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Can diet help anxiety?

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Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues but, luckily, there are ways to handle it. Healthy Food Guide looks at whether daily habits and diet tweaks can help you manage the symptoms of anxiety disorder.

Modern life is enough to test anyone’s mental health, so we can be forgiven for feeling stressed from time to time. But when these feelings of stress don’t ease up and start to get out of proportion, it may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. The good news is that for many, there are ways to ease anxiety, and what we eat can play a role.

What is anxiety?

In prehistoric times, the ‘fight or flight’ response saved humans from predators or other dangers. This prehistoric instinct is still useful in keeping us safe, but today this reaction is triggered more by thoughts rather than external threats. The chemical reaction underlying perceived threats, however, remains the same — and it leads to stress.

During periods of stress, hormones are released to prepare us for battle, but when the threat doesn’t turn up, we’re left still feeling uneasy and on edge. Unmanaged stress may turn into anxiety which can affect sleep, motivation, quality of life, and create panic attacks and other associated conditions.

How does anxiety affect the body?

The immediate effects of anxiety come from the adrenalin and cortisol that‘s being released into the body due to that ‘fight or flight‘ response. As a result, your heart beats faster, your breathing gets shorter, you may feel nervous, experience sweaty palms, or even lightheadedness and nausea.

What can we do?

Clinical psychologist Emmanuella Murray, who specialises in anxiety and depressive disorders, has seen an increase in people presenting with anxiety, particularly over the last 12 months.

“During the pandemic [life has been] fraught with uncertainty,” she says.

“Anxiety is a temporary state for most, but when it persists people can find it hard to function in their daily lives. And, sadly, it can stop them from doing the things they love.”

7 tips for managing anxiety

1 Breathe easy

Anxiety floods our bodies with many physical sensations and there seems to be no hope of thinking clearly. Breathing helps to regulate our arousal, and weakens the attention given to those threat-focused thoughts.

2 Sleep

Disruption to sleep can make anxiety worse. Our brain needs to know that it’s safe to relax. Relaxation strategies like Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) can help reduce anxiety in the longer term.

3 De-catastrophise

The more we worry, the more we don’t want to give worry up. We have a bias towards over-valuing thoughts of future threat, but thinking of the ‘what ifs’ actually maintains our worry levels. Facts are not fake news, but our thoughts can be. Be objective and identify the evidence that will discredit worrying thoughts.

4 Ditch ‘checking’ and reassurance seeking

These behaviours breed doubt and maintain anxiety. So no more checking online for possible causes of symptoms, or repeatedly calling loved ones to ensure they are safe.

5 Don’t ‘avoid’

Any situation where you find yourself saying ‘I can’t say or do that, I’ll look bad’ — do it ! If we change our behaviour we can often find a lot of what we worry about isn’t true, which helps to dispel our negative assumptions.

6 Exercise

Exercise can boost our mood, give us a sense of achievement, distract us from our worries, and get us socialising.

7 Mindfulness

It does takes practice, because our minds like to naturally wander. Studies have shown mindful attention makes it easier to weaken our association with worrying thoughts. Choose the calming technique best for you.

Daily diet tweaks to help anxiety

Research shows the following daily strategies can help ease the symptoms of anxiety:

1 Eat breakfast every day

Eating breakfast is associated with improved mood, better memory and energy throughout the day, plus feelings of calmness.

Muesli with nuts and seeds topped with yoghurt and berries, or wholegrain toast spread with avocado and an egg, or peanut butter. If you are not overly hungry, have a banana and handful of nuts.

2 Add lentils to lunch

Lentils, beans and chickpeas are a great source of slow-release energy to keep blood sugar levels balanced and maintain a positive mood.

Add lentils, 4-bean mix or edamame to your salad at lunch. Spread your sandwich with hoummos, or add any type of canned legumes to a bowl of vegie-based soup.

3 Include fish or seafood every second day

Include two-to-three serves of omega-3-rich fish and seafood weekly. You‘re not a fish eater? Increase your daily intake of omega-3-rich linseeds, walnuts, soy beans, legumes and dark leafy vegetables.

Add canned fish to your salad or sandwiches, spread salmon fillets with pesto and cook in the oven, or even try having a marinara mix with your pasta sauce.

4 Drink six glasses of water daily

Water is the best hydration choice, but also consider herbal teas like peppermint and chamomile, a potential source of antioxidants. Avoid caffeinated drinks or alcohol.

Start your day with a glass or two of water. Track your intake by carrying a water bottle with you. Aim to finish one full bottle before lunchtime, and a second one before you start dinner.

Help is always at hand

If it’s all getting a bit much and you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s important to speak to someone who can help. Talk to your GP or reach out to your local mental health line.

Longterm effects of chronic anxiety

  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Various illnesses due to impaired immune function
  • Gastrointestinal disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Memory problems
  • Frequent migraines
  • Low libido
  • Thoughts of self-harm
First published: Dec 2020

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