Making lifestyle changes when too anxious and exhausted?
February 28, 2014 2:39 AM   Subscribe

I've been struggling with fatigue and anxiety, and I've been trying to make lifestyle changes to help. But it seems like the fatigue and anxiety are causing the exact vices I'm trying to break. How to get out of this cycle?

I'm trying to make the basic recommended lifestyle changes like: better sleep, healthy diet, more exercise, meditate, cut back on caffeine, etc. But I feel so drained when I get home from work, like I've already asked everything from myself that I can give. Then I eat junk food, watch tv, read the internet, and other soothing activities until I'm up too late. I oversleep, wake up exhausted, and drag myself through the day, drink too much coffee, too tired and discouraged to exercise and all the rest. I'll make changes for a few days but it never lasts.

Lifestyle changes are really hard. How do I make them when I'm so tired and anxious? I've been like this on and off for a really long time, and especially appreciate answers from people who have been this way and managed to change.
posted by Gravel to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
I've been you. The thing that worked for me was to start with one change. You don't have to fix All The Things at once.

In my case, I decided to fix my sleep patterns, which were awful. I downloaded Sleep Cycle on my iPhone to track how I was sleeping, and committed to going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time every morning. And I focussed on that and only that for a month; everything else could stay the same as long as I slept right. I set alarms to tell me when to go to bed and when to get up in the morning. Basically, instead of trying to make a decision to go to bed every night I built myself a system where the decision was already made for me.

The first thing I noticed was the fatigue dropping away as my sleep got better (well, duh). But then I noticed that I no longer wanted to eat junk food. I wasn't as tired so my body wasn't craving lots of carbs. I started to exercise more and watch less TV... and I was still only focussing on making my sleep hygiene better.

You really don't have to try to address everything that's bothering you about your lifestyle at the same time. In fact you'll just make yourself more stressed if you do. Be kind to yourself and get some rest.
posted by gmb at 2:47 AM on February 28, 2014 [21 favorites]

How about trying to reset the condition in which you arrive home?

Instead of finishing work and going home immediately and experiencing all that weariness in that context, do something in between, so that you arrive home in a different headspace and, hopefully, feeling more energized.

Go to a cafe after work, order a soothing warm drink, and read a chapter or two of a novel you reserve for that time of the day. Or stop somewhere between work and home and go for a twenty minute walk, during which you just let your mind wander.

Whatever you choose to do, it should give your mind and body the opportunity to decompress from the weight of the day. Then you can go home lighter, and hopefully more able to spend the evening hours as you idealize.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 3:19 AM on February 28, 2014

I did this for ten miserable years. Then I quit drinking alcohol, entirely. Within the short period of time since I stopped, I'm working out, keeping the house clean(ish), reading more, practicing music and sleeping better. If you drink, cut it out for 4 - 6 months and see if you notice a difference in that time frame.
posted by mibo at 3:24 AM on February 28, 2014

A good GP or psychiatrist will be able to prescribe medication to deal with anxiety, too. I take a daily antidepressant and consult with a psychologist fortnightly. Even so, anxiety sometimes spikes through my defences. I have absolutely no use for anxiety, so at those times I take 15mg of oxazepam, which just erases anxiety and relaxes me completely. Talk to your doctor about your anxiety.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 3:48 AM on February 28, 2014

Do the things that give you more energy first, whatever those changes might be. I think this is something that all the conventional wisdom I got was kind of not great for. Yes, I should eat healthier, and I'm doing so to some degree, but at the end of the day, right now, cardio exercise gives me more energy, but eating less gives me less. If I skip worrying about food right now, I can get myself to the gym, and I feel more energized after that. It's one step at a time. The extra energy from the gym is going towards housework, which at first was a bit draining but my space being tidier is making me feel better. The extra energy from that--well, once it gets a little further I'll look into giving up doing Bob Evans after I run. It wasn't my first step, but I would agree that "get more sleep" would be an excellent first step if you're oversleeping a lot.

And yeah, all the usual stuff about getting proper treatment for anxiety, if it's being that disruptive.
posted by Sequence at 4:31 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding sleep pattern.

Go to bed the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning. This includes weekends (where you may give yourself an hour leeway either way). Your brain may resent the routine at first, but your body will love you.

Also, make sure you give yourself 'no screen time' - ideally about 30 minutes to an hour before going to bed. This is a hard one for me and I cheat a bit with my Kindle - but it makes your body adjust to lower, softer light.

Be kind to yourself and all the best.
posted by kariebookish at 5:38 AM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I made huge lifestyle changes when I thought I never could. I lost 100lbs all on my own through lifestyle changes. I went from being utterly inactive and hugely unhealthy to healthy, active, and energetic. I feel like I can offer advice on this.

I would tackle the healthy eating and sleep first. Those two things are going to have major impacts on your energy level, which will allow you to deal with the others.

FORCE yourself to have better sleep hygiene. Go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning. Hugely helpful if you continue this through the weekend as well, especially at first when you're trying to establish the new routine. I totally 100% understand the staying up late thing, I used to be such a night owl, but all it did was make me tired and useless all day. I started making myself be IN BED by 9:30, I would read (on my kindle, not on anything back-lit) and LIGHT OFF by 10:30. My alarm went off at 6am every morning. It sucked for the first couple of days but it didn't take long for my body to settle in to the routine and for me to feel significant changes.

Healthy Eating
Yep, your best weapon for this is some way to be accountable or to be mindful of what you're eating. Weight Watchers online was absolutely key for me. The simple act of tracking everything I ate and drank was beyond helpful. I still eat junk food from time to time (nothing is off limits on that program), but I just pick my times to splurge more carefully. Even if you just use a free system like My Fitness Pal to keep track that would work. Hell, a pen and a piece of paper would help too. Just learn to pay attention to what you're eating. Study after study shows that people who keep track of everything they eat end up eating healthier simply because they don't like seeing pages of junky food written down.

Final but most emphatic suggestion that would positively affect both sleep and healthy eating (and your general quality of life) is to get rid of your cable/satelite. TV is toxic and it is probably a big part of where your bad habits are feeding from. Watching TV is keeping you up too late. You're probably mindlessly eat junk food while watching TV. If you're watching TV you are NOT doing something more productive. If you don't have the TV to watch you will end up doing something else, and often that something else is way better. When I ditched my TV I started going for walks simply because I was bored. I also started to go to bed at more reasonable times because I didn't have some TV show as a reason to stay up. I also took up more creative, productive hobbies like quilting and sketching and (recently) knitting. All that wasted time staring at the TV has now become skill building, relaxing, healthy, happy time.

TV is just wasted toxic time, and the single best decision I ever made for myself was to get rid of it. Plus, hey! Saved money!

ps - I had a lot of trouble getting my workouts in at the end of the day too, I was always so drained. I tried going before work (OMG 5am alarm!) and holy crap, magic! I just zombie'd my way to the gym and did my workout without really noticing, got a big boost of energy for the day, and then had no guilt about doing nothing all evening. Morning workouts. They rock.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 5:58 AM on February 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Try to get up earlier every morning and do some sort of exercise, whether it's going for a walk outdoors or working out to an exercise dvd. You'll have more energy, trust me!

Try to read books, watch videos, listen to music instead of watching tv or cruising on the internet- both of which can be very anxiety-producing. Get some cookbooks and prepare a really great dish every few days.
posted by mareli at 6:00 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

One thing I have found enormously helpful recently: I have moved to no-cook dinners. Dinner for me, right now, is a big fistful of baby carrots, some cherry tomatoes, a sliced up apple, a few of some kind of fancy wholesome crackers (sometimes home made, sometimes Dr. Kracker, sometimes Swedish rye krisps) with cheese or peanut butter and then a few other little things - three or four olives and/or a little dark chocolate and/or a couple of spoons of guacamole and/or a couple of bites of anything especially delicious we have around the house. Sometimes I get pre-washed greens and premade dressing.( Brianna's champagne/caper dressing is good).

Because this is a bulky, snacky meal that is made up mostly of fruit and vegetables, it's filling and takes a while to eat. It's also very, very quick to set up - I can be eating dinner within ten minutes of getting home. It's also pretty cheap - I buy a two-pound bag of baby carrots, one or two containers of tomatoes (depending on if they're on sale), a medium nice piece of cheese, some apples and crackers - and every couple of weeks I have to top up the peanut butter, olives, etc.

Sure, some nights I eat junk food or go out or deviate from the standard pattern because there's leftovers, but as a general rule, my evening meals have gotten much, much healthier since I switched over to this meal composition.

It's also easy to vary - I really like apples, carrots and tomatoes, but if I get sick of Dr. Kracker or ryecrisp I can get something else, I can vary the kind of cheese, I can vary the tiny sides (a couple of spears of pickled asparagus instead of olives, etc). The main thing for me is to have a Really Big Plate Of Snacks That Are Mostly Healthy.

I've been on a homemade oat biscuit kick lately too - making crackers is fun and you can make a LOT at once.

The key parts here are:
1. Don't overthink - when I start trying to perfectly balance the meal nutritionally I get messed up. I remind myself that carrots, tomatoes, apples, oats and protein are much better than potato chips and pizza.

2. Get something that is super easy to put together - don't kid yourself about your capacity to get dinner on the table.

3. Get something that takes a while to eat. I find that if I have a small thing which I finish quickly, even if it's very nutritious I want to eat more. (Yes, I understand food and boredom and emotional hunger, eating feelings, etc etc...and yet, it's a much better starting point for me to say "I will use my desire to snack in order to eat vegetables!")
posted by Frowner at 6:24 AM on February 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

I've been tackling making some lifestyle changes and there is a lot of good advice here.

I think one thing I've realized about the "lethargy after work" issue is that the lethargy IS temporary, except if I eat JUNK FOOD. If I come home feeling lethargic, I only need about fifteen minutes to sit quietly or even nap a bit, then I'll get up and can be active doing laundry, baking yams for my lunch the next day, making a healthy salad dressing for lunch the next day, etc. I listen to podcasts in the kitchen (not tv that has to be looked at.)

If, however, I eat junk food during that 15 minutes that I'm resting? I'm done. Done for the night. Done. For me, junk food includes pastas and breads. Those will make me sleepy and lethargic.

Lean meats, veggies, and fruits are okay. A little bit of cheese.

For me, sitting at my computer in the evening is progress over slouching into the couch and watching tv. Doing chores or cooking is even better, because I'm standing.

I just went to the Y for a fitness assessment, and the trainer said something interesting. I don't know if it's true, if he misspoke, or if I heard it wrong, but he said that sitting for a long time affects the limbic system. He didn't say more than that other than to tell me I should stand as much as possible.

The limbic system regulates emotions, memory, motivation, mood....

I haven't found a lot of research articles tying sitting to problems for the limbic system (although I've found a lot around it that suggested it) -- but it creates a nice metaphor for me to keep in mind: sitting = unhappiness and lethargy.
posted by vitabellosi at 7:52 AM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks for all the comments! I have tried a lot of these things, or I've tried to try them anyway. I agree that sleep is really crucial and I feel way more impulsive and anxious when I don't get enough sleep (which leads to staying up late again). But when I try to enforce a firm bed time I have trouble going to bed or going to sleep. I'll try it again.

I drink rarely, never keep up food tracking, don't own a tv, and often get a bit of exercise via my commute. I'm considering getting professional help for anxiety, but I'm not sure how much it will jump start these lifestyle changes. I've never tried a decompressing activity between work and home, so thanks for the new idea!
posted by Gravel at 10:38 AM on February 28, 2014

Make one change at a time. Stick with it for at least a week, if not two, before you try anything else.

You are trying to do things which impact your body and there will be fall out for that. It takes time for your body to go through the changes. Think of it kind of like drug withdrawal. If you were taking multiple drugs, you wouldn't drop them all at once. You would get rid of one at a time. Doing it all at once is too much of a shock. Same thing with diet, exercise, and solving sleep issues: You are putting a lot of stress on yourself, biologically, when you make substantial changes. Don't overdo it. You won't succeed.

For persistent sleep problems, there are some strategies that can help resolve it without forcing anything. Co-q-10 in the morning, about 12 to 14 hours before bedtime, can help gently correct the brain chemistry of your sleep patterns. Get a little physical activity every day, if only a short walk. You won't sleep if you are not physically tired. But also get enough mental activity. You also won't sleep if you aren't mentally tired. This is why reading in bed (nothing too gripping though) or doing crossword puzzles in bed helps some people get to sleep. Plus thoroughly cleaning up your sleep area sometimes helps people get to sleep. Sometimes, dust, allergens, mold, etc is what is preventing sleep and causing people to wake up tired when they do sleep.
posted by Michele in California at 11:20 AM on February 28, 2014

If you're exhausted from work and you're not sure why, are you getting enough nutrition and drinking enough water? Putting more effort into those things has paid a lot of dividends for me (and what I consider "more effort" many people might still consider lackadaisical; you don't have to be perfect to feel a bit better).

First thing I do when I get up in the morning or when I get home from work/school is to drink at least two glasses of water. Especially in the winter or if you've been exercising, you might just be dehydrated. Also, make sure to use lotion and Chapstick and eyedrops, too. If I'm thirsty during the day I make sure to drink some water -- during the winter, that usually results in about two glasses extra of water during the workday, and maybe four or six more during the evening. Really weirdly easy solution to what can be a major exhaustion-related problem.

For food, make sure that you're eating really nourishing food and that you're getting enough of it. Please do not diet and expect to have more energy -- nothing will suck the life out of you faster than not eating enough. A lot of food-related suggestions tend to assume that people are already getting as much nutrition as they need, but in my experience (whether it's because a person doesn't eat a lot or they're going long periods without eating or they're only eating stuff that doesn't have a lot of nutrition/substance to it), that's often not the case. If you're hungry *you should eat,* just make sure you're eating something that will actually quench your hunger. Also, if you're getting tense or impulsive or unable to concentrate, you're probably hungry. If you're feeling like that when you get home from work, that's completely normal (I usually am the same way) and you should probably eat *something* right then. Just a snack, but make sure it has some fiber to it and will actually nourish you enough to get your energy back up. I like something like carrots and hummus or a banana with peanut butter or liverwurst on Triscuits or a yogurt or one of those frozen beans-and-rice bowls or something. Just some small thing that you don't have to prepare, that you can just grab from its usual spot in the kitchen.

For sleeping, I'm terrible at sticking to a routine myself so I can't help you there -- but one thing that helps me get *better* sleep (which makes a huge difference) is to make sure my bedding is always clean and my bedroom is always vacuumed and clean. If I'm having trouble sleeping I also will take an extra allergy pill for sinus allergies/congestion. If I can't breathe properly it is incredibly hard to sleep, maybe you're the same? Breathing problems are also exhausting during the day and can have a major effect on your energy level, so you might want to take that into consideration if you know you have issues related to sinuses/asthma/allergies/etc.
posted by rue72 at 1:53 PM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you're usually on your computer at night, you can do what I did: Use task scheduler or the equivalent to pop up reminder messages to do things you need to do, and why you need to do them. It helps establish a routine. I have also set it up so that my computer automatically hibernates at a certain time (with plenty of warning, of course). So if I lose track of time and the computer shuts off while I'm doing something useless, I think 'Oh yeah, I did that intentionally' and leave it off. And I installed f.lux so that blue light from my laptop wouldn't be keeping me up.
posted by the big lizard at 2:35 PM on February 28, 2014

Eating healthier can be made much easier if you bulk cook in advance. I have taken to roasting cherry tomatos (gm3 for about three hours), dry frying mushrooms and caramelising onions in big batches. I then freeze the tomatos and mushrooms in portions. Then onions will last in the fridge for a couple of months. Then all you have to do in the evening is boil some water, throw in some pasta then make up a simple and healthy sauce. I do one using cream cheese (preferably spreadable cheddar or a strongly flavoured one), a portion of frozen mushrooms, tomatos and a serving of onions. Add a splash of white wine (from a box as it lasts for well over 6 months like that) and some other seasoning, and hey presto, you've got a pasta dish that contains three servings of veg, protein, carbs and, if you use wholewheat pasta, plenty of fibre.

I also cook a batch of pasta on Sunday to provide me meals for work for the week. That way I have healthy food for work but don't have to faff about cooking in the evening.
posted by Ranting Prophet of DOOM! at 4:47 PM on February 28, 2014

I've made good lifestyle changes but have also struggled (and am currently) with bad habits creeping in because of stress. Sleep should be the priority. Sleep hygiene is the way forward. But sometimes a reset can help get things going. I recently edged out of a bad loop by staying up for a day and a half, and taking a prescribed relaxing device at 8 pm. Woke up at 9am mostly refreshed. Showered, dressed, ate, went for a walk in the cold sun.

There is some evidence for this approach, mayhaps without the topper, but am on a phone. If I recall, sleep deprivation (structured, in short bouts) can als o have an antidepressant effect.

After the reset, lights out early, f.lux, cool bedroom, etc.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:09 PM on February 28, 2014

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