Is anxiety making you physically ill?
Have you ever noticed how your neck or your shoulders get stiff when you're feeling stressed? It's no coincidence. When we are feeling stressed or anxious we often feel the effects in our bodies. Maybe you get a stiff neck, perhaps your back muscles feel tight or maybe you get an irritable stomach.
These are the places that we feel anxiety in our bodies first. A little bit of anxiety is of course normal and can be helpful. These aches and pains are like an early warning system, telling you that you need to deal with a situation that you are facing.
However, when anxiety becomes constant (what you may hear called chronic) it is far from helpful and can lead to significant physical issues or conditions.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, those suffering from a condition such as generalised anxiety disorder are 50% more likely to suffer from a long-term physical health issue than those without the disorder.
What happens to your body when you're anxious?
When we're anxious we are constantly on alert, in that fight, flight or freeze mode that nature created to protect us from danger. In this state, we're constantly pumping adrenaline and cortisol and have an accelerated heart rate as our body feels it is fighting for survival.
You may have heard stories of Arctic explorers who lose toes or fingers on their expeditions. What happens is that their bodies, sensing the threat that they are facing, will just focus on maintaining their core organs. It's like going into a lockdown to protect just the most important services. This lockdown means that non-essential functions are not getting their share of the body’s resources. The mind makes a judgement, that in this state of crisis, that they can live without a toe or a fingertip but need to protect their heart.
It is much the same when we are faced with chronic anxiety. The body’s resources are overstretched, trying to cope with the effects of the anxiety. Something has to give. The immune system suffers and all sorts of ailments can arise or worsen. These issues include diagnosed medical conditions and typically include asthma, eczema, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and headaches. Muscle pains and fibromyalgia are common. More worrying still, autoimmune disorders and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) also raise their ugly heads when faced with chronic anxiety.
While many of us recognise the link between anxiety or stress and issues like neck pain, few make the connection with the link between constant anxiety and wider physical ailments or conditions that they may be experiencing.
Doctors will often treat the presenting symptoms that they are seeing. People with IBS may be put told they have allergies to certain foods and put on a restricted diet. People with eczema may be given creams to manage the symptoms of itching or dryness. People with asthma will likely be given an inhaler.
What is really important to understand is that people are rarely born with these conditions. Few people are born with autoimmune disorders. Indeed research shows that autoimmune disorders are largely a ‘first world’ problem and are very rare in the developing world. Despite all of the healthcare challenges facing developing countries, rates of anxiety and such anxiety-related disorders are far higher in so-called developed countries.
So what can I do to help myself?
When you are able to reduce your underlying level of anxiety your body can properly heal itself. Reducing your level of anxiety frees up your body's resources to support your body repairing and regenerating. Just like that explorer when your body reduces the perceived threat level, every part of your body can get the focus that it needs to function correctly.
Here are four steps that you can take in order to better cope with anxiety and therefore reduce the impact of anxiety-related conditions.
Step 1. Recognise the link between anxiety and your physical well-being
The first and most important step is to actually recognise that such a link exists between your anxiety and your physical well-being. When you truly acknowledge this, you can find ways to better protect and even heal yourself.
I personally suffered from fibromyalgia for over 30 years even though I had never even realised that this was what I had. I just thought that being stiff all the time was normal for me. Recognising that this condition was a manifestation of my anxiety was a revelation. It gave me a platform to make a change. As I began to address my anxiety, my pain receded.
It is of course vital to understand the medical basis of your condition and follow the advice and treatment from your doctor. However for many of what I call ‘anxiety-related conditions' the doctors often have no cure. They may be able to give you medication to help you cope with the pain or discomfort but it is no more than that. They are effectively telling you that you just have to live with it and use medication and/or develop coping strategies.
Step 2. Recognise your triggers
What are the triggers for your anxiety? Is it particular situations? Is it particular people? If you are not sure what your triggers are, take some time to observe and analyse what is happening when you feel anxiety. Keep a diary. Note what is happening when you get anxious. Review this diary to look for patterns or identify the triggers that you experience
When you understand your triggers, you can develop strategies to avoid or control them and your reactions to them. Maybe you need to avoid certain places, types of people or situations.
Step 3. Reframe how you see things
Of course, we can’t always avoid certain people or situations that may trigger us. Indeed we ideally need to just be able to face these situations without getting the same response. We can never control everything that may happen in our lives, we can only control how we react to the events that occur. We can dial down the reactions that we have to our triggers.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques can be very helpful for seeing events in our lives through a better and more balanced lens. Instead of looking at events through a ‘worst case’ lens, CBT allows you to challenge the thoughts that you may be experiencing and look at alternative scenarios. The process of considering alternatives to what you are automatically thinking can help to see your situation in a more balanced way.
There are many types of therapies that people may find helpful. Good hypnotherapists can help you to understand the root cause of your anxiety and to help your subconscious mind let go of the thoughts and beliefs that underpin your anxiety. They can also incorporate CBT and other therapy techniques into changing the frame of how you see the world.
Re-programme the way that you think
The way we think about ourselves is the result of the subconscious beliefs and thoughts that we have about ourselves. These beliefs are usually formed in childhood and stay with us throughout our lives and become like our ‘operating system.’
As we become adults however that operating system is often no longer fit for purpose. Just as we would not run a 20, 30 or 40-year-old operating system on our computer, we do not need an out-dated operating system in our lives.
Just as with a computer we can upgrade our operating system. To do this we need to change the words, pictures and the subsequent habits of thought that we develop.
You can do this by taking control of the words and pictures that you give yourself every day. Be kind to yourself. Focus on congratulating yourself on what you do well. Use positive words and give yourself uplifting positive images. You need to catch and stop yourself when you are using negative self-talk or being too hard on yourself.
As with bringing up children, you get far better results by focusing on praising and rewarding the right behaviours. If you focus on the negative you get negativity and self-doubt as the predominant thinking.
Where you can, avoid situations or people that give rise to negative thoughts. Make positive choices about what you see on the Internet or listen to on the radio. We get more of what we focus on so it is important that you surround yourself with the influences that will lift you up and avoid influences that bring you down.
Many people find hypnotherapy very powerful for helping them make this change. Hypnotherapy is a very effective way of deeply planting new thoughts and habits that you want to have in your subconscious, re-programming your mind to believe what you want and letting go of old, unhelpful beliefs.
To make change stick it is important to re-enforce this reframing and reprogramming. Re-enforcing is critical to turn good intentions into good habits. Here are three things that many people find really helpful:
Positive enforcement. Last thing at night, write down three or four positive things about your day. Just focus on the positives. What went well? What did you enjoy? It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Just getting into the habit of being kind and ‘patting yourself on the back’ is very powerful. It is even more powerful when you commit these thoughts to paper. Going to sleep with positive thoughts is a great way to end the day
Surround yourself with positivity. Use positive words, images and even music. Have an uplifting screen saver, write down positive affirmations on your workbooks or even write them with lipstick on your mirror. Listen to music that uplifts you.
Smile and the world smiles with you. When you smile you are sending a message to your brain that you are happy. Even when you force a smile you are tricking your mind into feeling better. Combine smiling to yourself with smiling at other people. See how much better a response you get from others when you make the effort to smile. Smiling is contagious
You can upgrade that programme that you were born with. The words you use, the pictures you give yourself and the repetition of use will develop new beliefs and habits to help you move forward. New habits can develop in just 14-21 days and create an upward spiral of better thoughts, habits and outcomes.