Feeling anxious is typically a response to an anticipated threat or fear of something going wrong. It’s not always a bad thing as it often alerts or warns us about potential harm. We all have every-day anxieties: worries about paying bills, exams, health concerns, relationship problems, public speaking… When this anxiety becomes persistent or overwhelming and starts to impact your ability to do everyday tasks, then it may be time to pay more attention.
This kind of longer-term anxiety can be referred to as an anxiety disorder and can cover a range of problems including, general, social or performance anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder etc. Collectively anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems that people seek help for today.
In the 2013 UK Wellbeing Survey, nearly 1 in 5 people in the UK aged 16 and older showed symptoms of anxiety or depression. There were 8.2 million cases of anxiety disorder and women are almost twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders.
What does anxiety feel like and why?
You may have heard of the fight or flight response. This is a normal response to danger or threat. Today it is much more likely to be triggered by more subtle triggers and internal threats in the form of worries e.g. when we feel anxious about a job interview or exam…
Our bodies react in the same way as they did when faced with a Sabre Toothed Tiger; so that we are ready to either fight or run away. This can cause:
- Your heart rate and breathing to get faster
- You to think less and react more instinctively
- Difficulty in concentrating
- Your muscles to tense for action
- Increased sweating to speed heat loss
- An increase of adrenalin to fuel your response
- Or you may freeze and not be able to respond
- You may feel sick, your stomach can churn and your bowels feel loser
- Your mouth goes dry
In the longer term anxiety leads to irritability, disrupted sleep, headaches, difficulty focusing at work and you can lose confidence.
How to overcome anxiety
There are a number of things you can do to help yourself managing and overcome your anxiety – both physical and mindset changes.
1 Get to know your anxiety
You may know specifically what it is that causes your anxiety – like fear of flying. Sometimes it can be more generalised, in which case it’s helpful to build up a picture of situations, times, people, places etc. that relate to when you get anxious. It is usually not the situation itself that makes people anxious but the thoughts they have about what may happen in that situation. These thoughts are not always based on fact so recording your thoughts can also be helpful to identifying underlying beliefs that are feeding your anxiety.
2 Don’t avoid it
When you fear something your instinct is often to avoid doing it. How many times have you heard people (or maybe you) say “I could never speak in public”, or “I can’t get on a plane”? And then do everything they can to ensure that they don’t put themselves in that situation. The problem with avoiding what you are afraid of is that you miss out on opportunities or things in life that you might enjoy.
To borrow the title of Susan Jeffers book, you need to “feel the fear and do it anyway”. You can never overcome your anxiety if you don’t face it: rather, it’s about building a tolerance and seeing that you can “survive” and be OK with being anxious or fearful. So start small and test yourself – like doing an experiment. If you are anxious about flying maybe the first step is to go to the airport and look at planes taking off and landing. If this seems too big a step, watch a film that includes flying. (Not a disaster movie though!)
Like any experiment, you need to observe and record the results. So while watching the planes notice your breathing and heart rate; how did you feel; what were you thinking? If you feel like walking away; reassure yourself you will be OK. It can help to set a time limit, e.g. I will just watch for 1 minute and then I can walk away. Again notice what happens and next time, try it for a bit longer. Building up a tolerance means sitting with it not avoiding it.
People with anxiety difficulties are often so tense throughout the day that they find it hard to recognise what being relaxed feels like. Relaxation has both emotional and physical benefits and there are lots of different ways to relax, so find one that suits you and that you can practice regularly.
For example, progressive muscle relaxation is a technique where you systematically tense particular muscle groups in your body e.g. your neck then your shoulders. Then you release the tension and notice how your muscles feel when they are relaxed. Over time you will start to recognise the difference in how it feels when your muscles are tensed and relaxed, and can put yourself in this relaxed state when you notice the tension and anxiety building.
Alternatively you might try deep and controlled breathing, visualising a favourite place where you can feel relaxed, yoga or meditation.
4 Take good care of yourself
It is important to look after your physical well-being to support your emotional well-being. Your mind and body are connected and one can affect the other, either positively or negatively. Eat a healthy balanced diet and avoid too much caffeine and alcohol as these can increase anxiety. Sleep is important as it gives your body time to repair and it helps your thinking or cognitive function, and general all-round health. But this may not be easy as anxiety can also disrupt some people’s sleep patterns as their mind is whirring with all their anxious thoughts. It can also be helpful to Increase the amount of exercise you do as it can take your mind off your fear and anxiety.
5 It’s OK to ask for help
While there is a lot you can do help yourself to manage your anxiety, sometimes it helps to work this through with someone else. Counselling and cognitive behavioural techniques can be very effective for people with anxiety problems. You can talk to your GP about how to find a local practitioner or visit sites such as the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).
If you would like to know more about how we can help, contact Thames Counselling at www.thamescounselling.com.