Living with anxiety is challenging. It is one of the most common mental health conditions in Australia and it affects people of all ages across all walks of life. Its impact is felt in varying degrees from person to person.
To break it down, anxiety is a mental and physical reaction to, what usually is, a perceived threat. The exception though is anxiety related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which occurs as a result of exposure to real threat and danger. It is an inbuilt biological response which stems from our evolutionary ‘caveman’ days where predators hunted us and life was a daily struggle just to survive. In other words, it protected us from danger in times of immense stress and fear and allowed our species to thrive.
Anxiety is often referred to as the “Fight or Flight Response” and among other symptoms, it is the trigger for a raised heart rate, sweating, butterflies in the tummy and a surge of adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone). In the context of those aforementioned caveman days it’s easy to see how this response would serve us well when faced with an immediate threat. Due to the huge influx in energy and strength, we were able to run away faster from real physical threats.
Today, we no longer face the same natural and environmental dangers yet the level of worry and perceived threat remains in overdrive for some. In the modern age, anxiety is fed by bullying, social media, comparison, competition and the desire to ‘fit in’. A client of mine introduced me to the term “The Worried Well”. That is, for many people, we have a house, we have a car, we have a partner, we have a job… all the things we THINK we need to be “happy” or “well”… yet many of us are not either. We continue to worry. It seems like we have gone from dealing with REAL threat to dealing with predominately IMAGINED and SELF IMPOSED threat.
Anxiety lies within the worry of what could, should or might be. Modern day worries include things like traffic, our weight or money. It’s the inability to surrender control and the worry that living in the grey is not comfortable nor safe. An anxious person will often avoid possible triggers which gives them a temporary feeling of relief only to find the fear and anxiety even more debilitating when the trigger appears again next time. This cycle of avoidance almost certainly worsens and perpetuates anxiety.
One of the greatest misconceptions around anxiety is that it’s a “bad thing” but actually, in small doses, anxiety is a GOOD thing. It ensures we drive safely, we take steps to protect ourselves from health problems and it stops us from taking unnecessary risks like walking too close to the edge of a cliff. It helps us avoid things that are scary or dangerous.
But when ‘scary’ or ‘dangerous’ become irrational we meet all sorts of problems including sleep issues, stomach ulcers, muscle tension, an upset tummy, poor concentration, mood instability and more.
So what can you do? How can you manage living with anxiety?
Above all, it’s important to understand that anxiety is one of many mental health challenges that responds well to treatment. In other words, there IS hope. There is life on the other side of anxiety. You CAN rewire your brain and live free of excessive worry. In the mean time, here are some strategies that may help you manage…
First of all, give the anxiety a name
Doesn’t that just sound ridiculous? But evidence says it works! One of the key coping strategies for almost ANY life struggle (grief, anger etc) is separating the person from the problem. By giving the anxiety a name you do exactly that… you separate it from you! You create space for more objectivity and less subjectivity. This technique of naming your anxiety is actually part of something called ‘Cognitive Defusion’. ‘Cognitive’ refers to your thought processes. ‘Defusion’ is the ability to stand back and notice and observe your thoughts rather than being caught up in and consumed by them (‘Cognitive Fusion’). Can you see the opposite here? One allows you to let thoughts come and go and the other almost certainly makes you hold onto them even tighter.
Learn some relaxation exercises
Anxiety makes you tense, there is no doubt about it. For instance, tight shoulders and neck muscles, tension headaches and knots in your stomach. One of the best therapies for instant relief from anxiety symptoms is relaxation exercises. You might like to do some yoga, meditation, guided imagery exercises or progressive muscle relaxation exercises. In addition to those activities you could consider breathing exercises where your inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and exhale for 6 seconds. Spend some time on YouTube or Google and you’re sure to find something you like. Whatever you do remember relaxation is critical when you’re living with anxiety.
Understand that worry is normal
Part of managing anxiety comes from the acceptance that worry is normal. In other words, you aren’t “crazy” for worrying. Learning to balance worry with logic and reasoning is where the key to freedom lies. So, basically that means learning to act from different parts of the brain. Always try to fact check a situation by asking yourself some questions such as “Is there substantial evidence for my thought?” or “Is there evidence contrary to my thought that I am ignoring?” or “What would a friend say about this situation?” or “Will this matter a year from now? Or five years from now?”
Create a safe place to go to during anxiety or panic attacks
Many people don’t know that there is actually a pronounced difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack. The fundamental difference is that an anxiety attack generally takes time to build and erupt and is based on fear associated with a specific event, experience or stressful situation. In contrast, a panic attack tends to come on abruptly and with no apparent cause. It often involves intense feelings of fear, dread and overwhelm which result in all manner of physical symptoms including a racing heartbeat, severe shortness of breath, tightening in the chest or even nausea. People who experience panic attacks report feeling as if they were having a heart attack or were actually in the process of dying due to the pain in their chest.
If you are living with anxiety, it’s a good idea to create a safe place in your mind BEFORE an attack. This safe place will be somewhere you can retreat to during an attack, simply by closing your eyes. Using visualisation exercises helps you to rest and relax. Consequently the impact and severity of the attack are reduced. Close your eyes and vividly imagine yourself either somewhere warm and cosy where you are wrapped in your favourite blanket or laying on a beautiful white sandy beach with the warmth of the sun sending you to sleep. You can create any space that makes you feel good. When you go to that place be sure to tune into your senses – what can you see? Hear? Feel? Touch? Taste? Doing this exercise will literally short circuit the anxiety or panic.
Do the opposite
In doing the opposite of what the anxiety wants you to do, you are effectively disarming the anxiety by limiting yet another opportunity for self destruction. Most importantly, doing this allows YOU to respond to the situation rather the ANXIETY reacting to the situation. It’s not about ‘suppressing natural responses’ but rather it’s about making a conscious decision to take back YOUR power from the anxiety. This is not a ‘woo woo’ or ‘kooky’ random idea it is a behaviour therapy skill taken from a widely backed therapy approach called Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. Below are some examples that may help you next time you find yourself in a situation but before that remember… having a thought doesn’t mean we HAVE to act on it.
Angry – you want to lash out –> take a deep breath and walk away
Isolated – lonely –> reach out and reconnect… something like sitting in a coffee shop where you are around people but you don’t have to actually speak to them, if you don’t want to
Sad – overwhelmed and teary –> do something that will make you feel happy, more so because it’s the last thing you’ll want to do
Trapped in a crowded room – fearful –> don’t run, stay around, you may find the passing of time lessons the perceived threat. You may realise it wasn’t as bad as you first thought.
Rational counter statement
Part of anxiety is dealing with ANTs. Not the horrid ones that steal your picnic food or invade your kitchen benchtop but the ANTs which are actually “Automatic Negative Thoughts”. You know the instant internal talk that tells you to run away or the instant internal talk that tells you you’re hopeless and stupid. What you want to do is replace these irrational statements with rational counter statements. Furthermore, you want to do it IMMEDIATELY when the thought is weaker and less destructive.
For example here is a scenario many people will relate to…. You make a mistake at work, a mistake that ANYONE could make. You automatically say to yourself “I’m probably going to be fired. I always mess up. This is it. I’m no good at this job.” In contrast, maybe you could replace this with something kinder and more helpful like “I messed up, but mistakes happen. I’m going to work through this, like I always do”. See the difference? The longer you let thoughts linger without replacing them the more damage they do, hence why cutting them off is the better option.
Recognising thinking errors
Did you know all those irrational thought processes anxiety brings on actually have a name? Yes! Here are some you may be familiar with… ignoring the good, blowing things up, fortune telling, mind reading, negative labelling, setting the bar too high, self blaming, black and white thinking, shoulds and musts and my all-time favourite to help people with… FEELINGS AS FACTS. Feelings are merely perceptions, ideas or reactions. They are not facts. Understanding that feelings are NOT facts is one of the greatest breakthroughs someone living with anxiety can make. Learning to recognise when you are doing these things is almost certainly empowering at worst and life changing at best.
Clouds or wave analogy
A quick distraction you may like to try is the clouds or wave analogy. When you look at clouds in the sky you notice they are never stationary, they are constantly changing and moving. It’s the same for your thoughts and worries… imagine them as clouds… like you are lying on your back on the ground watching your worries float on by. Similarly, in the case of waves, they roll in and retreat, roll in and retreat. Remember also, there are days where the sky is blue with not a cloud to be seen. There are days when the sea is flat and no waves are present. So too will YOU have days with no problems.
Affirmations are statements said with confidence which are used to affirm something positive. They create new pathways in our brain and shift our focus from negative, self destructive thoughts to positive INSPIRING thoughts. Affirmations are helpful in the context of anxiety because they provide an instant short circuit to the often toxic and debilitating thoughts that keep people trapped in an anxious state. Your statements can be written in a book or typed up and printed before being stuck on a wall where they are highly visible. They should be said out loud and repeated at least 5 times. Some examples you may like to try are “I am more than my anxiety”, “This too shall pass”, “I am not what my anxiety says I am” or “I CAN do this”. Finally, for maximum impact affirmations should be done daily, or several times daily.
Get some professional support on board
It saddens me to think that people feel like living with anxiety is their only option. That anxiety is the story for the rest of their life. That living with it is the ONLY choice. This is simply NOT true. Anxiety responds extremely well to therapy, particularly to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. A professional therapist will help you understand how your thoughts and beliefs (about a situation, yourself and your world) will shape your emotions which will in turn shape your behaviours and responses. Psychoeducation (learning about mental health) is the key to your FREEDOM! If you don’t know, you don’t know but when you DO know, the world of recovery is yours for the taking.
To sum up…
If you are living with anxiety, I hope those ideas give you some relief from your symptoms. Or, if you love or care for someone living with anxiety, I hope they provide you with some insight as to how to better support them. As with all mental health conditions there will be good days and bad. It’s so important to remain focused on that. Likewise, always remember that anxiety is something that affects you… you are not it and it is not you. It is merely something to be managed or worked on an overcome. There IS a light at the end of the anxiety tunnel, and it’s not a train. It’s FREEDOM and its there for you if you reach out for it.
If you need support with implementing these steps, I’m here for you! A large majority of my work with women is around anxiety so it would be my pleasure to help you live the life you DESERVE! My services are available Australia wide and you can reach me here. As usual feel free to leave me a comment about living with your anxiety or the way in which these tips help you or someone you love! If you enjoyed reading these tips and feel like helping others, you can share this information by using the links below.
Yours in better mental health,