Anxiety is a totally normal part of life, particularly in college when professors, friends, employers and family all expect a lot from you. You might not be able to control all of that, but you can control your lifestyle choices.
Whether you suffer from an anxiety disorder or just feel the day-to-day stress of college creeping in, you might be doing some small things that make your more anxious, which no one wants to be. Here are some life choices that could unintentionally be making your anxiety worse.
It might seem like the best solution to anxiety is simply steering clear of what makes you anxious. Not the case.
“Avoiding the things that make you anxious makes your more anxious about those things,” says Dr. Alice Boyes, a psychologist and author of the book The Anxiety Toolkit. “You see it in things like eating disorders, where someone will start avoiding certain fatty foods, then the number of foods that makes them anxious because of fat or sugar or whatever it is they’re anxious about becomes a wider and wider circle.”
Learning to not give in to your anxiety might require professional help, but understanding that giving in and avoiding anxiety-inducing scenarios only exacerbates it is a good first step.
2. “Safety behaviors”
Again, self-treatment might lead you to rely on certain behaviors that temporarily ease anxiety. Dr. Boyes calls these “safety behaviors,” and they actually perpetuate your anxiety.
“Safety behaviors is when you do stuff to make you less anxious. Like if you’re anxious about driving on the highway you only do it if you have someone in the car with you or refuse to take the highway and only take backroads,” Dr. Boyes says. “Or, someone whose anxious about blushing or sweating might wear tons of deodorant. So overcompensating increases anxiety as well.” In the moment it may seem like a quick fix, but it’s actually doing more harm than good!
I know it feels like we all need that third cup of coffee to get you through your late afternoon class, but caffeine can have an adverse effect on your anxiety.
“I know for me, consuming a lot of caffeine makes my anxiety a lot worse,” Lexi Hill from the University of South Carolina says. “I stick to tea only!” Chelsea Jackson, a junior at Iowa State, also noticed that caffeine worsened her anxiety and said switching from caffeine to ginseng helped.
“Obviously excessive amounts of caffeine is going to make you more jumpy,” Dr. Boyes says. “It’s a kind of cycle—that you feel exhausted from feeling anxious all the time, so you end up having more caffeine to compensate and that just makes your more jittery.”
We all love a good Starbucks run, but if you’re having a particularly anxious day, maybe opt for a non-caffeinated tea or decaf coffee.
Going out can be fun. Feeling anxious? Not so fun.
“Alcohol seems to make my anxiety worse too,” Chelsea says. Alcohol is a depressant and the effect it has on neurotransmitters can negatively impact your mood. Also, depending on alcohol to ease social anxiety combines the anxious effects of alcohol and the problematic use of “safety behaviors.” Chelsea stopped drinking and noticed a difference in her anxiety levels.
“Hangxiety,” or anxiety that comes with a gnarly hangover, is also a common feeling. Studies have shown that hangovers, by causing unpleasant physical reactions and changes in mood, often increase anxiety.
Quitting cold turkey might not be practical for everyone, but if you’re feeling particularly anxious, you could simply pass on going out that night or nominate yourself to be DD and enjoy yourself without drinking.
5. Isolating yourself
It’s easy to lock yourself away when you’re anxious and upset. No one needs to see you like this. But honestly, other people might provide a nice distraction.
“I didn’t develop my specific anxiety disorder until a few years ago, but I use to avoid going out or talking to people unless it was absolutely necessary,” Chelsea says. “However, I realized isolating myself from going out only exacerbated my anxiety when I did inevitably need to leave the house for work and school.”
When you’re alone, it’s just you and your thoughts, so if you’re having anxious thoughts, that probably won’t pan out well.
“One of the things that increase anxiety is ruminations. People get confused between ruminating and problem solving,” Dr. Boyes says. “If you’re good at thinking you tend to try and think your way out something, but if you’re thinking a lot about something chances are it’s not going to lead to more insights or get you less anxious.”
6. An unusual sleep schedule
Again, a classic college student move. You have stuff to get done and no time to do it. Then on the weekends, you stay out until 4 a.m. You’ll sleep when you’re dead, right? Bad idea.
Weird sleep schedules can also make anxiety worse. Sleeping and anxiety go hand in hand. Anxiety can make it hard to sleep, but not getting enough sleep can make you more anxious. “Sometimes insomnia and anxiety can be a vicious cycle,” Chelsea says.
“Just in general, poor sleep hygiene can cause more anxiety,” Dr. Boyes says. Things like taking excessive naps, using alcohol to get to sleep and coping with caffeine, in the long run, worsen anxiety, she adds.
There’s no quick fix to anxiety. Making conscious choices in your day-to-day life can help limit it, and if you can lower your anxiety, why wouldn’t you want to?