and welcomes you back into your physical body.
Regulate your breathing to manage anxiety
Just breathe, used to be one of the most frustrating responses to my anxiety. Think of it this way, when you’re in the depths of an anxiety attack the least helpful advice is someone telling you to eat a Mediterranean diet, drink less caffeine, exercise regularly, or get a prescription.
Breathing is the biological tool that can be used right now.
Breathing rapidly in and out activates the sympathetic nervous system also known as “the fight or flight response”. Conversely, slow deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic response also known as “rest and digest”.
The body has a built-in stress response that acts like an emergency break. Research has shown that breathing exercises can have immediate effects by altering the pH of the blood and changing blood pressure.
Use this breathing technique during an anxiety attack:
Pranayama is the the regulation of the breath through exercises. Sama Vrtti Pranayama (Box Breathing) is one of the most simple and effective breathing exercises. It’s simple and can be done anytime and anywhere.
- Start in a comfortable seated position.
- Inhale through your nose for a slow count of four.
- Hold the air in at the top for a breath (or a count of 1-2).
- Exhale through your nose for a slow count of four.
- Hold the air out at the bottom for a breath (or a count of 1-2).
- Repeat the cycle for a full round of 10.
- You can also increase the count from four to five, six or seven if you want longer, slower rounds.
2. Change your thought patterns
Do you believe everything you think? How many times have you convinced yourself that something is happening, probably happened, or is going to happen and been wrong.
Imagine you had a friend that constantly gave you bad advice. The little voice in your head is that well intentioned friend. It wants to protect you so it inflates the danger around you. Just like an overprotective parent, it convinces you that the world is scary, the worst case scenario might happen, and you should probably just stay home.
Changing your thought patterns starts with developing an awareness of this voice and realizing it’s not accurate and it’s not who you are. That voice is a program in your brain that’s hardwired to protect you and you are the awareness that observes it.
Cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is one of the most highly recommended treatments for anxiety disorders. CBT helps people with the following:
- Learning to recognize distortions in thinking that are creating problems.
- Reevaluating belief systems to change one’s reality.
- Gaining a better understanding of other people’s behaviours.
- Using problem-solving skills to cope with difficult situations.
- Learning to develop a greater sense of confidence.
- Facing one’s fears instead of avoiding them.
- Using role play to prepare for real-life interactions.
Finding the right therapist is important. I joined a university-based anxiety counselling group (the ultimate nightmare for a young adult with anxiety), trialled individual sessions with a male psychologist, met with a very expensive female psychotherapist, and eventually was matched with a holistic counsellor with a spiritual practice.
I specifically mention gender because I personally found more success with female counsellors. I identify as a woman and resonated more comfortably with people who also identified as women.
Many friends shared their great success using platforms like BetterHelp to be paired with the right therapist for their needs. BetterHelp allows you to answer questions, access a large network of licensed professionals, and start virtual counselling from the comfort of your home.
Mental techniques to improve anxiety on your own
Therapy is great but it’s not always affordable or accessible for everyone. There are free techniques used by CBT professionals that help you break free from anxiety on your own. Before I get started on how to change your maladaptive thought loops, let’s explore what they are:
- Catastrophizing: Imagining the worst possible outcome. “The abdominal pain I’ve been feeling is probably cancer and it’s probably terminal.”
- Mind reading: Imagining what others are thinking. “I know they they’re all looking at my outfit and think it looks stupid.”
- Fortune telling: Imagining what the future holds, but without data. “As soon as I walk in that interview they’re going to realize I’m not cut out for this job.”
- Black-and-white thinking: Considering only two possible outcomes. “This is either going to be the best or worst idea of my life.”
- Overgeneralizing: Painting all situations with a generalized outcome. “I always do poorly at public speaking, it’s happened since high school.”
How do you reprogram your brain to heal unhelpful thought loops? There are numerous techniques you can use.
- Take your mind (and body) off it: When you feel the anxiety symptoms start to kick in get up and get moving. Go for a run or start an intensive yoga routine (my go-to). If you’re unable to be physically active try to engage your brain. Distract yourself by immersing in a mental exercise.
- Identify thought loops: Use the list of problematic thought loops above to label your thought patterns as they arise. This makes the experience feel less personal and less true.
- Create a FUD chart: A FUD chart is a fears, uncertainties and doubts chart. Draw two columns, one for FUDs and one for certain facts. This is a tool I use often to ground myself in reality. Sometimes we mistake our feelings for facts. Writing down FUDs like, “I have skin cancer”, “I’m going to have to go through chemo”, “my life is over” next to facts like, “there’s a small mole on my back” will help you calm down during an anxiety attack.
Hypnotherapy for anxiety
Talk therapy is useful and can help individuals identify thought loops, create goals, and implement change in their lives over time. Hypnotherapy can deliver insights and behavioural change at the subconscious level.
Hypnotherapy is “a trance-like state of focus and concentration achieved with the help of a clinical hypnotherapist. This trance-like state is similar to being completely absorbed in a book, movie, music, or even one’s own thoughts or meditations. In this state, clients can turn their attention completely inward to find and utilize the natural resources deep within themselves that can help them make changes or regain control in certain areas of their life.”
Hypnotherapy is incredibly transformative because it allows you to access your subconscious mind. In Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality, the unconscious mind is defined as “a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that outside of conscious awareness.”
Our thoughts don’t create our reality, our subconcsious beliefs do.Lacy Phillips
We don’t like to go digging in our subconscious mind. The contents of the unconscious are often considered unacceptable or unpleasant, and include feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict.
If you have deeply held beliefs that you are embarrassing in social situations, that you will die in a plane crash, or a different debilitating belief that triggers anxious fixations, hypnosis could help you reprogram old beliefs and replace them with new ones.
I often use Leo Max’s guided hypnosis meditations on Insight Timer to help me work through tough emotions, ground in times of uncertainty, or relax during anxious episodes. There are also trained hypnotherapists that can help people in one-on-one sessions.
3. Face your fears
Everyones least favourite part… exposure therapy. Did anyone else watch the MTV show MADE? I’m cringing just thinking about it. In this popular self-improvement show, MTV picked a willing participant (usually an awkward highschooler) and promised to help them fulfill one of their long-held dreams.
Each teen was paired with a MADE Coach who assigned the teen with daily challenges. These challenges ranged from asking strangers on dates to performing on stage at the school talent show. The participants were made into opera singers, BMX riders, film directors, homecoming queens, stand-up comedians, fitness models, boxers, fashion designers, break dancers, etc.
This show always made me deeply uncomfortable because it forced people out of their comfort zone and made all of us watch. Sometimes I think of an anxiety coach or professional as a MADE Coach. They should ask you what you’re afraid of and push you to do it.
Yes, you will be uncomfortable. You may be embarrassed, fail, or hate every moment of it, but this work actually works.
How to face your fears:
- Make a list of all the situations, places, or objects that you fear. Group similar themes together (ex. social anxiety, health anxiety, general existential doom anxiety).
- Arrange the list from least scary to most scary. Create a “fear ladder” list for each theme.
- Consider factors that would make the fears more or less scary, including the length of time, time of day, environment, and who is with you (ex. Driving alone on a highway at rush hour would be scarier than driving through backroads with a friend in the middle of the day).
- Start exposing yourself to the fears on the bottom of the scale and work your way up.
- Prolong and repeat your exposure (ex. if you’re scared of heights stand on a balcony and gradually increase the duration you are out on the balcony every day).
- Keep at it. When you feel yourself getting too comfortable in your life, go do something that scares you!
I want to reiterate the last point “keep at it”. I used to be too afraid to take the streetcar, bus, or subway in my hometown. Eventually, I was flying to China, riding the Subway in Thailand, and driving a motorized scooter through Indonesia alone.
It’s easy to think that once you’ve overcome big fears that you’ll never have to deal with them again, and in some cases that’s true. If I stay in, limit my exposure, and avoid travel for a long period of time I feel my anxiety slowly creep back. This is why I like to consistently do things that scare me to build my exposure muscle.
Apply the five-second rule
The full article How to do things you don’t want to do goes into detail about techniques that help you face your fears and dreaded tasks. The five-second rule is was discovered by Mel Robbins. The five-second rule is a simple yet effective technique that involves counting down from five, getting up, and doing the thing you know you have to do that you don’t feel like doing.
During exposure therapy there will be times when you’re standing at the edge of a cliff willing yourself to jump. At times like this, the longer you stand there, the longer your mind will have to talk you out of it.
Count down: 5…4…3…2…1 and jump.
4. Put things into perspective
If anxiety is ruining your life this is the most powerful step that you can apply right now. Put things into perspective. Here are several existential truths that snap me out of my anxious spiraling.
We’re all going to die. When you’re on your deathbed, do you want to look back on your life full of regrets and unfulfilled dreams?
You’re not alone. Millions of people living and dead have experienced the same feelings you’re having right now. You’re not crazy. You’re human.
You’re living on a rock floating in space. Even if you’re about to do the scariest thing on earth it’s small in comparison to the vast space out there.
No one is thinking about you all the time, judging your outfit choices, tallying your mistakes, or obsessed with your every move. You don’t have to be so afraid to show up as your whole, real, authentic self.
It’s all temporary. The pain and the panic attacks will not last forever. You won’t feel anxious forever. Everything changes and you can get through this moment.
Anxiety is Ruining My Life. What Do I Do? Start Changing Your Life.
You’re facing the hardest part of anxiety right now. If you’re at rock bottom and you feeling hopeless, you’re actually going through the hardest part of the entire journey.
The final piece of advice I can offer is that it’s not enough to know. You have the information you need and it’s time to take action. Treat this like an experiment. Get curious about your fears and explore them one by one.