Anyone who's ever experienced the sudden onslaught of symptoms like lightheadedness, nausea or panic attacks knows that anxiety can sneak up on you when you least expect it. And while you may have identified common triggers of anxiety, there are a host of other habits that can lead to anxiety, too. Here are 10 things that can cause this state of emotional turmoil that you might be doing right now — along with 10 ways to stop them.
1. Eating Too Much Refined Sugar
Do you have a major sweet tooth? Empty calories aren't the only reason you should cut back on your sugar intake. Indulging too often isn't just bad for your waistline. It can also wreak havoc on your mental health.
"Our diet is directly linked to our neurotransmitters, to our hormones, to all of the physical workings of the body," says Talia Mandel, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at New York University. "So, if we don't tend to our diet, that's going to end up throwing our bodies out of whack. On top of that, sugar increases cortisol which can then increase anxiety."
Instead of eating cookies and candy, try substituting fresh fruit, natural sweeteners like honey and agave or a piece of dark chocolate to curb your sugar cravings. And keep an eye on food labels for hidden sources of added sugar.
2. Not Getting Enough Sleep
You know you feel better after getting a good night's rest. But sometimes it just feels like there aren't enough hours in the day to get everything done. "Sleeping within the biorhythms of the body affects all of the workings of the body, but specifically anxiety," says Mandel. "Having a regular sleep pattern is really important because we have to recharge during key hours."
That isn't to say you necessarily have to sleep between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. every night. But try to find a regular schedule that works for you and stick to it as much as possible. "It's important to have the same sleep patterns every night and within the hours that the biorhythms are most accustomed so they'll work efficiently," says Mandel.
3. Drinking Too Much Caffeine
Plenty of people swear by their daily cup of coffee. But when you start slugging back a large cup every few hours, you know you might have a problem.
"If we don't have a good diet or a regular sleep schedule, we are forced to use stimulants which naturally lead to a heightened state of anxiety," says Mandel. Instead of getting a caffeine fix from coffee, try a natural energy boost like exercise, meditation or a small piece of dark chocolate instead.
4. Consuming Alcohol to Release Your Inhibitions
Plenty of people sidle up to the bar for a Pinot Grigio or IPA after a long day at work. But when happy hour becomes a permanent fixture in your calendar, you may want to take a closer look at how many cocktails you're consuming.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate alcohol consumption is defined as up to one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men. This doesn't necessarily mean you have to skip girl's night out, but you may want to occasionally trade your Moscow Mule for a mocktail instead.
"Alcohol intake can affect us significantly," says Mandel. "Any time you affect the emotional biosystem, it's going to impact anxiety. Alcohol is a depressant, but also tweaks the system entirely. It manipulates it which can cause even more anxiety."
5. Not Living in the Moment
Although it's good to plan for the future, you may feel overwhelmed when you can't control every detail. So try to stay present as much as possible, using techniques like yoga, meditation or deep breathing, to stay calm about what's to come.
"Worry is one of the most prevalent causes of anxiety," says Mandel. "That seems obvious, but anxiety lives in the future. So, when we predict what is going to happen, we are naturally creating anxiety. Depression frequently lives in the past and anxiety lives in the future."
6. Forgetting to Breathe
It sounds simple, right? Obviously, everyone needs to breathe. But forgetting to breathe consciously can result in heightened anxiety levels. "When we're taking short breaths, that can cause a significant problem because conscious breathing decreases anxiety," says Mandel. "There have been a lot of studies showing that the sympathetic nervous system can not activate when you don't remember to take deep breaths through the day."
But in a 2007 study conducted at Boston University, researchers discovered that participants who practiced 12 weeks of yoga and conscious breathing saw a noticeable improvement in their mental state. After practicing conscious breathing, they felt more tranquil, revitalized and less exhausted.
To try this for yourself, set a timer for 10 minutes and slowly breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth with your eyes closed 10 times then repeat. Or try this breathing exercise from Reese Witherspoon's yoga instructor, Nadia Narain.
7. Too Much Screen Time
From your phone to your iPad to your computer, it's almost impossible to escape the temptation to scroll through Instagram or Facebook. Unfortunately, this tendency is creating a curated idea of what you life "should" look like.
"Too much screen time is too stimulating for the brain," says Mandel. "Along those same lines, social media causes a significant amount of anxiety. Not only because of screen time but because of this concept of FOMO or 'fear of missing out,' which ends up causing a tremendous amount of unnecessary anxiety."
Mandel recommends limiting yourself to just an hour or two a day, because cutting back on your screen time and social media not only reduces stress and anxiety, it'll also give you more free time to actually live your life!
8. Not Setting Boundaries
There's nothing wrong with being a people pleaser. But when your good-hearted nature causes anxiety, it's probably time to start learning to say the word, "No." Setting boundaries and speaking openly with friends and family about how much you can really handle is a good way to start asserting yourself so you don't get overwhelmed by your to-do list.
"Another common anxiety provoker is doing things out of obligation," says Mandel. "It could also be referred to as not setting appropriate boundaries. When we don't set boundaries, we over extend ourselves and catapult ourselves into thinking about what we have to do and what we don't have time for. This ends up causing a lot of anxiety."
9. Forgetting to Take Care of Yourself
There's no denying that the hectic pace of today's world often leaves you feeling drained. After caring for family, friends and co-workers, it may sometimes feel like you have no time or energy left for yourself. But according to Mandel, forgetting to take care of yourself increases anxiety. So don't be afraid to put yourself first sometimes. It isn't selfish; it's essential for good mental health.
"Self-care can take a lot of different forms," says Mandel. "You can begin therapy so you have a release for the pent-up emotions that we harbor from our daily lives. You can exercise, which provides a physical release of anxiety. You can decrease your screen time so that you're not trying to do more in order to keep up with other people.You can practice yoga, which brings us back to the present moment. All of these things decrease anxiety and increase joy and peace."
10. Being a Perfectionist
Who hasn't looked at Pinterest and tried to emulate bakery-style cakes, picture-perfect birthday parties or red carpet-coiffed hair? But when this becomes a habit that's providing more stress than pleasure, it's probably time to take a good, hard look in the mirror and ask yourself, "Is it worth it?"
More often than not, the answer is a resounding no. "We often create high demands for ourselves that, in the end, we can't live up to, which ultimately causes us anxiety," says Mandel. "If we would set more realistic expectations, have more flexibility and give ourselves love instead of constant disappointment, we would definitely experience less anxiety."