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Identifying Unhealthy Habits That Intensify Anxiety

Four proven habit-busting strategies that disrupt familiar patterns.

Key points

  • Lifestyle choices you make today are likely adding fuel to the fires of anxiety.
  • Small, yet unhealthy, personal habits, including food choices, can add up to big anxiety.
  • By becoming organized/purposeful about personal clutter, physical and emotional, you can help reduce anxiety.
Source: AnikonaAnn/Shutterstock
A woman being purposeful about her daily planning.
Source: AnikonaAnn/Shutterstock

Are you creating or contributing to your anxiety without realizing it?

Yes, your anxiety may be linked to genetics, childhood trauma, or brain chemistry. But there may be lifestyle choices you’re making today that are very likely adding fuel to the fires of anxiety.

Let’s look at unhealthy habits that are intensifying your anxiety and steps you can take—today—to change those habits. As the saying goes, “When you want to get out of a hole, stop digging.”

Think about how you start your day. Are you setting yourself up for emotional and physical success?

If you’re not getting enough sleep if you’re hoarding or living in clutter, or if you’re starting your day revved up on energy drinks and sugar, you’re going to feel the effects. Habits like these will increase anyone’s anxiety, with or without the presence of a true anxiety disorder.

Keep in mind that small habits add up to big anxiety. Whether it’s hitting your snooze button several times before getting out of bed and feeling rushed, or putting off filling up your gas tank until it’s absolutely necessary, inadequate planning can create copious amounts of anxiety in your life.

Habits are helpful if they’re the right kind. Your brain puts repeated actions, like turning on your computer, brushing your teeth, and driving to work each morning, on autopilot so you can focus on new situations that require decisions, creativity, and solutions—and this is extremely helpful.

The problem is that once patterns form, we rarely give them another thought, and it’s hard to see their effects. We continue doing the same thing over and over without stopping to conduct a mental audit. Analyzing your morning routine is a good place to start.

Now, let’s take a look at four life patterns you’re going to want to ditch and cover why these habits are making you more anxious than you need to be.

1. Procrastination and Avoidance

When it comes to anxiety and procrastination, we are reminded of the chicken and the egg. Which came first? The fact is that procrastination is both a result and a driver of anxiety. Procrastination means putting off tasks because of anxiety, which will only increase future anxiety.

Disrupting this behavior anywhere in the circle can be helpful. Here are some strategies for how you can stop the habit of procrastination:

  • Make a list of things you have been putting off. Do one thing on that list right now. With one item off your list, schedule a time later today or first thing in the morning to tackle another item on the list. Repeat this process until you’re through the list.
  • Move beyond perfectionism. Anxiety over getting things just right can sometimes make it hard to move forward at all. When you embrace the idea that failure is one of the natural steps along the way, instead of a final, humiliating destination, you may find that procrastination flees.
  • Set a timer. Some brains work better under pressure. Be in control of a sense of urgency you create for yourself by setting a timer and giving yourself a limited window to accomplish a task quickly.

2. Clutter and Disorder

Studies continue to show that the more clutter you have in your home, the greater your stress, anxiety, depression, and procrastination. Clutter creates unnecessary stimuli for your brain, keeps you frustrated looking for car keys and other obscure items, and adds to feelings of guilt, irritation, or shame.

Perhaps one of the most important shifts you can make is to replace a “consumer” mindset with an “experience” mindset. Shift your focus from spending money and acquiring objects to embracing experiences and connecting with people.

Spend time in nature and converse with people you love. These experiences cost nothing, accumulate nothing, and will reduce anxiety and enrich your life in ways that clutter never will.

3. Eating Patterns

We are just beginning to understand much better the relationship between gut health and mental health, and what we’re learning is that there is constant communication going back and forth between your brain and your gut.

Your diet plays a huge role in the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut, and that balance plays a game-changing role in emotions like depression and anxiety.

Here are three poor habits that may be fueling your poor food choices:

  1. Lack of preparation. Having healthier fare prepped and on hand, before you’re hungry, is one of the greatest habits you can develop for healthy eating success.
  2. Burning the candle at both ends. Not getting enough sleep has a profound impact on not only your appetite but also on your brain’s ability to signal when you’ve had enough to eat.
  3. Not staying hydrated. Some people confuse thirst and hunger symptoms, which can lead to reaching for snacks, instead of the water bottle. Get in the habit of drinking water based on a healthy fluid allowance, rather than reaching immediately for food.

4. Negative Thought Patterns

Many factors can create and exacerbate anxiety, from past trauma to brain chemistry to lifestyle choices. Another factor that must be addressed is falling into a habit of negative thought patterns. The more we worry, the more our brains become wired to worry.

We all have an inner voice that serves as a constant commentary about our moment-by-moment experiences. When those messages are pessimistic, they will contribute to anxiety. But you control the on-off switch for that voice.

Begin by identifying the thoughts streaming through your brain. Are they negative or positive, helpful or harmful? Intentionally replace negative abstractions with positive affirmations.

So how do you change a bad habit, especially habits that may be contributing to your feelings of anxiety? Below are some strategies.

  • Disrupt a familiar pattern associated with your habit. For example, do you have a habit of heading to the pantry for a pre-dinner snack the moment you get home from work? Have a healthy dinner waiting for you in a slow cooker so you can skip the unhealthy snacks and eat as soon as you walk in the door. Because habits are automated responses, shaking up the familiar can help you ditch the automation and have more power over your choices.
  • Visualize better behavior and practice new habits in your imagination. Visualize yourself starting to go down the path of an old habit, then change the picture in your mind’s eye and envision a new ending, with yourself making a healthier choice.
  • Once you identify a habit you want to change, don’t simply try to stop the old habit. It’s much easier to practice a new habit in its place. For example, instead of telling yourself you’re going to stop the old habit of going to bed at midnight, create enjoyable new habits around going to bed at ten instead. Treat yourself to a new pair of pajamas, play relaxing music, and turn off your electronic devices an hour before that. You’ll find it’s easier to nix an established habit if you have new behaviors that can be practiced.
  • Finally, journaling is a great way to process thoughts and feelings, increase self-awareness, and set new goals. Write about the new behaviors you want to embrace and celebrate how you feel as you make progress.
More from Gregory L. Jantz Ph.D.
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