Self-regulation is the key to living your best life with anxiety.

Many people suffer from anxiety these days and when left unchecked, it can become all-consuming and even debilitating in our lives. The good news is that with proper daily habits, a toolbox of effective coping mechanisms, and the discipline to self-regulate, you can not only manage your anxiety but still live your best life.

In fact, about 1 in 5 Americans – or 25 million of us – have some sort of anxiety disorder, making it the most common mental health condition in the U.S. Almost a third of us (31%) will experience an anxiety disorder in our lifetime.

Here are a few more notable facts you may find interesting:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) affects about 6% of U.S. adults at some point in their lives. While it’s treatable, about half of people with GAD experience symptoms for more than two years before reaching out for help and seeking treatment.
  • One of the most common forms of anxiety is social anxiety, which affects around 12% of U.S. adults at some point in their lives.
  • Females suffer from anxiety disorders at a higher rate than males.
  • Anxiety is particularly troubling among young people. In fact, about 1 in 12 (8.5%) of all children aged 3-17 suffer an anxiety disorder. The prevalence of mental health conditions among younger populations is fast-growing due to the ubiquity of social media, FOMO, and other pressures.
  • Anxiety goes hand-in-hand with other mental health and lifestyle factors. For instance, almost 50% of people diagnosed with depression also suffer from an anxiety disorder.
  • Many factors contribute to our anxiety, including genetics, environment, preexisting conditions, lifestyle factors, past traumas, childhood issues or experiences, learned behaviors, and social influences such as poverty.
  • I should also note that some level of anxiety is healthy and even necessary. From a biological perspective, anxiety is hard-wired in human beings as a means of self-preservation, heightening our senses and triggering action (fight or flight) when faced with imminent danger.

Of course, the problem arises when our over-activated minds perceive danger, displacement, or problems where none occur, such as is the state nearly 24/7 with many people in our society these days.

Self-regulation: the key to living with anxiety

Self-regulation is the most important aspect of living your best life with anxiety. Before you reach for medication – and definitely instead of masking your anxiety with alcohol, drugs, or other harmful habits, there are things you can do on a daily basis to mitigate the prevalence of your uneasy nervous feelings.

Simply put, you hold the power to treat your own anxiety with self-identification, daily habits, and implementing coping mechanisms. In fact, when you go to a therapist or engage in psychotherapy, the goal is often to give you the tools for better self-regulation.

It’s not easy, especially at first. But, like building any habit, with disciple and practice, self-regulation will prove to be a panacea to living your best life with anxiety.

Ways to self-regulate and cope with anxiety:

  1. Whether just taking a long walk or hitting a hard gym workout, physical activity boosts feel-good chemicals and endorphins in the brain, helping you feel more relaxed and reducing anxiety.
  2. Get out in nature – a little sunshine, fresh air, and reconnecting with the outdoors does wonders for our mental health and regulating anxiety.
  3. Slowing down your breathing and taking in full, measured breaths helps reduce anxiety, which causes you to breathe more rapidly and shallow. Deep breathing is also the natural byproduct of exercise, meditation, yoga, etc.
  4. There’s no better way of slowing your mind and improving your mental health in general than daily meditation and mindfulness practice. They will also improve your mood, sleep cycle, and just about every aspect of your health. Mindfulness brings us back to the present moment, reducing anxiety triggers about future troubles (that usually don’t come to fruition).
  5. Progressive muscle relaxation is a great technique for some people with anxiety. While sitting in quiet meditation and breathing deeply, one-by-one tense and then relax each part of your body, starting with your toes all the way up to your face and head.
  6. Write it out! Pick up a journal and clarify your thoughts, fears, or what’s triggering your anxiety. Putting your negative feelings on paper helps to define and alleviate them, and you’ll also notice patterns that emerge.
  7. Turn off your phone and step away from social media! Being connected all-too-often online is one of the biggest contributors to the rising prevalence of anxiety. So, stop the useless scrolling, put down your phone, and disconnect from devices to temper your anxiety.
  8. Listen to (or create) music, enjoy art, read a book, or take a bath.
  9. Reduce or eliminate the intake of caffeine and alcohol, which can contribute to increased anxiety levels.
  10. Self-assess your anxiety in the moment, measuring it on a scale of 1-10. Focus on getting it down just one number on that scale. By doing so, you’ll feel less overwhelmed, empowered, and more efficient at reducing your own anxiety by a “point,” two, or many more.
  11. Change your diet. Certain foods and supplements help reduce anxiety over the long term, such as foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, eggs, avocados, etc.), lemon balm, green tea, valerian root, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, turmeric, and more. Of course, junk foods and diets high in sugar, preservatives, fat, etc., negatively impact our gut health as well as mental health.
  12. Engage in positive self-talk and use affirmations. Anxiety can distort your assessment of potential threats or the downside in any situation, so it’s important to challenge those negative thoughts with your own intentional and uplifting self-dialogue.
  13. Aromatherapy activates specific receptors in your brain, helping you relax and easing anxiety. Try essential oils like lavender, jasmine, and rose oil, incense, or even naturally scented candles to see which you like and respond to.
  14. Just talking it out often helps – to a friend, family member, or your therapist. You can even join groups or online communities with others who suffer from anxiety, exchanging feelings, tips, and support. After all, the best way to feel better is sometimes to help someone else feel better!
  15. Learn to identify and manage your triggers, those stressful, emotional, or even traumatic events or factors that magnify your anxiety. For many, it can be being overworked, the ending of a romantic relationship, a death in the family, withdrawal from drug or alcohol use, or other momentous occasions. Knowing your triggers and how to avoid or manage them – even with extra sleep, exercise, a better diet, or just talking to someone, is an effective long-term strategy to minimize anxiety.

But if your anxiety feels completely beyond your control, keeps getting worse, or impacts your life in a profound negative manner, it’s time to get help.

From cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to medication when necessary, mental health professionals and doctors are equipped to make sure that anxiety doesn’t take over your life.

However, I’m confident that by self-regulating and implementing some of these coping mechanisms into your daily habits, you can still live your best life even with anxiety.

Examining the cultural shift in mental health awareness.

October 10th was World Mental Health Day, following up on May’s Mental Health Awareness Day and Month in the United States.

It’s important that we observe as many special days, events, and campaigns around mental health as possible. Collectively, we’ve made some great strides in recent years, but we’re also witnessing a greater prevalence of mental illness and stressors than ever before.

So, today I wanted to continue our conversation about mental health (interchangeable with the term ‘mental illness’ in the remainder of this blog), as well as explore a critical tipping point if we’re going to see mental health given the credence it needs – cultural acceptance.

The state of mental health in America

First, let me offer a snapshot of mental health in the United States:

  • Almost 20% of all U.S. adults – about 50 million people – will experience a mental illness this year.
  • More than 15% of teens and youth experienced at least one major depressive episode last year and 10.6% of youth suffer from severe major depression.
  • Almost one in twenty (4.58%) adults report having serious thoughts about suicide.
  • And yet more than 50% of adults with mental illness don’t receive any treatment, which adds up to 27 million people. Even worse, over 60% of youth don’t receive treatment for major depression or mental illness.
  • In fact, more than 80% of Americans who seek treatment and care for mental health find it difficult to find professional support.

You can find more stats about mental health in America in my past blog here.

Impact of the pandemic on our mental health

The pandemic took an incalculable toll on our mental health, both overtly and in many indirect ways.

It’s estimated that in 2020 alone, the instance of anxiety and depressive disorders rose by at least 25% across the nation. And that’s just counting severe disorders, as most of us felt far more stress and anxiety during those difficult years.

To hear it from Drew Train, Co-Founder and CEO of OBERLAND, a purpose-driven branding agency, “In light of the pressures we’ve all been under since the pandemic began – and particularly in light of the mental health toll it’s taken on young people – it’s important for us as a society to view mental illness in the most objective, progressive and sympathetic way. We see this as one important way to break obstacles to people seeking or obtaining treatment.” 

The financial toll of mental illness

The financial impact of our mental health issues and illnesses is staggering. In fact, it’s estimated that mental illness now costs the U.S. economy $193 billion each year, and the reality is probably far greater if you start factoring in ancillary costs.

Likewise, the single biggest cause of emergency room visits (other than childbirth) in the U.S. now is mental health disorders and episodes. In fact, a full 12% (about one in eight) of emergency room visits are due to mental health concerns.

Turning to the workplace, we see the financial (as well as the human) toll of mental illness. And while exponentially more companies and employers are saying the right things and even implementing wellness and mental health initiatives, the reality can often be starkly different.

For instance, 8 out of 10 people surveyed (2022) responded that it’s NOT okay to tell coworkers about mental health issues or illnesses, a number that’s actually gone up since the same question was posed in a 2013 poll.

To illustrate just how much mental illness costs us in lost work hours and other challenges, consider that depression is now the #1 leading cause of disability in the U.S.

Measuring attitudes and norms about mental health

As I mentioned, we’re seeing the start of a huge cultural shift towards open discussion and acceptance around the issue of mental health. By all metrics, we’ve come a long way in just a few years in legitimizing conversations about mental wellness and care.

A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that:

  • 87% say that having a mental health disorder is nothing to be ashamed of.
  • 86% of those surveyed believe that people with mental health disorders can get better, and
  • 84% said that people with mental health disorders could live normal lives.
  • It’s interesting to note that surveys also reveal that more people now believe being prone to mental illness also means you may hold positive qualities like creativity, high I.Q., compassion, and empathy.

However, as a society, we still have room to grow before mental health is treated as seriously and openly as physical health.

For instance,

  • 86% of those surveyed still felt that the term “mental illness” carried a stigma.
  • 55% still feel that mental illnesses are different than serious physical illnesses.
  • 39% said they would view someone differently if they had a mental health disorder.
  • And a full third of respondents said that people with mental health issues “scare them.”

Cultural acceptance

While it’s easy to become disheartened just looking at the stats, I wanted to shine a positive light on the progress we’ve made. Day-to-day we’re experiencing exponentially more acceptance, openness, and the capacity to have frank conversations around mental health, especially among young people.

I’ve noticed that much of that progress doesn’t come inch by inch, but in great leaps every time a famous athlete, musician, or movie star publicly pulls back the curtain on their own mental health struggles.

We’ve seen it again and again, and I’ll include names here like Chrissy Teigen, Ben Simmons, Demi Lovato, and the most decorated Olympic athlete ever, Michael Phelps, solely to applaud their courage and compassion.

To me, this is a true bellwether of changing societal norms and values, far more than stats and data can reveal.

Every time someone with the cultural gravity of Lindsey Vonn, DeMar DeRozan, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Lizzo sit in front of the camera and bare their soul, it empowers our youth (and adults!) to shed the stigmas and achieve a new plateau of normalization.

No offense to those working tirelessly in the mental health profession, but one Tweet (or IG story, Tik Tok, Snap, or whatever the heck they’re doing these days!) from Kendall Jenner, Selena Gomez, or Shawn Mendes about their own mental health moves the needle more than all of our campaigns, special days, and yes, even blogs, combined.

With every publicized mea culpa, more and more regular people allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to seek information, ask for help, or just talk about it with those they love.

And when one musician or pro athlete “comes out” about their mental health, others follow. It’s encouraging and uplifting to see the rapidly growing mental health tree in pro sports and, by proxy, among younger generations.

For instance, tennis phenom Naomi Osaka recently withdrew from the French Open, citing her social anxiety after skipping a mandated press conference. She later revealed that she had “suffered long bouts of depression” all the way back to 2018 and was taking a step away to care for her mental health.

Naomi probably wouldn’t have felt licensed to do so if not for Serena Williams, her predecessor and the best women’s tennis player ever, who started the conversation about mental health in her sport.

And Serena may have been influenced by NBA basketball player DeMar DeRozan, who documented his own struggles with anxiety and depression; and DeMar because of fellow ‘baller Kevin Love.

Back in 2020, Kevin Love penned a public essay about his own mental health struggle, in which he said, “It felt like I was on a deserted island by myself, and it was always midnight,” opening the floodgates of conversations around mental health in his sport.

This shift in cultural acceptance is the only way our society will be able to adjust our sails and navigate the mental health storm we’re in the midst of.

So, what’s next?

We will continue to push the conversation around mental health forward, gaining new acceptance and legitimacy every single step of the way.

And every time someone is better informed because of public dialogue, every person who understands what they can do to take better care of themselves, and each instance when someone reaches out to ask for help, it’s another important step in our journey towards fully embracing mental health.