If you suffer from anxiety, you’re probably all too familiar with its physical effects. Tense muscles, shallow breathing, dry mouth, and a rapid heartbeat are just a few common symptoms, and the ones I most often notice in myself. (Is anyone else holding their breath right now, while you’re reading this?)
Searching for ways to ease my own anxiety, I spoke with two different experts about my symptoms. Their advice? Saying one simple word more often could make a world of difference when it comes to my stress level. Read on to find out what that word is, why it helps—and why saying it isn’t as easy as it sounds.
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The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that more than 40 million adults in the U.S. are dealing with anxiety disorders. That’s almost 20 percent of the population—so if you’re one of them, you’re far from alone. (And that’s not even counting all those who feel anxious from time to time but have not been officially diagnosed with a disorder.)
While anxiety manifests differently in everyone—generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobias are a few of the conditions that fall under the umbrella of “anxiety”—it’s characterized by a “persistent, excessive fear or worry in situations that are not threatening,” according to the experts at NAMI. And although anti-anxiety medication is helpful to many people, especially during a panic attack, certain changes in lifestyle can aid in managing an anxiety disorder and lessening its impact on your body.
Between work, kids, household chores, keeping up with family and friends, and trying to squeeze in a little time for myself (my yoga practice fell by the wayside during the pandemic), it seems like there are never enough hours in the day for all the things I want to do. As a result, overwhelmed and anxious has become a way of life for me—and I know I’m not alone.
“Many people are motivated to try things or take on projects and activities because of a perceived fear of loss,” says Bill Hudenko, PhD, Global Head of Mental Health at K Health. “We worry that opportunities may not present themselves again, or that we will lose some critical advantage because we did not fully participate in life.”
This resonated with me—my FOMO, or “fear of missing out”—is ever-present (and goes hand-in-hand with my life motto, YOLO, or “you only live once”). Whether it’s serving on a committee at my kids’ school, organizing a birthday party for a friend, or attending an optional event for work, it’s hard for me to say no.
“In general, FOMO is the result of anxiety,” Hudenko explains. “I like to encourage clients to live life fully and to experience the world—but I think it’s important to do it for the right reason.”
And how do we know what those “right reasons” are? “The key is to live a life of approach, not of avoidance,” says Hudenko. “If you’re living life fully to experience as much joy as you can, you’ll likely be happy. If you’re trying to live life fully because you’re afraid of losing out, it will likely increase your anxiety and make you feel like you’re never experiencing as much as you can or should.”
In other words, if I’m exhausted from a long week at work and my sofa and TV with all its streaming services is calling to me, I’m better off turning down an invitation to go make pizza at my friend’s house, rather than forcing myself to show up, acting grouchy while I’m there, and later resenting them for asking me over in the first place.
“Increased anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, changes in appetite, or increased irritability are all signs you are overextended,” says Angeleena May, LMHC and Executive Director for AMFM Healthcare.
All of the symptoms May listed feel familiar to me: anxiety, insomnia, irritability, disappearing appetite. And when I told her that doing less doesn’t feel like a viable option, she wasn’t surprised. “Women are often seen as caregivers in our society and therefore feel more obligation… including putting others needs above their own at the sacrifice of their mental health,” she said.
To make it even more complicated, we often pat ourselves on the back for doing too much. “There is a false stigma in our society that being busy and stressed is a badge of honor, which is perpetuated by praising of poor boundaries and overextending ourselves,” May explained.
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What’s the answer? “Be realistic about your own capacity and recognize the signs when you are overextended,” May said. For me, that means saying “no” far more often when I find myself struggling to sleep, eat, and even breathe—and I’ve been trying my best to put that into practice.
Whether it’s a night out with friends or helping out a family member, saying no isn’t easy. But the more I do it, the more comfortable I get with it—and the less anxious I feel. In fact, I did turn down a recent pizza-making invitation, and while my friend’s feelings may have been hurt, I knew I’d done the right thing for myself—and in the end, he understood.
“Holding boundaries and saying ‘no’ increases self confidence and overall mental health,” explains May. With that in mind, I try to take a few extra beats these days before agreeing to attend parties, serve on committees, or do anything that required effort outside of what is strictly necessary.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, I wholeheartedly recommend saying “no” to the next thing someone tries to put on your plate. (It might just let you relax enough to actually eat what’s on your plate when you sit down to dinner.)
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