What is anxiety and what can I do about it?
For a little while now you have been feeling on edge, like you cannot stop the worrying. Whether it is nervousness about one thing or several things, you struggle to relax. Often you feel so restless that you cannot sit still and easily become annoyed or irritable. Sometimes you feel so afraid as though something awful might happen.
Everything you read and everyone you speak to leaves you at the same place – anxiety.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is the state of mind you experience when your reptilian brain gets stuck in the danger response. As with all other animals, our brain is set up to keep us alive. When that brain perceives something as dangerous it flicks into action to do whatever it needs to keep you safe. A surge of adrenaline causes your heart rate and blood pressure to increase. The blood can then flow more to the core of your body rather than the extremities. The air passages of the lungs expand to take in more oxygen. The pupils in your eyes increase to allow more light to enter and improve your sight. Blood moves to the lungs and your metabolism alters to give you a burst of energy.
Noradrenaline is next in line, to increase vascular tone and rush the blood to your organs. Noradrenaline has the same effect as adrenaline on your heart rate, blood pressure and the pupils of your eyes. If the threat is still present, the body will release more hormones which work to release cortisol which raises your blood pressure and suppresses your immune system.
There is a lot going on internally, the result of this is a racing heart, a different breathing pattern, trembling, wide eyes, irritability and sleep difficulties.
If this happens suddenly, often accompanied by chest pain and disconnection from yourself, and is more intense but lasts for a short amount of time, it is a panic attack. Anxiety is the emotional protective response that accompanies panic attacks and other conscious or unconscious concerns.
Why am I experiencing anxiety?
This is the million-dollar question! Sometimes there is an obvious reason for the anxiety. However it's more likely that you do not know the reason at all and cannot correlate the anxiety to any aspect of your life. Or you know when the anxiety arises, for example when you have a social engagement, but you do not know why these experiences take you into an anxious state.
There is the small possibility that your anxiety is a symptom of a medical problem, such as thyroid disorder or a reaction to medication, so speak with a doctor for a check-up. There are some factors that increase the likelihood of anxiety such as previous trauma and/or experiencing or witnessing traumatic events. Stress due to a life event such as an illness, or a culmination of smaller, unrelated, stressful moments.
An anxious state comes about when your brain perceives something in your life as a threat to your life. The brain cannot differentiate between an emotional threat and a physical threat. It also cannot differentiate between an imagined threat and a real-life threat. Thirdly it cannot rationalise the threat. Therefore, if the amygdala in your brain files something as a threat to your life it will flick into danger mode, the fight or flight response. Your brain attempts to save your life by giving you the ability to run or fight. When you do not run or flee because your human thinking brain knows you to be in a safe situation (albeit potentially stressful, but safe), you stay exactly as you are - the threat does not dissipate and the brain gets stuck in this mode.
The current situation across the world with Covid-19 can cause this situation. For some it is a fear of catching the virus, for others it is financial concerns, others feel restricted and controlled. There are also some people that feel the symptoms of anxiety for the first time and cannot understand why. Please read my article here if you resonate with this.
What can I do about the anxiety?
Allocate at least 30 minutes a day to focus on yourself.
Meditation is a valuable life skill; it helps your brain move from danger mode to safe mode. There are many free guided meditations on the internet. I have a free meditation on my website if you fill in the sign-up box. Join a meditation class or see a hypnotherapist who will use hypnosis in the same way and personalise to your exact needs.
Colouring is an activity that will ease your mind. Colouring increases the mindful state of mind and has been shown to ease anxiety and depression¹.
Read a book or magazine that you can feel absorbed in. Try not to choose something that evokes feelings of fear or stress. Easy read books can take you away from your current state of anxiety into another world.
The more time you spend in the danger state the more your brain perceives this as the default state of mind. By using techniques like reading to take your brain into the safe zone, the less likely this is to happen.
Exercise triggers the body to release 'feel good' endorphins. Regular exercise helps keep you physically and mentally healthy. A 10 minute walk is effective as is a 45 minute run. Choose something that you enjoy rather than endure. Whilst restricted face to face, there are many exercise classes online. Walking or running is something that comes free to all and is possible for many. For those that are less physically mobile, batting a balloon around your living space is fun and physical. Yoga focuses strongly on the mind and body so is a brilliant choice of exercise for you to ease anxiety.
Check in with yourself and make certain that the food and liquid you are providing your body is giving you the nutrition that it requires. Alcohol and caffeine can irritate anxiety. Think of your body like we do a car, if we run out of fuel it does not work and if we put in the incorrect fuel it coughs, spurts and breaks! What fuel are you putting into your body?
Control what you can and let go of what you cannot
Often in life we find ourselves struggling for control. The reality is we do not really have much control at all. We cannot control the weather, the traffic, things that other people do. We can control the choices we make. So, ensure that you are in control of your choices each day and that you are making choices each day.
When you are at a crossroads in your life. Whether that be something small such as do you fancy a hot drink or a cold drink or something life changing such as a change in career. Stop for some time and make a choice that you are in control of. Always remember that sometimes the best choice is not to choose in that moment, express your need for time to think, and wait until later to make your choice.
¹ Flett, Jayde & Lie, Celia & Riordan, Benjamin & Thompson, Laura & Conner, Tamlin & Hayne, Harlene. (2017). Sharpen Your Pencils: Preliminary Evidence that Adult Coloring Reduces Depressive Symptoms and Anxiety. Creativity Research Journal. 29. 409-416. 10.1080/10400419.2017.1376505.