How to address anxiety, according to health experts

By Alistair Gardiner
Published February 3, 2021

Key Takeaways

There’s a chance you’re one of the estimated 40 million US adults who have an anxiety disorder. Even if you aren’t, the stress and uncertainty of a pandemic are sufficient to induce anxiety in anyone.

Physicians and other healthcare workers intimately understand this challenge. A survey conducted late last year by Mental Health America found that 93% of healthcare professionals were experiencing stress, while 86% reported battling anxiety. Three-quarters of all respondents, meanwhile, grappled with exhaustion and burnout.

Everyone could use a little help coping right now. Here are four tips, based on expert health advice and study findings, for relieving anxiety—during times of peace and pandemic.


Mindfulness is something you can practice wherever you are, without any equipment, and it’s free. A form of meditation, mindfulness involves staying in the moment by focusing on sensations or feelings, without interpretation, judgment, or distraction. The goal is to move your mind away from the planning, problem-solving, and negative or random thought spirals that can consume your waking life. Mindfulness works by engaging with your body and the world that’s directly in front of you, according to the Mayo Clinic

And it has a long history—along with meditation, mindfulness can be traced back to ancient Buddhist philosophy. But how do you practice mindfulness? The trick is finding the method that works for you. Simple, unstructured mental exercises include paying attention to the world and focusing on your five senses. Let’s say you’re eating a meal. To practice mindfulness, take the time to smell, taste, and enjoy the food. Block out all of the outside noise. Another technique involves breathing. Practitioners sit with their eyes closed and focus on breathing in and out. Even just 1 minute of breathing exercise can help.

More structured exercises can also improve mindfulness. Mayo Clinic points to body scan meditation as a popular example. To do this, lay on your back, with legs extended and arms at your sides, palms facing up. Focus your attention slowly and intentionally on one part of your body at a time, starting at either your head or toes. Direct your attention to sensations and emotions associated with each body part. Other exercises, such as sitting and walking mediation, also turn simple actions like breathing into a big mental health boost. 

Studies have found evidence that mindfulness can quell anxiety. One recent study, published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2019, looked at the effects of the practice on depression and anxiety. Researchers analyzed data from 1,151 adults, including meditators and non-meditators, and found that mindfulness was associated with lower levels of anxiety, directly and indirectly.

Other research has shown that mindfulness can help with stress, pain, insomnia, and even high blood pressure, noted the Mayo Clinic. 


Anxiety peaking? Check your sleep habits. There is a long-established connection between difficulty sleeping and anxiety—and this can result in a negative cycle, as anxiety makes it harder to fall asleep, while less sleep appears to cause anxiety. In recent years, studies have begun to establish why sleep loss has a demonstrable anxiety-inducing effect.

One such study, published in Human Nature Behavior in 2019, explored the basic brain mechanisms that link sleep disruption with anxiety disorders. Using functional MRI and polysomnography, researchers monitored the brains of 48 participants after a full night’s sleep and again after a disrupted night’s sleep. They later corroborated these lab experiments by tracking the sleep behaviors and anxiety levels of 280 people, via an online study.

The study found that sleep loss raises anxiety levels due to impaired medial prefrontal cortex activity and associated connectivity with extended limbic regions. On the other side of the coin, researchers found that “non-rapid eye movement slow-wave oscillations” offer an ameliorating, anxiety-reducing benefit for these brain networks. 

This impact can be significant. A sleepless night caused a 30% increase in anxiety, and researchers found that even modest night-to-night reductions in sleep predicted consequential day-to-day increases in anxiety. They concluded that non-rapid eye movement sleep could be considered as a therapeutic target for treating anxiety.

There are many ways to help get a better night’s sleep, such as turning off electronic devices 30 minutes before bed, keeping a regular sleep schedule, exercising regularly, watching what you eat before bed, and limiting fluid intake before sleep. Experts say the goal is 7-9 hours of sleep nightly.  


Many medical experts extol the virtues of yoga as a natural form of anxiety relief, which can increase heart rate variability and thus heighten the ability to respond to stress more flexibly. Studies have also confirmed that yoga can help manage symptoms of anxiety and stress, improving overall well-being.

One study, published last year in JAMA Psychiatry, assessed whether yoga was as efficient in treating general anxiety disorder (GAD) as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). With a cohort of 226 subjects who had been diagnosed with GAD, researchers analyzed the impacts of 12 weeks of regular Kundalini yoga, CBT, and stress education.  While yoga wasn’t as effective as CBT in treating anxiety, it was far more effective than stress education, researchers found. They concluded that yoga can be used as a treatment for relieving GAD symptoms, but CBT is supported for the first-line treatment. 

The findings support the conclusions of other research, including one study published in 2019 in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice. There, researchers found that cumulative yoga practice reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety and increases feelings of positivity.

And remember: There’s no need to join a yoga studio. YouTube is stocked with plenty of free tutorials.


If yoga and mindfulness aren’t your cup of tea, here’s another way to reduce anxiety: Eat the right foods.

According to a study published in 2020 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, evidence suggests that mental health issues (including anxiety) can be improved by adhering to a diet that is high in anti-inflammatory foods, fish, folic acid, magnesium, and certain fatty acids, while excluding processed foods. The study also found that micronutrients like B6 and B12 have protective effects against mental illnesses. And this was just the latest in a long line of studies suggesting that dietary improvements can improve mood and general well-being.

Based on the available evidence, a diet to protect against anxiety should include:

  • Foods that are naturally rich in magnesium, like leafy greens, legumes, nuts, and seeds

  • Foods with a lot of zinc, like oysters, cashews, liver, beef, and eggs

  • Foods rich in B vitamins, like avocado and almonds 

And if things are really bad, it might be time to cut back on coffee. According to research conducted at Penn State University in 2019, caffeine in small doses can improve concentration in some, but it can mimic or exacerbate symptoms of anxiety in others. Hopefully, though, the thought of ditching coffee doesn’t cause more anxiety.

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