Anxiety is generally characterized as feelings of tension, worried thoughts, increased blood pressure, sweating, trembling, dizziness, and a rapid heartbeat. Anxiety disorders include recurring intrusive thoughts and fears about unspecified threats. While some degree of anxiety is common, it’s considered a disorder if it lasts longer than six months. Serious medical problems can result from long-term anxiety, such as diabetes and heart irregularities (American Psychological Assn [APA], 2021). Over 40 million American adults have ongoing anxiety, with 30% experiencing clinical anxiety disorders, along with 10% of children under the age of 17 years (American Psychiatric Assn [APA], 2021); NIMH, 2022; NAMI, 2023).
Like anxiety, stress is a common biological response that can cause physical, emotional, or psychological strain, often due to circumstances requiring extreme concentration and arduous activity, or by present and perceived threats. Everyone experiences such pressures occasionally; however, persistent stress can impact one’s well-being. Trying to ignore stress often leads to significant mental and physical issues (WHO, 2021). In 2022, 76% of U.S. adults reported various ongoing impacts from stress, including headaches, fatigue, nervousness, and sadness. (APA, 2022). Both anxiety and stress are also related to chronic conditions, such as GI issues, heart disease, migraines, and sleep problems (Pathways Psychology Services, n.d.).
Everyone gets sad, but persistent depression, with constant feelings of melancholy and detachment, can develop into a major depressive disorder, negatively affecting every feeling, thought, and behavior. 21 million Americans had at least one major depressive episode last year, and of those, a severe condition developed for 2/3 of adults and 3/4 of adolescents. (NIMH, 2017, 2022). Depression often leads to sleep disruptions, heart disease, weight gain/loss, a weakened immune system, and physical pain (Mayo Clinic, 2023).
Several simple evidence-based practices have long been recognized as beneficial for addressing anxiety, stress, and depression (Ellison, et al. 2009). Some of the most accessible and simple approaches are presented here, each is easily doable, and scientifically substantiated. Through regular practice, improvements are highly likely (Riopel, 2019).
In the 1930s, educator Kurt Hahn proved that simply being in nature is beneficial to our physical, mental, and emotional health. This has since been upheld by numerous scientific studies and led to the creation of Outward Bound (Ming, 2022; NYS DEC. n.d.).
Some 2500 years before Hahn, ancient Southern Asians developed the deep relaxation and mindfulness techniques of yoga, and their beneficial health effects have been well established. Prehistoric Africans and Indigenous Americans practiced chanting and group drumming even earlier, which have also been proven to elevate disposition, and health (Fancourt, 2015). Now in the 21st Century, mental, behavioral, and physical health practitioners worldwide routinely prescribe similar activities, and other experiential techniques, to treat anxiety, stress, and depression (Riopel, 2019).
Arguably the easiest, most accessible experiential exercise for addressing anxiety is brisk walking, faster than a stroll, with an energetic stride and some exertion, but not quite running. Especially effective when done in a heavily wooded area — as explained further on –but even in urban environments without trees, the benefits of brisk walking for about 40 minutes daily include stress relief, increased energy and stamina, improved sleep and mood, weight loss, and better heart health. Walking increases blood flow and circulation throughout the brain and body which literally calms tense nerves (WebMD, 2021).
About being in nature, the Japanese practice called Shinrin-yoku (Forest Bathing) includes hugging trees, listening to birds singing, and kicking through leaves, all proven to boost mental health. Trees also emit phytoncides, chemicals that can help boost our immune system. Regularly practiced by over five million Japanese, forest therapy is also becoming a recognized remedy throughout the world, supported by a number of scientific studies that confirm its beneficial effects, just as Kurt Hahn established in the 1930s. (Robinson, 2019).
In 1975, the NY Times extolled the achievements of Harvard-educated Dr. K.N. Udupa, who substantiated the mental and physiological benefits of hatha yoga, an Indian practice dating back to the 2nd century BCE. Numerous scientific studies since have supported Dr. Udupa’s findings, further illuminating how yoga can promote a sense of well-being and improve physical health, reduce tension and stress, thereby enriching our psychological and emotional state (NY Times, 1975; Britannica, 2022).
Yoga does not require any special physical prowess or stamina and could easily be learned from books or video clips. However, to be certain of correct posture alignments, an introductory yoga class or two is advisable. Open-minded students will likely notice the relaxation potential resulting from this ancient practice right away (Baklouti, et al. 2023).
Deep relaxation – one goal of hatha yoga — is even easier than walking, as it involves no physical movement at all, and is quite easy to do, although beginners may need to learn how not to fall asleep. This involves lying on one’s back upon a comfortable surface, with arms and legs slightly apart, and then consciously relaxing each part of the body as completely as possible, from the tips of the toes up through to the top of the head, keeping the mind fully awake and aware. Practiced for 3000 years, this procedure is safe and reliable. After becoming comfortable with the protocol, it is possible to relax one’s entire body at will in less than a minute (Baklouti).
Mindfulness, a related practice, involves comfortably sitting or lying down and purposely centering one’s attention on the present moment. By focusing on the here and now, those who regularly practice mindfulness are less likely to worry, feel anxiety, have regrets, etc. Mindfulness has also been proven to be highly effective in reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, relieving chronic pain, and improving sleep (Harvard, 2023). Again, a class or two is advisable at first.
Of all the techniques presented here, humming may seem the least likely method to produce meaningful results, however, as reported by the Mayo Clinic, the scientific evidence is substantial and conclusive. Even just five minutes of humming is much more than just a self-soothing sound, as it also can reduce stress, induce calmness, and enhance sleep, as well as lower the heart rate and blood pressure and boost beneficial neurochemicals that elevate mood… and no particular musical skills are required (Goldman, 2017; Graff-Radford, 2021).
Drumming is another simple practice requiring no advanced musical talent. In many ancient cultures, villages would regularly come together to dance, chant, and make rhythmic noises with drums, sticks, rocks, and anything else that could make a sound. Beyond the ritualistic and societal associations, they also experienced the positive mental, emotional, and health benefits of drumming in a group setting, which also has since been scientifically substantiated. One ten-week study conducted by the Royal College of Music confirmed numerous positive effects of group drumming, including reducing depression by as much as 38%, and anxiety by 20%, while improving social resilience by 23% and mental well-being by 16%. These benefits were still being experienced months later (RCM, 2016).
Another self-care element that belongs on this list is limiting the intake of caffeine, and processed sugar, omnipresent substances in much of what we consume and well known for substantially contributing to anxiety, stress, and mood dysregulation. That momentary joy of a candy bar or the quick jolt from a caffeinated beverage also takes a toll on our sense of well-being in the long run. Is the momentary rush worth it?
Contact Dr. Gene Ira Katz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-339-8174 (leave confidential message). Learn more about Dr. Katz here.
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