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September 17, 2021 — 10:01 AM
Perhaps this goes without saying, but we are living in Generation Anxiety—supporting your mental health has never been more important. And according to clinical psychologist and board-certified nutritionist Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., CNS, the levels are only continuing to climb: “Anxiety is something we have absolutely seen on the rise in adults and kids well before the pandemic—although that has certainly escalated it,” she says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. “But I think there’s a lot of specific areas that often don’t get discussed or looked at.”
In fact, she identifies four oft-overlooked areas to focus on when it comes to easing anxiety—some of these you may recognize, especially if you consider yourself an avid mbg reader, but we’ll bet one tip will have you raising a brow. Find Beurkens’ nonnegotiable habits, below:
“Food is a big piece, and unfortunately food and nutrients don’t get talked about enough,” says Beurkens. We have a master list of expert-approved foods for anxiety (find it here), but Beurkens is partial to a few superstars.
“One of my big hero foods is pumpkin seeds,” she says. “They’re a real powerhouse in terms of brain function.” Specifically, they’re chock-full of magnesium—according to research, a deficiency in magnesium can kick-start the sympathetic nervous system (and when this sympathetic nervous system is on overdrive, it can lead to increased anxiety).
She also touts foods full of omega-3 fatty acids, like wild-caught salmon and sardines. “Omega-3 fatty acids for sure have the most research literature and evidence behind them for supporting brains in kids and adults,” Beurkens explains. To reference a couple, one study shows that omega-3 fats can decrease stress, and another demonstrates that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help promote a healthy emotional balance and positive mood.
Sleep is a big one. In fact, “sleep is one of the most underrecognized, underappreciated driving factors for mental health,” says Beurkens. You see, when you sleep, you experience a drop in the infamous stress hormone cortisol (and an uptick in melatonin), but without a proper snooze, your body is more likely to increase cortisol levels, which, if the poor sleep is chronic, can snowball quickly. It’s a common case experts see all the time: If someone is struggling with their mental health, chances are they’re having issues with sleep, too.
Although, there isn’t one magic number when it comes to how long you should sleep. “Many adults are not getting the sleep that they need,” she adds. “Some adults can do fine with six and a half, seven hours; some need more than that. What’s important is that we’re getting an amount that allows us to feel and function at our best,” says Beurkens. (And see here for our master list of sleep tips.)
Here’s the thing about movement: When it comes to anxiety, its role has sort of a bell curve. “There’s a sweet spot with it,” says Beurkens. On the one hand, “We have reams of research showing physical activity is critical for mental health, for managing anxiety, for regulating mood, allowing us to think clearly, [and] to focus.” (To highlight some data: Exercise gets your heart pumping, which helps deliver more oxygen to your brain, and multiple studies have found that a well-oxygenated brain can help manage anxiety and depression. Other research has found that exercise may help alleviate depression and anxiety overall.)
“So from a mental health standpoint, movement is critical—when we’re too sedentary, that’s a problem,” says Beurkens. However, there is such a thing as too much at the wrong time: Say, for instance, if you exercise right before bed, you might find that you’re way too worked up to wind yourself down and fall asleep at a reasonable hour (which, as we noted above, can harp on your mental health over time). “So good amounts of activity during daytime hours—that’s what we’re aiming for,” says Beurkens.
4. Don’t just say, “It will be OK.”
On to the surprising tip: When you’re dealing with periods of anxiety-inducing uncertainty (hello, pandemic), Beurkens says it’s not actually helpful to tell yourself that it will all work out in the end.
“We cannot control the uncertainty side of the scale, which is why saying, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ or, ‘It will be OK,'” doesn’t work—because we know it’s not true,” she explains. “We can’t control the uncertainty. What we can control is focusing on the other part of the equation: our belief and confidence in ourselves of being able to handle it.”
Rather than telling yourself that it will be OK, say to yourself: “You will be able to handle whatever happens because here’s what you’ve already handled. Here’s how you have previously handled a situation like that.” By giving yourself these concrete examples, you essentially have evidence that you are going to get through whatever situation you’re dealing with. “That focus is really what helps us support our mental health in the big picture,” says Beurkens.
Remedies for anxiety differ from person to person—as always, stick to the methods that work best for you, or consult a professional if your struggles persist. But if you’re able, give Beurkens’ tips a try—one of these avenues might just be what you were missing.