Anxiety in these challenging times
Feeling anxious? You’re not alone. A global pandemic followed by a war in Europe and the cost of living increasing faster than it has done in decades. There is a lot going on in the world at the moment and a lot to feel anxious about.
You might be feeling anxious or stressed about any one of these things or something completely different, but recent data shows that around one in six adults will suffer a common mental disorder such as anxiety or depression in any given week (NHS, 2016). The impact of the global pandemic on our mental health is still being assessed and we are unlikely to see the full picture for many years to come. But, suffice it to say it is likely that this figure will have increased dramatically.
What is anxiety?
We all experience anxiety throughout our lives and a certain amount can be good for us, giving us that push to do our best. However, there are times when it takes over your life and you cannot enjoy any activities or even participate in them if it becomes too bad. This is where anxiety becomes a disorder such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) or even obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which has its roots in anxiety.
Put simply, anxiety is the fear or worry about what might happen, especially when we feel we have no control over the situation. So in today’s world, there are lots of circumstances that we have no control over that will affect our lives, anxiety is not a surprising response. How can we protect ourselves from these feelings and stay positive with so much negativity happening around us?
This article discusses some tips to help you manage the symptoms and feelings of anxiety in these challenging times.
Wanting to stay connected to the news is natural but when it becomes an addiction, and you are constantly watching or reading about negative events then this can cause your mind to go into overdrive and trigger those anxious feelings.
Picture this, I was in the garage waiting for my car to have some minor work done as part of a health check. In the waiting area, the TV was tuned to a 24-hour news channel. I don’t normally watch the news, I stay in touch by checking news websites once or twice a day. So, to have this constant feed of news in the background for just over an hour was unusual for me.
The television news has to make a story and, so, they speculate about things that might happen based on events and often present worst-case scenarios that play on our emotions with visual imagery designed to invoke feelings of sympathy, anger or other strong reactions. Then after about 20-30 minutes, they start to repeat everything over again. After about 40 minutes I had to get up and have a walk around to escape this as it was making me feel uncomfortable.
Imagine having this happening in the background of your mind all day? What effect might this have on your mental and physical health? According to research, consuming negative news can put your body into a stress response and cause hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to be released and can even lead to exacerbation of personal issues not related to the content, (Johnston, Davey, 1997).
It is important to find a healthy balance between staying informed and knowing when to stop.
Top tip: Why not set yourself a specific time of the day to check in with the news and only look at the TV or online news outlets during that period. For example, 15-30 minutes in the morning and the same in the afternoon.
Focus on what you can control
Feeling like we cannot control the circumstances around us can contribute to feelings of anxiety. When you feel this start to happen, a great technique is to think about what is within your scope of control right now and ignore everything that falls outside of this. Focus on what you can influence and this can help you mitigate the feeling of being out of control. This may be something small such as what you will wear that day or the next thing you are going to do.
If there is something making you anxious and you can do something about it, then do it. If not, put it on the back burner for now as constantly thinking about it will only make these feelings worse. Instead, plan out what you are going to do in the next few minutes or hours or even the day.
Top tip: Take it minute by minute if you have to - what am I doing now, give it your attention and then move on to the next task. Thinking too far into the future can drive the anxious thoughts and feelings by bringing the big bad ‘What if’
Mindfulness is something that has become very popular recently. To me, it links in with the previous point as it is about losing yourself completely in the present moment. Always keep your mind on what you are doing now. This gives you no chance to think about what might happen as you concentrate on the present and what you are in control of.
Sometimes this can lead to your mind freeing up and coming up with a solution to an issue that was causing your anxiety. Or it may give your mind the space it needs to release the anxious thoughts.
Mindfulness can happen in any task - it does not mean you need to stop everything. For example, you can be tidying up and really focusing on what you are doing, noticing how it feels, what you can see, hear, smell, etc. You can mindfully listen to a song and really notice the music and the words, notice how it makes you feel. My personal favourite mindful activity is a mindful colouring book as I cannot think about anything else when I am colouring in. Work on not letting your mind wander, let thoughts just pass across your mind and enjoy what you are doing now.
Top tip: Introduce a mindful practice into your daily routine, for example mindfully brush your teeth in the morning – this will help you to train the mind so that when you really need it you can easily focus in this way.
Look for positives
We often find it all too easy to see everything bad that has happened during the day. The good things get lost! Retraining your mind to notice the good things that happen can help you in the long term. This is especially important when there are lots of negative things happening in the wider world.
Looking into your smaller part of the world and noticing the good happening can make you feel better. Sometimes you can even find good things happening in the midst of bad news as well. I quite often ignore the headline story on the news websites and scroll down further to the human interest stories, there are usually at least one or two happier items there that make me feel good about the world again. Doing this breaks up the cycle of negativity and can help to retrain your mind to look for the positives instead of always focussing on the negatives.
Top tip: At the end of every day, take two or three minutes to think about your day and remember or, even better, write down three positive things that happened today. They don’t even have to be huge things, they might be, someone held a door open for you, the bus waited for you or someone smiled at you. Make a habit of this and you will soon learn to look for these little glimmers of positivity.
Conclusion and taking action
I hope you find some useful tips in this article in these challenging times we find ourselves. Remember that you can only control your actions and reactions not those of others. If you do feel the need to do something regarding any of the current news issues then you can find plenty of charity appeals and collections or even petitions to sign. Taking an action like this is my final way to feel better in the modern world but make sure you stay safe and take care of yourself.
Johnston WM, Davey GC. The psychological impact of negative TV news bulletins: the catastrophizing of personal worries. Br J Psychol. 1997 Feb;88 ( Pt 1):85-91. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.1997.tb02622.x. PMID: 9061893.