The first time I remember having a panic attack, I was in my 20’s. I was between jobs and staying with my parents for a few weeks before moving to Chicago. My days were lazy – I’d sleep in, watch a little TV, hang out with my siblings, and stay up late reading the stacks of Reader’s Digests on the coffee table.

One evening, sitting in my car in a grocery store parking lot, I was overwhelmed by a sense of doom. Paralyzed, I couldn’t get out of the car – I was terrified someone might attack me on the way in. Later that night at home, I couldn’t stop obsessing about how easy it would be for someone to break into the house.

That was my first real taste of anxiety and it was miserable. Desperately in need of relief, I did some sleuthing, and wondered if maybe my steady diet of daytime talk shows and true crime mysteries might be contributing factors. Not to mention my routine of staying up late reading and sleeping until late morning.

I decided to keep a better schedule and change up my routine. I spent more time outside and went blueberry picking with my mom. I turned off the television and learned how to can peaches. And I started feeling better.

Since that time I’ve learned I’m not alone.

Anxiety is a debilitating disorder that affects over 40 million of us and is the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorder. Symptoms can be as benign as a mild sense of uneasiness or as serious as an inability to leave the house. The physical manifestations of anxiety can make us feel like we are dying (read more about why here). In fact, people often think they are having a heart attack when it’s actually anxiety.

While benzodiazepines (such as Ativan, Klonopin and Xanax) are often prescribed for anxiety, there are a lot of good reasons not to take them. For one, they function more like a band-aid, meaning they may provide some short-term symptom relief, but do not address the root of the problem. Two, these medications are highly addictive and can easily be misued. Withdrawal symptoms are miserable. (Some of the worst anxiety I’ve seen is in people who were unable to obtain Xanax after taking it for a long period of time.)

Ultimately, with a few exceptions, medication is not the answer. Lifestyle changes and behavioral interventions are far more effective. These don’t always provide the instant relief so many are looking for, but they will help address underlying causes, and hopefully prevent future symptoms from escalating. I’ve found a lot of people fail to see the connection between lifestyle habits and their anxiety symptoms, but the reality is, the choices we make can have a significant impact on our mental well-being.

If you are suffering from anxiety, ask yourself if any of these common habits could be exacerbating your symptoms:

  1. Staying up too late/interrupted sleep – according to the National Institutes of Health, 40 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders. (I can’t help but notice this is about the same prevalence of anxiety disorders.) The sleep/anxiety problem is a vicious cycle—poor sleep habits can cause anxiety and anxiety can disrupt our sleep. If you have trouble sleeping, try first to adjust your routine. Experts recommend avoiding screens within 2 hours of bedtime, going to bed the same time each night, keeping your room cool and dark, and developing a pleasant bedtime routine. If you have tried all these things and continue to have trouble sleeping, consult your doctor. Getting regular, quality sleep needs to be a priority in all of our lives. For more information, click here
  2. A diet high in sugar, processed foods – Full disclosure – there aren’t really any studies exploring the effects of food on anxiety. However, we do know that sugar and processed foods aren’t good for our overall health. We also know that the mind and body are connected, so what is bad for your body is bad for your brain. If your diet is heavy in sugar and processed foods, you probably aren’t consuming enough fruits and vegetables, which we know make us feel better. If you’re not convinced, keep track of your anxiety symptoms on your regular diet for 3-5 days. Then eliminate sugar and processed foods from your diet for 3-5 days and see how you feel.
  3. Lack of routine – Keeping busy can definitely help ward off anxiety symptoms. Many people tell me their symptoms of anxiety (and depression) can be worse on the weekends. As much as we may despise routine, it really is good for our mental health to have some order in our lives. Routine gives us purpose, helps keep us grounded, and can provide security. Again – if you’re not sure about this, try implementing a simple routine – even on the weekends, and see if there’s an impact on the way you feel.
  4. Unrestricted electronic time – As wonderful and convenient as it is to be able to access any piece of information we could possibly need any time we want, it can be overwhelming. Even now, I have my computer in front of me, my iPad playing music and my phone at my right hand. You’d think that staying on top of every phone call, email and penny in our bank account would provide a sense of relief and free us up to do other things. In reality, it typically just creates more anxiety. Try to put some limits on your media/music/electronic time. Stop watching the news before bedtime. Declare one day a week to be “device-free.” Delete the computer games from your phone. Just because you can access it doesn’t mean you need to.
  5. Procrastination – I confess, when it comes to procrastination, I am the worst. So I know from experience that how putting things off adds fuel to the fire of anxiety. Granted – we need a little anxiety to help get things done. But the more we put them off, the more anxiety snowballs. When we procrastinate, all we’re doing us dumping our current problems on our future self. If you’re a procrastinator, resolve to be better to your future self. Commit to doing one hard thing every single day. (Preferably as early in the day as possible.) This will give you a sense of accomplishment, and might even spur you on to do other hard things. I guarantee this will help decrease your overall anxiety level.

While many people hope that taking a pill can alleviate their symptoms, the relief provided is temporary at best. If you want to get a handle on anxiety, start by evaluating your daily habits and see if there are some adjustments you can make