The role of a healthy lifestyle in managing anxiety disorders

In the search for wellbeing, many people try all kinds of interventions to help themselves feel better before seeking psychotherapy. They or their friends and family see they aren’t acting like themselves, that they are sleeping, eating, drinking, and exercising differently. They are tense and irritable or withdrawn and isolating themselves more often. People try committing to exercise, eating better, drinking and smoking less, sleeping regularly, meditating, putting “boundaries” around work. Sometimes this brings relief and restores a person’s sense of well-being. I am not against any of these healthy lifestyle behaviors. 

I want to talk about what’s occurring when healthy lifestyle behavior changes don’t “work.” Let’s discuss what’s happening when no matter how healthy a person’s lifestyle is, he or she still doesn’t have a sense of well-being. Or, no matter how much a person wants to commit to certain behaviors, he or she can’t seem to commit on a regular basis.

Suffering or wellbeing occur based on how you relate to your mind and body, not from what you do. It’s not what you do, but how you do it. 

People who relate to their thoughts, feelings, and sensations with openness, compassion, and courage do not have the desire to engage in self-destructive behaviors. Self-regulation in the form of balanced sleeping, eating, exercising, working, and socializing occurs naturally, because there’s no fight to be or feel a certain way. 

In contrast, people who relate to their thoughts, feelings, and sensations with fear, distrust, anger, guilt, and shame will attempt to avoid themselves. The behaviors they choose in the attempt to avoid themselves often offer immediate relief but in the long-run intensify the feared thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Self-regulation is difficult and feels forced. The constant effort is burdensome and it gets harder and harder to maintain balance. It feels like willpower is required to maintain balance and self-regulation. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the more willpower the person uses to maintain equilibrium while avoiding uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations, the more willpower is required. 

Many individuals are so used to using effort to control their thoughts, feelings, and sensations, that they don’t even know that there is another option. Relaxing their effortful control of their thoughts, feelings, and sensations feels terrifying and threatening; they worry that if they embraced this posture, they would “give up,” “lose control,” or something else catastrophic would occur.

Fortunately, relaxing one’s attempts at control of their internal experience and relating to one’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations with compassion and courage is a learnable skill. It is not an inherent personality characteristic  that some people have and other people do not. Some people have biological and environmental life circumstances that make it easier to relate to themselves with compassion and courage, but overall, it is a learnable skill set. 

If you’re having trouble regulating your mood, anxiety, and behavior, rather than committing to a specific plan and forcing yourself to stick to it through willpower, it is worth it for you to assess the way you feel about your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Work on opening up to your internal experience with compassion rather than criticism. This takes time and practice. Healthy lifestyle changes will likely occur as the result of facing internal or external pain with courage and compassion, not willpower.