Anxiety is best described as the unhelpful thinking patterns we experience when our mind fixates on threat, uncertainty and negativity. In general, it is a vague feeling of fear and apprehension – everyone experiences it. Anxiety can occur on its own, as a response to stress, or it can trigger stress. When it occurs as a response to stress, it can intensify the stress, and, in worst cases, lead to panic attacks.
It’s important to understand that you cannot control anxiety from occurring – this is your brain’s automatic survival mechanism. What matters is learning how to respond to anxiety helpfully, so that you don’t get carried away by it. In times of stress, our primitive brain tends to focus on the negative – thinking it is protecting us from potential ‘threat’. This is great if we are in imminent danger, not so good if it is your mind wandering into catastrophising or worst-case-scenario thinking.
Anxiety resonates with so many of us, especially because it can be so crippling and debilitating. Last year and into 2021 has most definitely heightened the prevalence of anxiety. A recent study by Salari et al (July 2020) reported the prevalence among the general population to be one in three people affected.
Anxiety becomes a problem when it is irrational, uncomfortable and disruptive. Thus, learning how to recognise and reduce anxiety is an extremely helpful life skill.
What triggers anxiety?
Having an awareness and knowledge of these triggers can help you learn how to better manage your anxiety. These include caffeine, lack of sleep, substance use including alcohol, conflict, certain medications, health concerns, skipping meals, financial strain, public speaking, exams and interviews, changes in routine such as the birth of a new baby, stressful events such as moving house, diagnosis of an illness, or death of a loved one. If you learn to identify and understand your anxiety triggers, you can work to avoid them or manage and respond to them more effectively.
Common anxiety symptoms include:
Sweating, trembling, feeling weak or tired, having trouble sleeping, having difficulty controlling worry, experiencing gastrointestinal problems, feeling nervous, restless or tense, having an increased heart rate, breathing rapidly (hyperventilation), having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom, trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry.
What strategies can help to manage those anxious times?
Rationalise and challenge your anxious thoughts – Thought challenging is a simple yet powerful cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) technique for reducing anxiety. It helps by broadening your focus to include the bigger picture. This can work really well to calm anxious thoughts and bring you back down to earth. Consider starting to journal anxiety symptoms – write down when anxiety is noticeable or has intensified and record what you think may have led to the trigger. Write down your anxious thoughts and then question whether they are factual? Whether they are likely? Whether they are true? Trustworthy? These exercises encourage us to pause and consider if we are blowing things out of proportion and the likelihood of our fears coming to pass. This simple act of reflection, of trying to work something out, engages the rational part of the brain. It brings the focus away from the negativity. Be curious about your thoughts.
Here are two thought challenging techniques you can experiment with. Keep practicing and discover what works best for you.
Self-soothing to regulate your emotions
This is the practice of treating yourself with compassion and kindness in times of struggle. It is based on the idea that we all have an inner child who needs love, care and nurturing, especially when scared. Speaking to yourself in a soothing and calming way, as you would with a scared child, really can alleviate anxiety and help to regulate emotions e.g. ‘everything is ok’, ‘I am safe’, ‘I can manage this’. Prioritise yourself and make some time for self-care – have a bath, drink a herbal tea.
Breathing to regulate your nervous system
Pause for a moment and take slow deep breaths into your belly and diaphragm and out through the mouth. This interrupts the fight, flight or freeze mode which impacts the capacity to think clearly. It will send a signal of safety to your brain and will interrupt the stress pattern. It will help to bring a sense of calm.
Use distraction to calm anxiety
Distract yourself with any activity that refocuses your attention and energy to keep your mind off anxious thoughts. These activities can include watching tv, listening to music, baking a cake. However, ‘motion changes emotion’ – physical movement is very effective at shifting your energy and attention elsewhere.
Things to remember
- Thoughts are not facts
- Worry solves nothing – Worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles. It takes away today’s peace
- Your needs matter
- Struggling is not failing
- Control the Controllables
- You are stronger than you think
Overthinking is not going to make anything better. Focus on what you can control, the possibilities not the problems, and let the rest go. If you are struggling with your mental health, a visit to your GP or a mental health professional such as a counsellor is recommended.