It wouldn’t be unfair to assume that about 90 per cent of people reading this piece have dealt with varying degrees of anxiety at some point. I know I have, most of my friends do, and I know a handful people who don’t even realise they’re anxious but feel the symptoms. Anxiety seems to be a modern-day ailment. Perhaps it’s our fast paced lives, increased expectations and the pressure to live ‘your best life ever’ that prevents us from leading fulfilling lives. “I would cut down the chase and go down to the root—there’s just one cause and that is simply not accepting things as they are,” says Dr Sharmistha Dattagupta, certified life and leadership coach, Dana-coaching.com.
I tend to think of anxiety as something (when dealt with correctly) can lead to a spiritual awakening. Take the case of Shonali Sabherwal, macrobiotic nutritionist, chef and author of The Detox Diet, who suffered from severe bouts of anxiety herself. “I went through a tumultuous time in my life, which made me very anxious.” But she says that her food choices were wrong, which compounded the negative effects. “I was drinking three cups of coffee a day, and I’m sure I was borderline hyperglycemic because I had candida as I was drinking coffee with my croissants, which could have caused a sugar spike.” She never remedied her diet at that point because her circumstances were getting worse. “Then I got into macrobiotics in 2006 and everything reversed,” she says. While anxiety is a psychological issue, I would be remiss not to mention the impact that our food choices can have on the way we think. Be it in Hinduism or Buddhism, a satvik diet or one comprising temple food is known to calm the mind and reduce imbalanced tendencies. “It is important to understand that anxiety also has a physical cost associated with it,” says Dutta. “People don’t realise the tremendous repercussions it can have on our physical well-being.” Think about it—shallow breathing, a feeling of blockage in the pit of your stomach are all symptoms.“We need to be mindful of the fact that the longer we stay in this state of high stress, we generate a cost on our entire quality of life,” says Dattagupta.
The lifestyle changes that will help you reduce anxiety
Accept things the way they are
You can do this with three steps, according to Dattagupta. “Firstly, be present—most meditation practices help you do that.” Secondly, develop faith in life, as it is. “One of the things I love about India is that here, we see a very interesting contrast offhand—people living in luxury and people on the street who don’t know where their next meal will come from.” She says that it’s usually the one driving the expensive car who is fraught with anxiety, as compared to someone on the street who lives in ease. “The people living in ease have faith in something greater than ourselves, so we need to remind ourselves to develop that too.” Lastly, take the time to play more in life. “We are so goal oriented, we feel that a life well made is a life where we have achieved our goals.” But life will be exactly the same even after we achieve those goals. “If we are being aggressive and anxious while going towards the goal, we will remain the same even when we reach it.”
Enjoy the process
People focus on the outcome more than the process. But Dattagupta advices people to reverse their thinking. “If we enjoy the process, then even something as frustrating as our computer crashing can be hilarious—you can use that time to drink a cup of chai, enjoy a conversation or read a book that you didn’t have the time to even look at before.”
Filter your social media
“Social media can trigger the monkey mind and the part of the brain (amygdala) that some people call the lizard brain, as it is a reptilian part that is a relic from the past.” Dattagupta explains that this is a part of the brain that doesn’t know the difference between physical and psychological danger. “Fear rises when we compare ourselves with others, and also when we look at disaster predictions.” So social media brings up a lot of comparison, which can lead to the phenomenon of not being in the current moment and not accepting things as they are. “[Social media] throws many different possibilities in our face, and it’s an unfiltered stream of information that our mind is unable to process.” She talks about the series of disaster predictions that can also lead to anxiety. Still, it isn’t about social media but more so about how we engage with it. “Be connected to what makes you thrive, select a few hashtags that inspire and uplift you, and filter [your usage] down to the things that matter.”
Develop a few everyday habits
Spend time in nature. “Even if you’re in the city, you can always notice the sunlight, birds chirping or a flower blooming; look up at the sky rather than down at your phone.” And start a gratitude practice. “If someone practices only gratitude, they can recreate their whole life.” Dattagupta recommends journaling all the things that worked for you before bed and then going to sleep with thoughts of gratitude. “Practice pranayama to deepen and become more conscious of your breath.”
Eliminate sugar and caffeine
“Sugar is the number one culprit because it goes in and causes an insulin spike, which throws your moods off,” says Sabherwal. “A sugar spike and crash causes you to go into a craving mood, impacting neurotransmitters and robbing you of good stuff like serotonin. The problem is that sugar craves more sugar—it could be in the form of white carbs, alcohol or desserts.” Sabherwal herself was a big coffee drinker before she gave everything up when she started following the macrobiotic protocol. “Even now, there are bouts when my moods get imbalanced after I drink coffee, usually when I travel.” For this reason she avoids caffeine when she is working in Mumbai to keep her moods stable. “Sugar gives you quick disjointed thoughts, so both sugar and caffeine are off my radar.” She says that she has used psychotherapy to address her issues, however most therapists never look at food to address symptoms of anxiety. “When I addressed food, I fixed it; it took about two years but it happened.”
Add sustained sugars
“Whole grains give you eight hours of sustained energy.” Sabherwal says from experience—she ate brown rice at every meal when she gave up caffeine and sugar. “Macrobiotics is very centred around whole grains because they give you stable moods since it’s a steady rise of sugar.” She also praises vegetables such as onions, cabbages, carrots, sweet potatoes and red pumpkins. “Carrot juice is superb in this weather.” She particularly recommends her sweet vegetable juice with onions, carrots, cabbage and squash, which is a wonderful mood stabiliser. “I used to do diet plans for a director and producer—his assistant once told me that he never forgets to give him the vegetable drink because the director’s moods would be much calmer when he drank it,” she says.
Include greens and herbs
Anything that grows upwards and outwards keeps your energy up, according to macrobiotics. She says that people who have anxiety also have stagnant livers. So you need something green, bitter and sour to detoxify the body. “Add a squeeze of lemon to your food and greens such as methi, mustard, bitter gourd, etc.” “I like to recommend a small teaspoon of Ashwagandha with a glass of good quality A2 milk before bedtime,” adds Lovneet Batra, sports nutritionist and founder of Arbhavya, Delhi, saying that it helps you sleep better, relaxes the central nervous system, helps in decreasing symptoms of depression and improves cognitive behaviour. She recommends saffron too, which is also known to reduce symptoms of anxiety. “Infuse three to four threads in warm water and then add it to coconut water or a cup of warm milk.”
Keep a check on B vitamins
Vitamins B 12 and B6 are involved with energy metabolism—they give you sustained energy over long periods, which reduces anxiety. “You can get B6 from a banana and B12 from yoghurt, idli or coconut kefir,” says Sabherwal.
Vasudha Rai has been writing on beauty and wellness for more than 15 years. She’s the author of Glow: Indian Foods, Recipes and Rituals for Beauty Inside and Out, and blogs regularly on Vbeauty.co