Anxiety is a perfectly normal emotion to feel and one that most people will have experienced to some degree in their lifetime. Despite anxiety being 'normal' it can feel anything but when in the grip of the more severe symptoms of it. In fact, it can feel utterly terrifying and I know that because I have been there. In my experience, learning more about what anxiety is, where it comes from and how to manage it, is gold for 'losing the fear about the fear'. Read on to find out more.
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. nhs.uk
Why do we feel anxious and are we due a software update?
Anxiety is what we feel when our stress response has been triggered. As unique, individual human beings we can become triggered by many different things and one person's trigger can be another person's joy - there are no absolutes when it comes to anxiety and we can become fearful or worried about ANYTHING! The good news is there is a wealth of support for dealing with this very common phenomena. The stress response is known as our 'Flight, Flight or Freeze' (FFF) response, designed to prevent us from encountering danger. It is a survival mechanism that prepares our bodies to fight our way out of a dangerous situation, flee the scene or freeze us to the spot! I have experienced all three of these at times, not all at once of course, but one time at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, I literally could not move!
A panic attack quickly followed, but I know now that my body was just trying to prevent me from falling off the tower. Of course, I know that wouldn't have happened and there was no 'real' danger but here's the thing, your mind doesn't stop to distinguish between real or perceived danger, it initiates the same stress response regardless, which can be incredibly powerful - and feel very scary! This response was super helpful in our caveman days when we were presented with 'real' dangers, such as wild animals coming to eat us and it is why we have survived so well as a species, but I do feel we are ready now for a software update! Mixing in large groups, public speaking or trying something new have replaced the wild animals, but our brain still reacts in the same way and for some, that reaction can become overwhelming and debilitating.
Watch this brilliant video by AnxietyUK which explains what anxiety is and gives practical tips to manage it.
What is the difference between 'normal' levels of anxiety and an anxiety disorder?
It is perfectly normal to experience periods of anxiety, such as preparing for public speaking, taking a test etc. After the event has passed, the feelings of anxiety will begin to fade. It is even perfectly normal to experience the odd panic attack here and there, which is an extreme stress response with intense feelings of anxiety lasting around 10-12 minutes. However, prolonged feelings of anxiety that become debilitating and get in the way of everyday life, could be a sign of an anxiety disorder, of which there are many and include:
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Acute Stress Disorder (ASD)
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Mixed Anxiety and Depression
There are many, many different symptoms of anxiety that can affect us physically, our behaviour and how we think. It would be very difficult to self-diagnose any kind of anxiety disorder and it is really important that you talk through your symptoms with your GP as they are best placed to make any diagnosis and signpost you towards the best treatment. Anxiety can often co-exist with depression so it is also important that you tell your GP not only about your symptoms but how your mood has been too and how long you have been feeling that way. You can read more about the types of symptoms someone might typically experience over on the anxietyuk.org.uk website.
Top tips for managing anxiety
The great news is there are a huge amount of things we can do to manage anxiety and there is a wealth of support available. Living healthily and self-help are absolutely key and by no means an exhaustive list, my top tips are as follow:
Always check in with your GP if you are worried about your symptoms.
Anxiety is often fuelled by the fear of the unknown. You can begin to lose that fear by reading up about anxiety using evidence-based anxiety websites and self-help books.
Identify what your triggers are, understand your responses to them and how to break negative cycles using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Cross-checking your thoughts against facts can be a powerful antidote to negativity. Next time you begin to worry or catastrophise, stop to ask yourself, 'what evidence do I have to support this thought, is there a different perspective I could take?'
Thinking along the lines of 'healthy body, healthy mind' ensure you eat well, drink less alcohol, exercise regularly and have a good sleep routine.
Caffeine is not your friend when experiencing anxiety so try to reduce your daily amount.
Talk through how you are feeling with people that you trust.
Engage in activities that you enjoy. The busier and more stressed you are the more important it is to make time for them!
Get out in nature everyday, studies show it can significantly reduce your feelings of stress.
Try out different activities for relaxation: art, listening to music, yoga - be open to new possibilities.
Make time for mindfulness practice. Mindfulness helped me overcome high anxiety and feelings of panic! Feel free to get in touch if you would like to know how.
Gone are the days of blowing into a brown paper bag. What would happen if you didn't have one with you in a time of panic? Your breath is with you 24/7 so try this simple breath technique to calm and regulate the nervous system.
Tell yourself, all we be ok, this too shall pass.
Inhale in through the nose without over breathing.
Exhale through the mouth longer than the inhale.
Be patient and repeat until the breath becomes naturally longer and calmer.
Where to get help?
There are many ways in which to access help and below are some resources:
Access the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) at work
Self-refer to Talking Therapies for counselling and CBT via the NHS.UK website
Triumph over Phobia - www.topuk.org
Please do seek help if you are worried about how you are feeling and know there is plenty of support available for you. If you are concerned about someone who is experiencing anxiety, please acknowledge the persons fears are very real for them. Try to focus less on what is triggering them and more on how they are feeling, asking them how best you can support them. If you would like to know more about how to support people with mental health first aid, please get in touch or read more about it here.