All of us feel anxious at times, especially during times of stress or when something particularly important is going on in our lives. But anxiety becomes a problem when it starts to impact negatively on the quality of your daily life. You might feel regularly gripped with worry, you may experience panic attacks, you might even begin to actively avoid situations in order to appease your anxiety. Perhaps you’re just not enjoying life as much, and it’s as if there is something pulling you back from happiness and calm. When those little worries we could push aside begin to take root and take over, we may be suffering from anxiety or a specific anxiety disorder.
The five most common types of anxiety disorders are: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Social Anxiety Disorder, Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Panic Disorder. It’s also possible to suffer from a combination of anxiety disorders which can sometimes make identifying the different types quite tricky.
The first thing to know is you are not alone, and there are many strategies to help you manage and reduce your anxiety. There’s a difference between management and cure, but principally it’s about redressing the balance, and not letting those anxious thoughts win.
You’re in a crowded place, talking to someone new, at a job interview, or just lying in bed; anxious thoughts building, brewing, throbbing. There’s a tightness, a churning, a cramping in your stomach. A lump like a plum lodged in your throat. Your heart begins to race, every beat is a forceful thud. Your chest tightens and you feel like you are suffocating. You’re begging yourself to keep it together and to block out the voices that shout so loud, they drown out all rational thought. But their chorus is deafening. You are most likely experiencing a panic attack.
So, what’s actually going on?
Without getting bogged down in the science, it can actually be really helpful to have a vague idea of what’s going on in our body when we have a panic attack. It demystifies the whole process, which is a good starting point for taking back the control and conquering those anxious feelings.
When we have a panic attack our body is responding to a fear or threat - and goes into fight, flight, freeze mode. Our bodies can’t necessarily differentiate between what is a physical threat and a psychological one. So basically, our anxiety triggers our body’s physical response to threat, and it’s a pretty powerful response! Our body tries to take in more oxygen which explains the quickening breathing. The release of adrenaline is responsible for the racing heartbeat.
Anxiety attacks or panic attacks can feel unbearable and overwhelming - but rest assured, those voices can be quietened, and that racing heart and mind can be steadied. It’s about knowing how, and working at it.
Relax and breathe
Breathe. And keep breathing. Slow, deep, full breaths are your best friend here. Count steadily from 1-4 on each in-breath and each out-breath. These slow, deep breaths will really help to relax your body. Control is what you want to achieve, breathing slowly and evenly. Closing your eyes can help to escape from stimuli around you that may be a trigger for your anxiety. Closing your eyes will also help you focus on your breathing.
This is definitely a lot easier said than done, but it’s a real game changer. You know you can work through this. You’ve probably done it before. Believe in yourself. The negative thoughts are yours, but you don’t have to believe them. So, push them out, and remind yourself that you are in control of this and you will manage it.
Seek out a distraction
Rather than focusing all your attention on the upsetting emotions, distraction will divert it elsewhere. Say you’re feeling an anxiety attack come on whilst travelling on a busy train - why not pull out your phone and text a friend or family member whom you haven’t spoken to in a while, listen to a song that takes you to your happy place, or check out those great pictures from the weekend.
Know that it will pass
It’s good to remind yourself that whilst an anxiety attack can be extremely frightening, you are alright and you will come through it. What we are experiencing is our body’s physical response to the anxiety, and nothing more. It can be soothing to reassure yourself that it’s not a heart attack, or anything seriously dangerous to your health. Although it can totally feel like it won’t in the moment, it will pass.
Share the load
Anxiety can make us feel pretty isolated. Connection can be a great healer and sharing your experiences with a supportive friend, a fellow anxiety sufferer, or an online support group can make a real difference. Share the load, and you will feel lighter.
Time to worry
Some of us are simply natural born worriers, and so banishing all worries to Room 101 just isn’t realistic. Perhaps it sounds a bit contradictory, but it can help to actually set aside a window of time for worrying. Literally, get your stop clock out and time it. During that time, honour the worries, give them space and attention. But when that bell sounds, that’s it. Pack away the worries until the next worry slot. You’re taking control here, not them! This takes practice, but it’s surprisingly satisfying.
Write it out
A thought diary or journal is a great way to fully express how you are feeling. We simply can’t write at the speed of our thoughts, and in fact just the steadier pace of writing is a great way to calm the mind. If you write regularly you will start to see patterns emerging in your thought processes, recurring anxieties and triggers. You are getting to know your anxious mind better, which is a big step in managing anxiety. By putting the worries down on the page you are also creating a healthy distance between you and them. They are your thoughts but that doesn’t make them true, and sometimes it takes seeing them in ink to get some perspective.
Challenge anxious thoughts
Take a minute to challenge an anxious or negative thought when it comes to you. Remember thoughts are not facts, and by challenging them you are taking back the reins. What would I say to a friend who was worrying about this? What is the worst that could happen? If this was to happen could I realistically cope with it? Have I confused thought with fact? Facing our anxieties head on is no small feat, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Sleep deprivation can actually trigger anxiety. Maybe, like many people with anxiety, just as you’re settling down to bed your mind starts whirring, anxious thoughts firing in all directions. It may be that a calming bedtime routine would help to settle your body and mind before sleep. A warm bath, a cup of herbal tea or reading a good book. Avoiding screens before sleep is always a good idea. Our breathing practice can really come in handy here too - many people finding the 4-7-8 ( Inhale for 4- hold for 7- exhale for 8) technique to be a great mind quietener and sleep encourager!
If you or a loved one is suffering with anxiety, the relentless worrying can be troubling and hard to control, sometimes making day to day life a struggle. Whilst medication can provide relief for some people, there are many simple but significant changes you can introduce to your daily life that can have a very positive impact on your emotional health.
Speak to a therapist
Talking therapies involve just that - talking to a professional about your problems or a difficult period you are going through. Whilst there are various styles and approaches of therapy, the objective remains the same: to help you with what you are struggling with, and make day to day life more enjoyable. Even when we are fortunate enough to have supportive friends and family, sometimes professional help really hits the spot for people struggling with anxiety. It can be a huge relief to talk to someone external, in a safe and respectful space, with no judgement whatsoever. A trained therapist is there for you, with no agenda other than to help you think about and work through your anxiety. Many people with anxiety find that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be very effective in helping them confront and manage their anxiety. It’s focus is on shifting patterns of thinking and behaving, and on developing coping skills for dealing with different problems. But, we’re all different, and it’s about finding the right talking therapy and therapist for you.
Regular physical exercise
That peaceful jog on a summer evening, working up a sweat pacing the treadmill, thrashing it out in a game of squash, or swimming gentle lengths - whatever it is that floats your boat - exercise is remarkably good for mental well being, as well as physical health. Even a brisk 10 minute walk can impact positively on our mood.
Another avenue to explore, are the well reputed and widely practiced alternative or complementary therapies and practices out there. They can make all the difference for some anxiety sufferers or work well alongside psychological therapy or medication. Check out some of them here:
Meditation & Mindfulness
Stress & relaxation therapies
Deep breathing exercises
Traditional Chinese & Ayurvedic medicine
A healthy, balanced diet
There’s some truth in the old adage, you are what you eat.. In fact there are many food groups and particular foods that anxiety sufferers should tuck into, and others they should swerve. For example, eating complex carbohydrates can actually boost the body’s production of serotonin, one of the brain’s “happy” hormones. Whereas drinking too much caffeine can actually speed up your heart beat and increase anxiety levels.
Here’s some food groups and foods recommended to support a healthy body and mind:
Nuts & seeds
Beans & pulses
Live yoghurt & probiotics
Try to drink plenty of water, eat little and often, and avoid those ‘trans fats’ you might find in shop bought biscuits and cakes, which can cause your mood to take a real nose dive.
Cut down on time spent on social media
This of course doesn’t apply to everyone, but in a world where social media is part of life’s tapestry for so many of us, it can be very hard to escape its clutches. That Facebook binge that actually left you feeling a bit empty, a bit low, or at worst triggered your anxiety - is a sign it’s most probably time to sign out a bit more often!
Everyday that you are living with anxiety you are managing it. So be proud of yourself. Researching online about anxiety and ways to reduce its impact is you making a decision to change things. You have recognised the anxiety, you’re learning more about it, and you are thinking about how to treat it. You’ve taken the first big step and now when you’re ready it’s time to take some action.
If anxiety is making you miserable or overwhelming you at the moment, speaking to a therapist could really help you to understand and manage your anxious feelings, and most importantly, feel better. Speak to one of our team to get help to find a therapist today.