Get to grips with anxiety
Are you wondering if what you’re going through may be caused by anxiety? It can be hard to tell, as anxiety can show up in lots of different ways, so I’m not surprised you may be confused. Let me tell you how to recognise it, and give you three tips you can use from today you to recognise if it’s anxiety, and then start to take control of it, instead of it controlling you.
Imagine the scene; you need to speak up at the meeting, but you’re scared - you’re thinking about how much you have to do, and you’ve no idea how you’re going to even get through your emails. Your heart’s racing, you’re tense, even nauseous, you feel like you can’t cope... and you haven’t even got out of bed yet! Your mind’s working overtime worrying about all the possible scenarios your day may bring, and it’s making you anxious. Maybe this is a daily occurrence for you. If it is, you’re not alone. According to the Mental Health Foundation’s 2014 report, 22% of women report feeling anxious 'most of the time'.
How do you know it’s anxiety?
I realised a few years ago that I’d suffered from anxiety most of my life, but I never knew what it was. I was always described as a 'sensitive' child, too 'touchy', and I worried endlessly. I have always been one of those people that always had to have a contingency; I needed to know what was going to happen - the times of trains home, spare money, an umbrella - because otherwise I would worry about not coping, so I missed out on a lot of spontaneous fun. I turned down invitations because I felt so anxious about not being able to cope.
I thought I had it under control and ignored it, but the thing about anxiety is that, like a beach ball, you push it under the water, it looks like it’s gone, but then it just pops up and surprises you, threatens to overwhelm you, and I ended up having stress and depression as a result. So, ignoring anxiety isn’t the answer, but it’s understandable because we want it to go away. We can’t do that, but we can learn to manage it in a more helpful way.
Take, for example, a client - I’ll call her Lucy. She suffered terrible anxiety around men. She really wanted to meet her dream man, and would agree to go on dates but would be so worried and anxious beforehand that she’d have a few glasses of wine for Dutch courage, and often end up drinking too much or cancelling at the last minute. It turned out to be related to an incident in her childhood which, by going back to it and 're-framing' it, meant she could let go of the negative association with that memory, move on, and lose her anxiety around dating.
But your anxiety may not be around dating. It could be work, relationships, parenting... anything at all. See if you recognise yourself in any of these...
Do you spend a lot of time imagining disasters, like car crashes or loved ones dying, and fearing you’re are not going to cope? Or endlessly picking over past failures? The tragic thing is that, most of the time, what you’ve been worrying about doesn’t happen anyway.
The feeling of hunger is very like the feeling of anxiety - that gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach, or feeling a bit spacy and lightheaded. After you’ve eaten you feel temporarily calmer, and it slows you down slightly.
For some people, social anxiety is a real problem, and they can’t face going out, or the opposite, being on their own, without a couple of drinks.
Maybe you turn to cigarettes to calm down. You'd really like to stop smoking, but you're relying on it at the moment because you’re stressed. Smokers often think that having a cigarette calms them down, but this is a trick that nicotine plays on your brain. Smoking actually causes stress.
You might have physical symptoms that don’t seem to go away, or you feel on edge, irritable, exhausted, spacey, have palpitations, sweaty palms, and are unable to concentrate.
Are you putting off things you really should do, because you’re scared it’s going to go wrong, or not be perfect?
You might be having panic attacks, which are horrible to experience - it can really feel like you’re dying.
If you suffer from anxiety of any kind, you’re not mad, silly, 'highly-strung', or different from anyone else - you just get frightened at the wrong times.
So, what can you do about it?
The first thing is to rule out any physical causes, so just get checked out by your doctor before you assume that any physical symptoms are anxiety. Understand that anxiety is a perfectly normal reaction happening at the wrong time and too often.
Begin with these three things;
1. Start to notice when and how you get anxious
Get curious about it. When you feel anxious, where are you, who are you with, what are you doing? What about when you're less anxious - what’s different about these times? If you have generalised anxiety, it may be hard for you to spot when you’re not anxious, but there will be times, however brief. Knowing you can be not anxious means you have the ability to manage it, you’re just not as good at it yet as you could be. Don’t judge yourself for feeling anxious. Recognise that you are learning something very important about yourself.
2. Increase your self-awareness
Next time you feel your anxiety rising, notice what it feels like in your body. Is it like a hard lump or a stabbing feeling? Is it sharp or dull, big or small, moving or still? When you notice it, say to yourself 'the feeling I’m feeling is… (anxiety, scared, or fear - whatever it is for you)'; not 'I'm anxious', as that makes you 'an anxious person'. You want to recognise that you are simply a person that is experiencing some anxiety at the moment.
Visualise the emotion as a big fluffy cloud, or a brightly coloured balloon, and let it expand, get as big as it wants. Breathe deeply and then, with each out-breath, if it’s like a cloud, imagine it just breaking up and floating away, or, if it’s a balloon, see it gently deflate. You might want to say to yourself 'I’m ok' or 'calm' in your head or out loud on the out-breath. Keep breathing until you feel back in control, and notice how well you did at managing your anxiety.
3. Cut down on your caffeine
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant which stimulates your 'fight or flight' response, and can even trigger an anxiety attack. You know about coffee, but just look whether there are other sources of caffeine that are in your diet, such as fizzy drinks, chocolate, tea, and some over-the-counter medications for things like headaches and migraines. Try chamomile tea instead; recent clinical research has shown that it’s not only relaxing but can also significantly decrease anxiety and even fight depression. When you’re feeling especially anxious, put four chamomile tea bags in hot water, infuse for five minutes, then drink slowly.
These are just three ways you can begin to manage your anxiety in a whole different way. Changing our thinking and our behaviours isn’t always easy, so surround yourself with people who prop you up, who you know have your back, and talk to them about your anxiety, or get some professional help.
Getting to the root of why you suffer from anxiety and learning to manage it differently can be life-changing - I know it was for me. It doesn’t mean I don’t get worried or anxious about things, but I manage it now. It doesn’t take over my life, I have learned strategies that help, and you can too.
So, until next time, take care of yourself, be kind, and be happy.
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