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How Lifestyle Choices Influence Anxiety Levels

Last updated on 20th February 2024

How Lifestyle Choices Influence Anxiety Levels

Anxiety is becoming an increasingly prevalent issue in society, affecting individuals of all ages and backgrounds. Although it is normal to experience some anxiety in certain situations, severe or chronic anxiety can affect many areas of an individual’s life. 

Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder and affects more than 8 million people at one time in the UK. Anxiety can manifest in different ways and there are several different types of anxiety disorders which are characterised by different symptoms and patterns of anxiety, including:

With 20% of people stating they feel anxious most of the time and 30% of people with anxiety feeling like they are struggling to cope with their anxiety, according to the Mental Health Foundation, understanding the prevalence of anxiety and the impact lifestyle factors can have on anxiety levels and overall mental well-being is an important consideration. 

Today, we will look at the complex relationship between lifestyle choices and anxiety levels and how lifestyle factors, including diet, physical activity, sleep habits, stress management, substance use, social connections, work-life balance and the mind-body connection play pivotal roles in an individual’s anxiety levels and overall mental health. 

Diet and nutrition

The relationship between diet and mental health is an important one, with certain foods and drinks having the potential to reduce or exacerbate feelings of anxiety. Introducing certain foods into your diet could improve your anxiety levels and have a positive impact on your mental health, whereas not eating a balanced and nutritious diet can result in nutrient deficiencies that can exacerbate feelings of anxiety. Neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin and dopamine, require vitamins and amino acids found in food for optimal functioning. The majority of serotonin receptors are located in the lining of the gut, meaning the gut-brain axis and an individual’s diet can play an important role in anxiety. 

Changes to your diet that could improve your anxiety levels are listed below:

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel, flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts. These fatty acids are essential for brain health and help to regulate the neurotransmitters in the brain, which can help to reduce anxiety levels and help your brain to better manage and respond to stressors. Omega-3 also has anti-inflammatory effects that could positively impact mood.


Antioxidants, such as vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene, can help to reduce inflammation, regulate the neurotransmitters in the brain, improve blood flow and reduce your body’s response to stressors. Foods rich in antioxidants, including berries, leafy greens, nuts, seeds and whole grains, can help to reduce anxiety levels.

Complex carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, beans and pulses, and fibre-rich fruits and vegetables metabolise more slowly, helping to maintain blood sugar levels, provide more stable energy levels and support brain function. Simple carbohydrates, found in processed foods and refined sugars, have less nutrients and fibre and digest more quickly. Complex carbohydrates can increase the amount of serotonin in your brain, which can help to reduce anxiety and keep you calm. 

Magnesium-rich foods

Having a diet low in magnesium may increase anxiety-related behaviours. Foods high in magnesium, such as spinach, avocado, dark chocolate and nuts, can help to regulate neurotransmitters in the brain and improve brain function.


The connection between gut health and mental well-being may be an important one and probiotics found in fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi, may improve your gut health and influence the gut-brain axis, which could have a positive impact on your overall mood and anxiety levels.


Dehydration can negatively impact mood and cognitive function and lead to increased anxiety. Dehydration can affect cognitive function and lead to an increase in blood volume and increased heart rate and respiratory rates, which mimic the symptoms of stress and anxiety. This can trick your brain into thinking you are anxious. Dehydration can also disrupt the balance of electrolytes in the body, including sodium and potassium, which can affect your nervous system and make you more sensitive to stressors. Staying hydrated is essential for overall well-being, including mental health.

Sugar and processed foods

Consuming excessive amounts of sugar and processed foods has been associated with increased anxiety. These types of foods can cause fluctuations in blood sugar levels and lead to irritability, fatigue and mood swings. Processed foods usually lack essential nutrients that are important for brain health and may contain additives, preservatives and artificial colours which can increase feelings of anxiety.


Excessive consumption of caffeine, found in coffee, tea, energy drinks and chocolate, can contribute to increased anxiety levels. Caffeine is a stimulant that can lead to restlessness, increased heart rate and blood pressure and exacerbation of anxiety symptoms. It also acts as a central nervous system stimulant by blocking adenosine receptors, which can increase the release of other neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and norepinephrine, which are associated with arousal and alertness. This heightened state of arousal can contribute to increased feelings of anxiety. Caffeine can also disrupt an individual’s sleep patterns, which can further raise anxiety levels. Limiting caffeine intake and not consuming caffeine if your anxiety levels are high can be beneficial.

Physical activity with anxiety

Physical activity

The relationship between physical activity and anxiety levels is another important consideration for people looking to lower their anxiety levels. Regular exercise can positively affect anxiety levels and overall mental well-being. Some benefits of regular exercise include:

Releases endorphins

Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins in the brain, which act as natural painkillers and can elevate your mood. Endorphins contribute to a sense of well-being and can help alleviate feelings of anxiety, reduce stress, relieve pain and improve your mood and self-esteem. The brain naturally releases endorphins in response to pain or stress so increased endorphins in your day-to-day life can help to reduce overall feelings of anxiety.

Reduces stress

The relationship between exercise and stress is an important consideration. Exercising can reduce stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which are associated with the body’s fight or flight response. Elevated cortisol and adrenaline and heightened feelings of stress can trigger anxiety and regularly experiencing stress can increase the risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Regular physical activity can help to regulate your stress hormones and reduce your daily stress levels. 

Social interaction

Participating in group exercises or team sports provides opportunities for social interaction, increases support and can encourage positive social relationships. Social connections are essential for mental health and positive social interactions can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation that may contribute to anxiety.

Improves physical health

Engaging in physical activity can improve your overall physical health, which can, in turn, positively affect your mental health. Improving your physical health can be particularly beneficial to those who experience health anxiety.

Although engaging in physical activity may feel daunting, there are many different types of exercise to suit different needs, including walking, running, swimming, yoga, attending the gym or playing sports. Regardless of the type, intensity or duration of the exercise you engage in, improving your physical activity may have a positive effect on your overall anxiety. 

Sleep habits

Sleep disorders, such as insomnia, can cause or contribute to feelings of anxiety. Having problems with sleep can cause difficulties in an individual’s day-to-day life, increase the risk of physical health problems and increase feelings of anxiety and depression. Establishing good sleep habits can contribute to better sleep patterns and reduce the likelihood of anxiety-related sleep disturbances.

Some ways you can improve your sleep habits to help you manage your anxiety are listed below:

Improve your sleep education

A lack of understanding about sleep patterns, healthy sleep behaviour and overall sleep well-being can contribute to poor sleep. Sleep education teaches you how to create healthier habits to improve sleep quality and your sleep environment. This can include:

  • How to improve your evening routine.
  • Creating a consistent night-time schedule.
  • Minimising your exposure to blue light in the evening.
  • Making your bedroom a more calming and relaxing environment.
  • Having a bath in the evening.
  • Being mindful of your evening eating and drinking habits.

Sleep education can play a role in alleviating any stress or anxiety you experience in relation to sleep and can help to improve your overall mental health.

Sleep habits with anxiety

Implement relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques can help to reduce stress, anxiety and bodily tension and can make you more relaxed at bedtime, making it easier to fall asleep. Relaxation techniques can be included in your daily routine and may be most effective when done in the evening. Relaxation techniques include:


Meditation can help you control your breathing and manage your body’s responses to stress and anxiety. It can also help with both physical and mental relaxation and can reduce your cortisol levels, which can reduce stress and anxiety.

Deep breathing

Deep breathing techniques can reduce stress levels, decrease body tension and help you manage anxiety. Integrating deep breathing into your nightly routine can promote relaxation and improve your well-being and sleep.

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)

PMR is gentle breathing while systematically releasing tension in different muscle groups. It promotes body relaxation and helps you to release any tension in your body, which could be contributing to poor sleep.

Stress management

The relationship between stress and anxiety is complex, with stress being one of the most common triggers for anxiety. Stress and anxiety also manifest in very similar ways and it can be difficult to determine whether you are experiencing stress or anxiety. Stress management techniques are necessary for reducing anxiety levels and maintaining mental well-being. Some stress management techniques that can be implemented include:

Keep a stress diary

A stress diary allows you to identify and record the sources of stress in your everyday life. This includes major stressors, minor stressors and chronic stressors. Keeping a diary gives you an insight into your thoughts, feelings, habits, behaviours and any external factors that are contributing to your stress levels. It also allows you to look for patterns in your stress, including any regular stressors. A stress diary gives you the opportunity to take responsibility for your stress and take steps to manage and reduce your stress levels, both short term and long term. As part of your stress diary, you should record:

  • Your stress level.
  • What is causing your stress.
  • How you feel, mentally and physically.
  • Any behaviours that occurred as a result of the stressor.
  • Any successful steps you have taken to reduce your stress.
Bad habits with anxiety

Be aware of unhealthy coping mechanisms

Many people do not realise that their way of coping with stress may actually be contributing to their stress levels long term and negatively affecting their mental health. Some coping mechanisms are unhealthy and being aware of these can be beneficial. Some unhealthy coping mechanisms include:

  • Drinking excessive alcohol.
  • Bingeing on unhealthy food.
  • Withdrawing from social activities.
  • Procrastinating from productive activities, such as cleaning, which can create a negative cycle that perpetuates stress.
  • Taking out your stress on other people.

Reframe your stress

Sometimes, stress is unavoidable. Reframing your stress allows you to view a stressful event in a different way, from a more positive perspective. Learning how to change your perspective can positively affect many areas of your life and the strategies you learn can be implemented in other areas.

Substance use and abuse

Using substances, including drugs and alcohol, may provide temporary relief from feelings of anxiety or stressors in your life. However, in reality, using substances can contribute to the development and exacerbation of anxiety disorders and can result in feelings of anxiety developing into a long-term disorder. 

Substances that can worsen feelings of anxiety include:

  • Alcohol.
  • Illegal drugs and prescription drugs, including recreational drugs, stimulant drugs and sedatives.
  • Nicotine.

Substances such as these are also highly addictive. Substance addiction and misusing substances long term can affect many areas of your life, including:

  • Disrupted sleeping patterns.
  • Cravings and withdrawal.
  • Heightened stress and anxiety, particularly when the effect of the substance is wearing off.
  • Poor mental health.
  • Physical dependence.
  • Psychological dependence.
  • Increased tolerance, meaning more of the substance is required each time.
  • Physical health consequences and increased risk of serious health conditions, such as cancer or heart attacks.
  • Poorer diet.
  • Reduced productivity.
  • Poorer social relationships.

All of these consequences associated with substance use and abuse can heighten feelings of anxiety, both short term and long term.

Social connections

Social connections and social relationships play a crucial role in an individual’s anxiety levels. The quality of a person’s social interactions and their relationships with others can significantly impact mental well-being. Positive social relationships can help an individual to manage or reduce feelings of anxiety. 

The benefits of a strong support network on anxiety levels can include:

Increased emotional support

Having a strong social support network can provide emotional support during challenging times. Having people to talk to for advice and support can help an individual feel supported, understood and valued by others and can help alleviate stress and anxiety. Emotional support fosters a sense of security and resilience and can prevent feelings of social isolation. Social support can also help you to reduce your physiological and psychological response to stressors and reduce the impact stress has on your daily life.

Reduced feelings of loneliness

Social connections reduce feelings of loneliness, which is strongly linked to anxiety and depression. Interacting with friends, family and peers helps combat social isolation and provides a sense of belonging and connection. Because social isolation typically correlates with increased anxiety, having social connections can have a positive impact on your mental health. Meaningful relationships also contribute to a sense of purpose and meaning in life. Feeling connected to others and having shared goals or interests can enhance overall life satisfaction.

Social connectedness

Being able to share thoughts and feelings with trusted individuals encourages social connectedness and provides validation of your experiences. Knowing that others understand and empathise can provide reassurance and help normalise feelings, reducing the impact of anxiety. Social connections also offer additional coping resources. Friends and family can provide different perspectives, advice and coping strategies, helping you to navigate stressors and challenges more effectively.

Physical health benefits

Positive social interactions have been linked to improved physical health, which, in turn, contributes to improved mental well-being. Maintaining good physical health can reduce the likelihood of stress-related health conditions and increased symptoms of anxiety.

Recognising the importance of social connections, creating meaningful relationships and reducing social isolation are essential to promote mental well-being and reduce anxiety levels. Encouraging open communication and building supportive social connections are important steps in creating a positive social environment and improving mental health.

Work-life balance with anxiety

Work-life balance

Work-related stress and anxiety is a major issue, with more than 800,000 workers affected by work-related anxiety, stress or depression every year. Work-related stress can cause a significant increase in stress and anxiety levels and can have a negative impact on an individual’s mental and physical health. Long working hours, excessive work-related stress, working a demanding job and not having enough support in the workplace can all contribute to work-related anxiety.

One way to reduce work-related anxiety is by creating a healthier work-life balance. There are multiple ways you can improve your work-life balance, including:

  • Ensure your workload is manageable and achievable.
  • Organise your time, including delegating tasks and sharing the workload, where possible.
  • Learn to say no when necessary.
  • Take regular breaks, even if you work from home.
  • Finish work at the designated time.
  • Take the holidays and paid time off you are entitled to.
  • Don’t neglect your social relationships or interests outside of the workplace.
  • Set professional boundaries and stick to them.
  • Don’t take work home – switch off your work phone and work emails outside your working hours.
  • Give yourself time for mental rest and recovery.
  • Take time for self-care activities.

Creating a balance between your work life and professional life is essential for protecting your mental and physical health and helping you to manage your anxiety. It can also help to prevent emotional exhaustion and burnout, both of which can significantly increase your anxiety and make you more susceptible to long-term anxiety disorders.

Mind-body connection

The mind-body connection refers to the complex bidirectional relationship between your body and your mind, whereby your body influences your mind and your mind influences your body. The connection between your mental and emotional states and your physical well-being means your thoughts and emotions can affect your physical health and vice versa. Understanding the mind-body connection and incorporating mind-body practices into your day-to-day routine can improve your overall well-being and help you reduce and manage your anxiety.

Some practices you can incorporate into your day-to-day life to help create a positive mind-body connection include:


Yoga is a popular strategy for reducing stress and anxiety and involves physical movement, controlled breathing and meditation. It can help you enter a more relaxed state and decrease your stress levels, control your breathing and manage your body and mind’s negative reactions to your thoughts, feelings and stressors. Yoga can also help to reduce stress levels and improve your emotion regulation skills. Practise yoga regularly to reduce your anxiety levels long term.

Tai chi

Tai chi is a type of martial art that is characterised by slow, deliberate movements and focused breath control. The mindful and meditative nature of tai chi helps you improve your awareness of your body, thoughts and emotions. Tai chi also has a calming effect on the nervous system, which can help to reduce muscle tension and stress. In traditional Chinese medicine, tai chi is believed to balance the flow of energy throughout the body. This balance is thought to positively impact mental and emotional well-being, including anxiety.


Mindfulness can be an effective tool to help you manage your anxiety. Mindfulness teaches you how to focus your breathing and attention, which can reduce your anxiety. It teaches you how to disrupt negative patterns of thought and emotions and redirect your attention to the external environment. Practising mindfulness on a regular basis can also reduce your overall stress and anxiety and teach you how to be more in control of the connection between your mind and body.

Seeking professional guidance

Although good lifestyle choices can have a positive impact on anxiety levels and lifestyle changes can be beneficial for people experiencing anxiety, some individuals, particularly those experiencing severe anxiety, may require professional help and guidance. 

Professional mental health support can be helpful to individuals who find that lifestyle changes and coping strategies are not successful in treating their anxiety. There are many ways a mental health professional can help in the treatment and management of anxiety, including:

Providing an accurate diagnosis

Anxiety exists on a spectrum, ranging from mild and situational to severe and chronic. Several different types of anxiety disorders exist that manifest differently and have different causes, symptoms and treatments. Individuals experiencing persistent, intense anxiety that significantly interferes with daily life, relationships and overall functioning may require a formal diagnosis from a mental health professional. Because anxiety disorders are complex, only a mental health professional can provide a comprehensive assessment and an accurate diagnosis.

Personalised treatment plans

Mental health professionals are trained to develop personalised treatment plans. They consider various factors, such as the individual’s history, specific symptoms and life circumstances, to create a tailored treatment plan that is designed to address the root causes of their anxiety and offer personalised treatment for their circumstances. A treatment plan may incorporate one or more of the following treatments:

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of talk therapy that can help an individual understand and manage negative thoughts, emotions and behaviours. CBT helps you to identify negative thought patterns and restructure them, changing the way you think and behave.
  • Exposure therapy: Depending on the type of anxiety you experience, exposure therapy can be an effective treatment option. It may be recommended if you experience a phobia, health anxiety or OCD. It involves gradual and repeated exposure to the triggers of your anxiety in a safe environment. It helps you to unlearn any negative thoughts and reduce your stress and anxiety responses.
  • Medication: If you experience severe and debilitating anxiety, medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) or benzodiazepines may be recommended.
  • Applied relaxation: This treatment teaches you how to relax your muscles in a specific way in anxiety-provoking situations. A trained therapist will teach you how to relax your muscles quickly and effectively in response to your triggers.

Early intervention

If you think your anxiety may be severe, seeking professional help as soon as possible can prevent your anxiety from escalating and reduce the impact of anxiety on different aspects of your life. Not only can access to early intervention give you an early diagnosis and treatment, if necessary, but it also allows you to address the cause of your anxiety, not just the symptoms, and can help to promote long-term well-being.

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About the author

Nicole Murphy

Nicole Murphy

Nicole graduated with a First-Class Honours degree in Psychology in 2013. She works as a writer and editor and tries to combine all her passions - writing, education, and psychology. Outside of work, Nicole loves to travel, go to the beach, and drink a lot of coffee! She is currently training to climb Machu Picchu in Peru.

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