How to Overcome Anxiety: 5 Research-backed Tips

A woman who has contamination fears so powerful she cannot bring himself to use public bathrooms. A man who won’t drive long distances because he has panic attacks in the car. A woman who cannot even go to her beloved church anymore because she fears enclosed spaces. All of these people have one thing in common: they have an anxiety disorder.

These people have also struggled over how to overcome anxiety. Anxious thoughts, fears, and worries invade the lives of many people on a daily basis; perhaps even yours.

In fact, anxiety disorders afflict roughly 44 million people in the U.S. These disorders disrupt lives and cost an estimated $42 billion to $47 billion annually, reports one study.

Anxiety is often a result of fears that you may have about uncertain situations, places, and even people in your life.

Most of the time, these fears are based on things that haven’t happened yet. Maybe you worry if you’ll do well in a job interview or whether a new colleague will like you.

Those who haven’t experienced anxiety may think it’s foolish to worry about something that hasn’t happened yet. But as you may know all too well, these feelings are very real.

If you are at the end of your rope with the stress and anxiety in your life, you should know that it is possible to achieve peace, eliminate anxious thoughts and fears, and successfully overcome anxiety.

5 Anxiety Tips Based on Recent Research:

1. Trust that you’ve got the faith, courage, strength, skill, and support to overcome anything. This is especially true and important when it comes to overcoming anxiety that’s based on unrealistic fears and worries that plague your mind.

A support group of family members or friends can be vital in eliminating anxiety. Talk out your fears to someone who will listen kindly without judging you.

A recent study links anxiety with a brain structure called the orbitofrontal cortex, and optimism. The research found that healthy adults who have larger orbitofrontal cortexes (OFCs) tend to be more optimistic and less anxious. Other studies have shown that more optimistic people tend to be less anxious, and that optimistic thoughts increase OFC activity.

eyes2. Be true to who you are as a person. Don’t condemn yourself for how you feel. It’s important to understand that you can’t change how you feel, but you can change how you deal with these emotions.

Finding a way to release your emotions is an important element to overcoming anxiety. You can write down your fears and worries in a journal, or even find a support group you can actively participate in.

Monitor your self-criticism. In the book Erosion: The Psychopathology of Self-Criticism, Prof. Golan Shahar explains that self-criticism is a personality trait characterized as the tendency to set unrealistically high standards for one’s self and an expression of hostility and derogation when these high standards are, inevitably, not met.

This type of behavior leaves people depressed, anxious, suffering from other symptoms, and potentially suicidal, Shahar says, summarizing two decades of scholarship on the subject.

Self-criticism propels people to involve themselves in stressful events such as rejection by others, relationship breakups and professional failures to avoid engaging in the positive life experiences they feel they do not deserve.

This form of dangerous self-criticism is psychologically different from the transient “fish for compliments” type, which he argues is not pathological, unlike its more harmful counterpart.

3. Remember that there are some things in life that are beyond your control. Many times, the worries you experience are a direct result of the fact that you’re not in control of the people, things, and situations in your life.

The things that are in your control can be managed. Just slow down, take one thing at a time, and focus. This will help to ease some of the discomfort you experience from your anxiety.

There are a few simple things you can do to regain a sense of control, however.

According to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, there are some easy ways to help people rise to an occasion in such situations and dial into an inner strength that showcases their very best. Her book Presence builds on the research and reverberations from Cuddy’s wildly popular 2012 TED talk about the body-mind connection, a video that’s been viewed more than 29 million times.

By adopting “power poses” for 2 minutes before an important event, people can positively shift their self-perception and behavior, which in turn changes how others perceive them.

Through small self-nudges, such as assuming expansive body postures like “the starfish” or “the Wonder Woman”—poses modeled on ones used in the animal kingdom to assert power—people can at least briefly quiet the negative interior monologues that undermine them.

It’s not so much “fake it till you make it” as “fake it till you become it.”

“It’s all about focusing on 5 minutes from now, not, ‘In a year I’m going to be in the C-suite,'” Cuddy says. “I think the only way we can make progress is to gently and forgivingly nudge ourselves each time a little bit forward, and then incrementally, in aggregate, you look back one day and say ‘Oh my gosh, I got all the way here.'”

Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges

4. Watch your diet. A 2015 study in mice showed that increased body weight and high blood sugar as a result of consuming a high-fat diet may cause anxiety and depressive symptoms and measurable changes in the brain. Taking mice off a high-fat diet completely reversed the animals’ metabolic impairments and lessened their anxious symptoms.

Another 2015 study investigates a possible connection between fermented foods, which contain probiotics, and social anxiety. The researchers found that young adults who eat more fermented foods have fewer social anxiety symptoms, with the effect being greatest among those at genetic risk for social anxiety disorder as measured by neuroticism. A second finding in the same study was that more exercise was related to reduced social anxiety.

hope5. Pursue activities that bring you peace. Whether this is a solitary activity or a group activity, it should be something enjoyable that will remove your anxiety and renew your love of life.

Peace-bringing activities may include a hobby like painting, writing short stories, or doing mindfulness meditation. Scientists, like Buddhist monks and Zen masters, have known for years that meditation can reduce anxiety, but not how.

A 2013 study succeeded in identifying the brain functions involved. All 15 subjects participated in four 20-minute classes to learn a technique known as mindfulness meditation. In this form of meditation, people are taught to focus on breath and body sensations and to non-judgmentally evaluate distracting thoughts and emotions.

Both before and after meditation training, the study participants’ brain activity was examined using a special type of imaging — arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging — that is very effective at imaging brain processes, such as meditation. In addition, anxiety reports were measured before and after brain scanning.

The majority of study participants reported decreases in anxiety. Researchers found that meditation reduced anxiety ratings by as much as 39 percent. This showed that just a few minutes of mindfulness meditation can help reduce normal everyday anxiety.

The study revealed that meditation-related anxiety relief is associated with activation of the anterior cingulate cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, areas of the brain involved with executive-level function. The findings reveal that the brain regions associated with meditation-related anxiety relief are remarkably consistent with the principles of being mindful.

These are all effective ways to overcome and alleviate anxiety. While many people resort to medications and doctor treatments when they’re seeking ways to overcome anxiety, you can work toward relieving your own anxiety without medication by simply engaging yourself in activities that bring you peace, comfort, and relief, with a little help from science.

Sanda Dolcos et al.
Optimism and the Brain: Trait Optimism Mediates the Protective Role of the Orbitofrontal Cortex Gray Matter Volume against Anxiety
Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, September 2015 DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsv106

A Sekiguchi, M Sugiura, Y Taki, Y Kotozaki, R Nouchi, H Takeuchi, T Araki, S Hanawa, S Nakagawa, C M Miyauchi, A Sakuma, R Kawashima
Brain structural changes as vulnerability factors and acquired signs of post-earthquake stress
Molecular Psychiatry, 2012; 18 (5): 618 DOI: 10.1038/mp.2012.51

Fadel Zeidan, Katherine T. Martucci, Robert A. Kraft, John G. McHaffie, and Robert C. Coghill
Neural correlates of mindfulness meditation-related anxiety relief
Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci (2014) 9 (6): 751-759 doi:10.1093/scan/nst041