Help with anxiety
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can begin mild but progress to severe. Everyone has feelings of anxiety at some point in their life – for example, you may feel worried and anxious about sitting an exam, having a medical test, or a job interview. However, once the exam or other task has been completed and you no longer have a reason to be unsettled, yet the symptoms remain, you begin to worry yourself about lots of things.
This is called generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). This is along term condition, and you may find that your symptoms increase and find you have extra ones too. You also may find that your reactions to things that have been ‘normal’ before have also changed, and you begin to associate symptoms with these thoughts and new situations too. GAD can influence and interfere with your everyday life, and this can have consequences if you need to work or have a demanding lifestyle. If you have been around those who have anxiety from a young age, you may find that you too have this, and it can be known as a ‘learned behaviour’ where your subconscious mind takes on board what it is seeing and programs the same behaviour into your own mind.
Your mind, although the size of a pomelo fruit, is an extraordinary and complex organ. A person with GAD can have mental and psychological symptoms and feel unsettled on most days. In 2013, there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the UK and in England, and women are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders as men. Astonishingly, the one-week prevalence of generalised anxiety in England is 6.6% of the population. That is a lot of people.
Worryingly, in the age of 16-18 years old, one in 10 young people experience a mental health disorder according to Green et al (2005), and this is also the finding of Singleton et al (2001, although they raised their age limit to include 19-year-olds. According to Murphy and Fonagy (2012), over half of all mental ill health starts by age 14, and 75% develops by age 18 years. Green et al also go further in saying anxiety and depression are the most common mental health difficulties, and these have high co-morbidity.
According to Layard (2008), school learning, stress tolerance, confidence, motivation and personal relationships will be adversely affected. Similarly, Goodman Joyce and Smith (2011), as well as Green et all (2005), report untreated anxiety or depression can have a significant impact on employment, income and relationship stability in adult life.
According to Anxiety UK, 13.3% of 16-19-year-olds and 15.8% of 20-24-year-olds have suffered from anxiety (neurotic episode). 1.7% of 16-19-year-olds and 2.2% of 20-24-year-olds have suffered from a depressive episode, and 0.9% of 16-19-year-olds and 1.9% of 20-24-year-olds have suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. As you can see, these statistics are very worrying, and there seems to be a general increase in the numbers year on year.
For those who do have diagnosed/undiagnosed symptoms, you may experience any of these (and others too):
- increased heart rate - you can feel it beating, along with palpitations
- increased muscle tension which may cause aches and pains
- “jelly legs”
- tingling in the hands and feet
- hyperventilation (over breathing)
- difficulty in breathing as you feel there is a heavy burden on your chest wall
- wanting to use the toilet more frequently
- feeling sick and nauseous
- tension headaches which may lead for some to migraine
- hot flushes which may become worse for those menopausal
- increased perspiration
- dry mouth
So, how can we help you to overcome these symptoms and learn to control your emotions once again? I want you to be aware that the techniques I am about to show you do work, but if you find you are not making progress, then please seek help.
I know this can be hard to do, as some may find that they feel a failure contacting someone who can help, but remember your GP is the first port of call. You may have limited finances to be able to see a qualified therapist, but there are people who work for Anxiety UK who charge a very small fee that can help you. Investing in your mental well-being is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Eight ways to help cope with anxiety
One way of becoming calmer is to breathe slowly in through your nose and then slowly blow out as you exhale from your mouth. You can pop your hand on your chest to connect with yourself and feel the rise and fall of your chest wall as you inhale and exhale. Breathe in slowly and gently to the count of four, in through your nose, and breathe out by slowly and gently blowing out from your mouth to the count of six. As you breathe slowly, the gas exchange will improve and you will begin to become more relaxed. You can say to yourself as you breathe in... calmness... and as you exhale... relaxed. You can imagine breathing in a beautiful colour, and breathing out a different colour, too.
Being aware of your breathing is mindful breathing, as this is what you are thinking about - nothing else. Do this exercise for five minutes every few hours if you are able to, and as you are breathing in, if you can only do this to the count of three, then that's ok.
2. Open mouth wide and jaw drop technique
Open your mouth very wide (don’t dislocate your jaw please - be sensible and safe), and at the same time be mindful of your lower jaw. Drop your lower jaw so it feels at ease, but keep your mouth open. As your jaw drops and your mind concentrates on this jaw, your nervous system makes changes to the messages sent up to your brain which in turn makes you feel relaxed. You can do this exercise every time you feel tense for a minute or so, and you will notice changes in how you react over time.
Talking about how you feel is one of the most important things I encourage you to do. They say, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved!'. Find someone you can trust and feel safe around. Sit in a safe environment and somewhere that if you need to walk away quickly, then you can do so. Never feel trapped, as this will make your symptoms increase. Don’t hold your breath as you are doing things or inbetween sentences, as this can distort the gas exchange in your lungs and make you feel worse. If the weather is good, being outside in nature and breathing in all the lovely oxygen can improve your mind-set.
Having an exercise routine and putting lots of effort into this is a great way of releasing frustration. When you feel yourself becoming hot and sweaty, your endorphins get released and you begin to feel better. Again, be safe and sensible - don’t overdo any exercise as you may make your joints ache. Build up any exercise routine gradually, and remember to pace yourself. Alternatively, if you are fortunate enough to have access to a personal trainer, you may find this beneficial.
Think of how lucky you are and that there are those less fortunate than yourself. I know this seems absurd, but it can be helpful as a reality check for yourself. If I am having a low moment, I think of homeless folk who can’t change the system and want to better themselves but can’t. You can do a gratitude diary and name five things that you are grateful for each day. Part of this exercise is not only to name these things but actually feel how blessed you are for having them inside of you - that’s the sensation you feel when you tell yourself you are grateful for XYZ. It is no good writing things down for the sake of it - you have to truly believe what you are saying and feel it inside!
6. Understand what is happening to you
Our prefrontal cortex is involved in thinking, planning, and social behaviour, and helps us to control our emotional responses. The most crucial part of our emotional system is the ‘limbic system’, and the part that plays a central role in the regulation of emotions is called the amygdala. The amygdala is central to the formation of fear and anxiety-related memory and has been shown to be hyperactive in anxiety disorders. Communication between various parts of the brain takes place through neurotransmitters. The thalamus part in our brain (known as the gatekeeper) takes in all information and decides where to send it to via these neurotransmitters. Wherever those messages go to will depend if they are to be stored as a long-term memory or short.
Long-term memories can include bad experiences. This means if we have a bad experience and have lots of symptoms associated with this, the next time you have a fright or similar, the symptoms that you feel will be the ones stored already in your mind from before. The mind thinks it is sending you these symptoms to protect you. We have to change the thought process or ‘break the chain of events’ to re-wire new thought and sensation patterns to become happier and more comfortable. To do this, all the exercises I am explaining here will help you send new messages via the neurotransmitters and alleviate those symptoms.
7. Stop saying ‘anxiety’
Our brain responds to reading words, saying words and feeling words. In fact, it responds to all your senses. Imagine constantly seeing and reading the word anxiety or stress - your brain will see this more often than it normally would if you weren’t having these symptoms. I tell my clients they have antennae on top of their head and that they are scanning constantly for this word or feeling subconsciously. To stop this from happening, we must stop saying the word, stop looking for advice about this issue, and concentrate on doing the exercises or other things to occupy your mind. The more you look for something and find it, the more you re-program your mind for it.
So, saying anxiety (or depressed, stress or any other word) regularly in conversation really isn’t helping you, as your subconscious mind keeps embedding this and stopping you from improving! This also includes writing down how you feel - the more you do it (especially if they're negative feelings), the more you re-wire and hard wire them into your brain!
8. Eat healthily and drink plenty of water
Your body needs 30mls of water per one kg of your body weight. If you are engaging in heavy work, or doing exercises on a hot day causing you to perspire, then you will need more. Eating the right foods is so important, as we really do need minerals and vitamins in our diet. In a recent study in Japan, it was found that low levels of vitamin B6 and iron may actually trigger the chemical changes in the brain responsible for panic attacks, hyperventilation and other forms of anxiety.
You can find a nutrition professional near you using Nutritionist Resource.
One accepted theory of anxiety development is that it is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and a connection with serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for triggering the reward and pleasure centres of our brain and is synthesised from the amino acid tryptophan. Both iron and vitamin B6 plays an important role in this process, but an absence of these nutrients can cause a decrease of serotonin levels. I’m sure you are all aware of antidepressant medication work by boosting serotonin levels. Foods high in vitamin B6 include fish, chicken, tofu, pork, beef, sweet potatoes, bananas, potatoes, avocados, and pistachios. Foods with iron in them tend to be dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, but the liver is also a good source too. It also includes fortified cereals, beef, shellfish, dried fruit, beans, lentils, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, quinoa, mushrooms, and squash seeds.
Thyroid hormones regulate the amount of serotonin (feel good factor hormone), norepinephrine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (all neurotransmitters) released into your brain, but if insufficient thyroid hormones are released, it can also cause anxiety. Thyroxin stimulates the metabolic system and regulates the oxygen consumption. Another chemical that may cause anxiety, or reduce it, is dopamine. Dopamine not only produces feelings of happiness - but it is also the same neurotransmitter that produces feelings of irritability.
This is because dopamine is responsible for regulating every person’s emotions. It is the same chemical that helps people decide different alternatives in order to reach the most appropriate decision. Foods we eat don’t contain dopamine, as it does not have the capability to transfer directly from the blood to the brain. Essential amino acids from food serve as precursors that help boost the production of dopamine and are better known as tyrosine.
Foods that are rich sources of tyrosine include:
1. Soy products: such as tofu, soy milk and cheeses
2. Proteins: egg whites, salmon and turkey
3. Fruit and nuts: avocados and almonds
4. Green leafy vegetables: spirulina or mustard greens.
There are many ways to overcome those sensations, and within these eight bits of advice, I hope I have given you food for thought. Only you can change your emotions, as they belong to you and nobody can control them but yourself. You have a basic understanding of neurology and how your mind works, and by following the guidance above you can actually change how you react and think.
Don’t judge yourself and don’t take on board other’s opinions of you - that’s their issue, not yours. Do this for you and want to deeply want change so you can fulfil your dreams. You deserve a good, happy life, so make those changes now!
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