Stress from new, unknown, or challenging situations is normal but persistent stress can cause physical, mental and behavioural symptoms. Therefore, experts emphasise holistic approaches to prevent anxiety.
Exam-taking can illustrate the difference between stress and anxiety. Apprehension and memory lapses just before an exam are a few signs of stress. However, when this stress turns into a pattern with constant worry about the outcome of an exam that is months or years away, it becomes anxiety.
Suja Sukumaran, counsellor, life skill trainer and co-director of Bengaluru-based Enfold Proactive Health Trust that works with survivors of childhood abuse, says that anxiety can be caused by genetic factors and health conditions like bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, cancer, PTSD or OCD to name a few. “It can also have personality-driven causes or get aggravated by ingrained habits.”
Also read: Count down to ground the anxiety
A few habits that can worsen anxiety
Bad sleep hygiene
Sukumaran says that an irregular sleeping habit can worsen one’s anxiety. “It is a vicious cycle actually,” she says. Persons may struggle to fall asleep due to worries, or experience disturbed sleep, leading to impaired functioning the next day and increased stress. “The following night, sleep will be disturbed even more as the person will now start worrying about not being able to sleep soundly. This will go on till the pattern is broken, either with medication, or by actively following sleep hygiene techniques,” she explains.
Stifling the yawn with a stimulant
Many people are accustomed to drinking several cups of coffee in a day to improve their mental alertness, yet not many know that caffeine in high doses can also aggravate anxiety. Several studies from the 1970s onwards, reviewed by Gareth Richards and Andrew Smith in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in December 2015, have delved into the relation between caffeine intake and human health. It has been seen that moderate amounts of caffeine (<400mg per day) can improve mood. This includes caffeine in energy drinks and cola-based beverages. For people with anxiety disorders, caffeine should be like the friend in need – maybe a cup or two every day, but never close to bedtime.
Running away from exercise
Exercising releases endorphins, chemicals that stimulate good mood and act as the body’s natural painkiller. Ever wondered why people rely on chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, or other quick-fix solutions to fight stress instead of exercising? It is easier to take a sip of alcohol or coffee, or puff on a cigarette than to take part in a hard workout session. Exercises need not be strenuous such as lifting weights in a gym or running marathons daily. An early morning walk in the park, or a game of badminton after a gruelling day works just as well. Sukumaran says that some form of regular physical activity, depending on age, agility, and time constraints, is advisable for those prone to anxiety, to negate the effects an idle body has on the mind.
Trying to control outcomes
People who habitually try to control every outcome in life spend more time worrying than those who accept that not everything is within their control. As a fresh engineering graduate from Darbhanga, Bihar, Umesh Kumar had moved to Kolkata, unaware of how his life would unfold in a new city where he knew hardly anyone. Sharing his life lessons as a 72-year-old businessman, he says, “I have seen the highs, as well as the lows, but I never got carried away because at the end of the day you can only control your actions.” Results and outcomes may not always be expected. “Is there any magic formula that can make things go exactly how you want them to go? Even the best chess players lose sometimes,” he ruminates.
Consuming too much news
Several people who come to Sukumaran to reduce anxiety tend to follow news media. “It is a good practice to keep oneself updated but consuming too much news and focusing on the horrible aspects of reported events can whip up symptoms like worrying and palpitations in some people,” she elaborates.
In a scientific brief released in March 2022 the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the global incidence of anxiety and depression increased by 25 per cent in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fear of infection was one of the causes of this massive jump in mental health disorders. “There was no other news that we watched in 2020. Our house was sealed shut from the inside. We would not open even our windows because it was reported that the virus can travel via air. Yet, we were constantly very worried that one of us will catch the infection and pass it on to the others. I would get palpitations thinking about the consequences,” says Sandhya Dutta (76), a homemaker who lives with her husband, her son, and his family in New Delhi.
Other habits and traits that can aggravate anxiety:
Negative attitude towards life – people who chronically believe that everything will go wrong – whether it is relationships, risky financial decisions, or new pursuits.
Excessive use of social media – many people seek validation on social media, yet often feel frustrated and unsatisfied with their own lives when comparing themselves to others who appear to be leading more fulfilling lives – even if only on social media.
Work-life imbalance – worrying about not giving enough time to family while at work and thinking about the next day’s work schedule while spending time with family not only creates a loop of constant worrying, but also makes a person feel exhausted and burnt out.
Trying to avoid conflicts – some people strive to avoid conflict, taking care not to upset the balance in all their interactions. This may be due to concerns about their image, wanting to be thought of as congenial. This can lead to unnecessary worry about how they are being perceived.
Unrealistic or lofty goals – these can be academic, professional, financial, social, or even interpersonal, and contribute to living in a state of constant self-induced stress which can turn chronic if left unaddressed.