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Health & Exercise Forum

Healthy Ways to Cope with Anxiety

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Jul 25, 2023

Part I of II

According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 19.1% of U.S. adults 18 and older had an anxiety disorder in the past year. Anxiety disorders were higher for females (23.4%) than for males (14.3%). An estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives.

There are a wide variety of anxiety disorders and will vary by the objects or situations that induce them. However, the features of excessive anxiety and related behavioral disturbances are similar. Anxiety disorders can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships. Symptoms include: distress, nausea, shortness of breath, bowel pattern changes, excessive perspiration, frequent laughing or crying, restlessness, and is often associated with depression. While there are many types and degrees of anxiety and there is no substitute for medical and psychological care, there are some simple and basic tools to help manage the problem…daily exercise is one easy, affordable and accessible suggestion for most. 

Multiple studies have discussed the incidence of unhealthy self management of anxiety, including the use of alcohol and recreational drugs. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) recommends the following healthy tips for coping with anxiety:

Healthy Coping Tips

1. Get Enough Sleep 
Adequate sleep is critical for mental health. Unfortunately, anxiety can lead to sleeping problems and, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) inadequate sleep can worsen anxiety.

Seven to nine hours of sleep each night is recommended for most adults. The National Sleep Foundation recommends maintaining a regular schedule that includes going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning.

2. Practice Mindfulness Meditation 
Incorporating meditation into your life can help you cope with anxiety, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Research shows mindfulness meditation programs are effective in reducing anxiety and depression. UPMC offers a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Course and a Beginners Guide to Meditation that have been proven to be very effective. Another option for reduction of anxiety and stress is Progressive Muscle Relaxation. This mind-body technique can be found in 5, 10, 15 or 20 minute videos.

3. Spend Time in Nature 
How you deal with anxiety should include a walk in the forest or even a tree-lined park. In NEPA we are very fortunate to have access to beautiful walking and biking trails and state parks. Make time to enjoy them.

Research shows that “forest bathing,” long, slow walks in nature for health purposes, can lower blood pressure and relieve anxiety. A review of clinical trials published in the International Journal of Biometeorology found that salivary cortisol levels, biomarkers for stress, were significantly lower in groups who participated in forest bathing versus the control group.

4. Take up Yoga or Tai Chi 
Yoga does more than increase your flexibility. It incorporates exercise, deep breathing, and meditation. Yoga is an all-in-one anti-anxiety activity, as shown in a review of body-centered interventions published in Frontiers in Psychology. Tai chi, a mix of meditation and martial arts, works much the same way.

5. Dance Therapy 
That same research found that dance therapy, also known as movement therapy, reduces anxiety by engaging the body’s nervous system, which regulates how the body reacts to stress. In addition, dance/movement therapy increases production of serotonin, a chemical produced by the cells that’s responsible for mood.

6. Breathe Through It 
When you begin to feel anxiety or a panic attack with symptoms such as: sweating, trembling, dizziness, rapid heartbeat and nausea, start to come on, “take a deep breath.” Research shows that slow deep breaths can calm you down and lower your heart rate while quick, shallow breaths  can induce or worsen anxiety.

One breathing technique shown to reduce anxiety is diaphragmatic breathing. Using your diaphragm for deep breathing requires you to fill your lungs to capacity.

Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach rises. Then, tighten the stomach muscles and exhale slowly through pursed lips. Repeat several times.

7. Limit Caffeine and Alcohol 
Too much caffeine restricts blood vessels, which can increase blood pressure and contribute to anxiety. Coping with anxiety also doesn’t mean masking it with alcohol. Studies show that there is a complex relationship between alcohol and anxiety. While some may use alcohol and recreational drugs to mask the symptoms of anxiety (often leading to substance abuse disorder), some studies show that alcohol can interfere with the neurotransmitters that manage anxiety and prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep. Drinking to cope creates a sort of feedback loop, which makes the anxiety worse and can lead to alcohol dependence.

8. Check Your Medicine 
Certain medicines, such as corticosteroids, asthma drugs, and others, can cause anxiety. Ask your doctor if any medicines you take may be a contributing factor.

9. Eat Healthy Foods 
Keeping the body nourished is essential for all functions of life. New research shows that a healthy diet may affect more than just weight and energy levels. One example is a Mediterranean Diet, with lots of vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, nuts, whole grains, extra virgin olive oil and a moderate amount of fish (especially those rich in omega-3 fatty acids), with limited use of red meat.

10. Keep a Journal 
Keeping a journal can be a great way to keep track of your progress with anxiety and how your body responds to such situations. Tracing the triggers of anxiety can help you develop the skills to properly respond when put in anxious conditions.

11. Exercise Regularly 
Exercise promotes the release of endorphins. These brain chemicals reduce the body’s reaction to pain and stress. They also produce a feeling of euphoria, or happiness, that’s comparable to morphine. Just five minutes of aerobic exercise can kick start these anti-anxiety effects, according to some studies.  Next week in “Health & Exercise Forum” specific details about exercise for anxiety will be presented.

Talk to a Mental Health Professional

Chronic anxiety also can point to an underlying mental health issue. When your anxiety causes extreme distress or interrupts your ability to function on a daily basis, or when panic attacks are frequent and debilitating, it’s important to talk to your physician and ask for a referral to a mental health professional. They can provide a treatment plan, which may include specialized anti-anxiety medicine, psychotherapy, or both.

Visit your doctor regularly and listen to your body.     

SOURCES: University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC); National Institutes of Health (NIH);

NEXT MONDAY – Read Dr. Paul J. Mackarey “Health & Exercise Forum!” Next week: Coping with Anxiety Part II This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at GCSOM. For all of Dr. Paul's articles, check out our exercise forum!