Written by: Anne-Marie Gawen
– Mental Health & Wellbeing Trainer and Consultant
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling common to all humans – something we will ALL experience. It is actually an important part of our survival – our ancient ancestors would activate their Fight or Flight response to marauding bears, sabre-toothed tigers etc – and survive by fighting or running away. Anxiety has its purpose. However, these days a lot of our anxiety is between our ears. We perceive threats differently – what if I stammer when giving a presentation? What if my friend doesn’t like her birthday present? What if I fail that exam/miss the train/get stuck in traffic etc etc. We overthink, we second guess, we create scenarios where we fail or struggle. It’s quite a busy place inside our heads these days!
Types of anxiety
People are concerned, worried and anxious about many things – one of which could be their health: Health Anxiety – whether directly related to Covid or indirectly.
“It’s so hard to get an appointment to see my GP”
“The news says waiting lists are at an all time high”
“This “symptom” can wait – or can it? It might get worse/be more serious than I realise?”
Or we might have developed anxiety about being around people – Social Anxiety. That social muscle, that we weren’t even aware of before all the isolations imposed on us, is out of use. We need to flex it again – restart our previous activities with other people, going to places we haven’t done for a couple of years. In our reduced or even isolated states we have been left scared, timid, not our usual selves. We are more likely to struggle with Anticipatory Anxiety – nerves before an interview or needing to do or go somewhere new or having a difficult conversation, things which we perceive as threats or challenging. Perhaps we would have shrugged these anxieties off previously.
Or we might have experienced something difficult, even traumatic over the last few years, and many of us have. Which means we might have an anxiety diagnosis. We will look at the different anxiety disorders in future blogs. Here we are considering your everyday anxiety, which can be mild or moderate.
Signs & symptoms of anxiety
For all that anxiety can be a mental health condition, there are MANY physical manifestations such as:
Rapid breathing, dry mouth, increased heartbeat, muscle tension and pain, teeth grinding, trouble sleeping, headaches, blushing, skin conditions, nervous bladder or bowel, sweaty palms, nausea, butterflies in your stomach.
Psychological symptoms are:
Overanalysing, overthinking, feeling overwhelmed, panic, dread, fear, feeling inadequate, useless, a failure. Feeling judged negatively by others, feeling a fraud or an imposter. Feel ashamed, guilty, angry. We struggle to concentrate, remember things, make decisions.
Then our behaviour is affected:
We avoid certain situations, people, events. We can be flaky – cancelling at the last minute, we can withdraw, isolate. We can be snappy and lash out verbally or even physically. We might bite our nails, fidget, have nervous tics. We might not speak up or say what we feel, we might be silenced.
We are NOT the best version of ourselves when we are anxious are we?
How to reduce anxiety?
The GOOD NEWS is that there are ways to reduce our anxieties – here are 5 of them.
- Find ways of accessing a calming response to your anxiety. This might be by learning breathing techniques, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), guided imagery or meditation techniques. Find, develop and practice a few relaxation techniques so they are “good to go” when you need them.
- Distract yourself – identify some helpful distraction techniques to take your mind away from the thoughts which are threatening to hijack you. Deliberately do things you know will help YOU. It could be going for a walk or run, or other physical activity – but there are lots of other things too such as talking to someone – a friend, family member, group. Don’t have anyone to talk to at 4am? Write it down instead – writing things down, freehand or making lists can be really helpful. Get it out on paper. What about your hobbies? Singing? Dancing? Fishing? Cooking? Art? Jigsaws? Sudoku? Gardening? Watch a film? Give your brain a rest from those anxious thoughts – they are exhausting.
- Face your fear – it is breathtakingly easy to start avoiding things that make us anxious. However, when we do avoid them we make both the thing we fear AND our anxiety GROW BIGGER. If we challenge our thinking and start to apply a growth mindset to what is making us anxious, we may do something we thought we couldn’t. Ask yourself “What am I really anxious about?” and “How likely is it that something bad will happen?” “What would make it less likely to happen?” “Is there another way of looking at this?” even “If something happens – what will I do?” Remind yourself of something that you overcame in the past – what helped? Sometimes our anxiety is so overwhelming that we will need help to face our fears. Anyone can refer themselves to their local “Talking Therapies” service – sometimes called “IAPT” and get help.
- Talk to yourself like you would a friend – apply what is called “Self-Compassion.” Often we say mean, nasty, cruel things to ourselves if we make a mistake or are facing difficulties which does NOT help. We automatically do it, so we have to be very determined to stop ourselves from doing it – and one way is to think “Would I talk like this if my friend told me they were in this situation?” (The answer is always “NO!”) What would you say? Perhaps you would acknowledge, even validate their fears, give them a different perspective, allow them to vent, then start looking for solutions. Try it – this can be transformative!
- Reframe your thoughts – another great technique. Ask yourself is your thinking helpful or harmful? How can you make it more helpful?
|Unhelpful thought||Helpful reframe|
|“I am too stupid to do this”||“I don’t find it easy – I might need some help, or to try a different way”|
|“I just can’t do it – I’m useless”||“I will keep trying – I am getting better each time I try”|
|“I’m rubbish – it’s too hard. I give up”||“I can’t do it YET. I will get there”|
Notice the last one and the tiny word “YET”. Such a powerful way to think – it gives that tantalising possibility that you WILL be able to do that hard thing soon, whether it is learning to swim, speaking Spanish or getting a job you love.
Anxiety is part of being human BUT that does NOT mean that it needs to rule us. We can harness and tame it to live happier lives.
Which of the above will you try first?
Wise Words: “Worrying is like being in a rocking chair – it gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere”