We live in an exciting time with the rise of the internet and social media and never-ending information at our fingertips. But with this also comes the pressure to always be chasing the next thing. Comparing ourselves to what everyone else is doing and striving for perfection in all areas of life.
This has lead many of us to feel inadequate and somehow less than. If our life doesn’t look like someone else’s highlight reel on instagram, we blame ourselves. Sadly, anxiety and depression are on the rise as we continue to want more.
I believe that being motivated to accomplish goals is healthy and gives us a sense of purpose, but it should never interfere with health and happiness.
As someone who has struggled with anxiety my entire life and make a conscious effort everyday to work against it, I know the importance of diet in regards to mental health.
Below are the three biggest trigger foods that exacerbate anxiety. Sure, indulging in them occasionally is fine for most people, but when these become a coping mechanism or escape from our battles it is time to re-evaluate.
See what levels make sense in your life so you can continue to choose to feel good, physically and mentally.
Caffeine: This one may be a hard pill to swallow since caffeine is by far the most popular drug of choice in our culture. I’m sure most of you can’t even start the day without a trusty cup of coffee.
But the whole point of caffeine is to elicit an emergency state in the body to get you moving and alert. When this is paired with an already anxious being, the effects can be debilitating.
Caffeine raises our stress hormone, cortisol, which causes the body to raise heartbeat, increase alertness, and have a feeling of unlimited energy.
However, what if the person is already stressed out about an upcoming work deadline, argument with their spouse, or unpaid bills? They may think that caffeine will help them conquer their tasks, but what if it was actually exacerbating their anxiety?
Coffee used to be something near and dear to my heart, a morning ritual that I held onto tightly. Grabbing a cup before work or going with friends to the cafe was just second nature. At the time I didn’t connect the dots that my caffeine consumption and never-ending anxiety were connected.
It wasn’t until my health really started to decline that I had to analyze what I was putting into my body. I decided to give up coffee very unwillingly, but knew it had to be done. I was actually at a point that coffee was making me sick. I had to take that as a urgent message from my body.
After the initial withdrawal affects, I slowly noticed a difference in myself. I actually woke up with more energy and it stayed consistent throughout the day. No afternoon crash or sugar cravings.
But best of all, I was able to experience a calmness within myself like never before. It has been over a year since really giving up coffee and I can say I feel completely different. If I get the urge for coffee I will drink decaf or tea.
Of course this will vary by person and the amount of stress you have in your life but if you are feeling that your anxiety is overtaking your life, try cutting out the caffeine.
Alcohol: Now on the opposite spectrum of caffeine, is alcohol. This may even seem confusing because alcohol is supposed to calm the nerves, right?
The glass after work or at the end of a long week is how we turn off the mind. This may seem like a comforting way to relax, but it may be doing more harm than good.
The occasional glass of alcohol may be fine for most people, but regular drinking can actually worsen anxiety. Alcohol is a depressant and changes the levels of serotonin in the brain. So anxiety can heighten as the alcohol is wearing off.
The “hangover depression” is a very real thing. Do Sunday’s make you feel overly sad or anxious? Sure, it can be related to the upcoming workweek but a weekend full of drinking can cause an intense comedown from alcohol.
The sad truth is, most people turn to alcohol to forget their problems or worries. Or even give themselves a confidence boost when they are lacking self-esteem. But what happens when we are back to reality in our day to day life?
Alcohol is also something that I chose to give up as I was seeking the best version of myself. It was something I too depended on for all the above reasons, and frankly a way to socialize with people.
But I craved deeper and more meaningful connections, I didn’t want to spend my weekends completely debilitated from too many late nights. And I finally wanted to quiet the intense levels of anxiety and depression I felt every Sunday afternoon.
Everyone’s experience with alcohol will be different and you must find the one that make most sense for you. You don’t have to completely give up alcohol to feel happier or lessen your anxiety, but finding other ways to relax will change your life for the better.
Sugar: Sugar, as in the food itself, is not something that causes anxiety. it is actually what overconsumption of sugar does to the body that triggers anxiety. Eating a lot of processed food, desserts, candy, and overly sweet foods throws the body out of balance.
Highly processed food and sweets causes the body to be on a blood sugar roller coaster all day. You know the feeling, overtly high energy after eating breakfast then followed by a energy crash until we either eat more food or drink caffeine.
This pattern continues throughout the day as the body is relying on sugar for energy, and wreaking havoc on our sleep patterns as well. When we are on this blood sugar roller coaster, the body is on high alert all day, thus triggering anxiety.
Blood sugar is meant to be stable and keep us alive and vital. But when it is subject to highs and lows, our mind will continue to race be on high alert. So the donut you ate for breakfast may be the very thing that caused a meeting with your boss to be a traumatizing event.
The body is meant to run on nutrient-dense, whole foods. Sugar in the form of unrefined carbohydrates-think potatoes, fruit, grains-is a healthy source of fuel for the body. Especially combined with healthy fats, the body will run optimally.
But relying on processed foods, takeout meals, and processed sugar will keep your body in stress.
Sugar is meant to be enjoyed so I do believe it has a place in a balanced diet. I try to eat a small amount of something sweet daily so I can still enjoy it and not restrict myself in any way. But all my meals consist of protein, fat, and carbs to keep my energy stable throughout the day.
A good starting place is to aim for 80% of your food intake to be whole, unprocessed foods, and leave the 20% for the more “treat” foods. Eating is never about restriction, but rather what is going to make you feel your best.