Whether it’s the back-to-school panic that is invading many homes, the “Monday fear” following a weekend of excess or the crippling anxiety that forces you under your duvet for days on end, many people have found themselves on the scale of anxiousness at one stage in their lives.
More and more, thanks to our increasingly frantic and demanding lifestyles – not to mention our dependence on technology and all things digital – anxiety is no longer just something we feel momentarily before we give a presentation or go for an interview. For many, it’s an affliction that presents itself on a daily basis and, frustratingly, it requires long-term management. There are support services available and anyone suffering from anxiety should speak to their GP about options.
There are also practical ways to help to ease your anxiety.
Step 1: Understanding It's doubtful that you'd think to read up on anxiety and all of its nastiness until you've actually experienced a panic attack or two. However, not understanding what anxiety is, why it's happening or how to handle it, can often worsen the experience when it first presents itself. It's the not knowing what's going on that, for many sufferers, is the most unnerving.
Having an idea of your body’s inner workings on a very simple, physical level will not only be a relief to the part of your mind that questions whether or not you are having a heart attack but knowing that your body is merely working too hard to protect itself will be somewhat reassuring, and thus reduce the symptoms.
Simply put, though our lifestyles have evolved hugely since our cavemen days of hunting animals for dinner, our biochemistry has not. Our fight or flight response was essential for our survival back then; without it, we wouldn’t have experienced the fear necessary to drive us away from danger and keep us alive.
These days, though we no longer face the same threats to our survival – unless of course you still chase down wildebeest for your Sunday roast – that very same warning system is still consistently stimulated by the everyday stressors we face.
Understanding that your body is trying to warn you that perhaps it’s time to take your foot off the gas is the first step to coping with and overcoming anxiety.
Step 2: Assess your current situation Okay. By now you understand what anxiety is and you have a newfound respect for your body and the ways in which it tries to protect you. Now you need to assess precisely why your body's internal alarm system is ringing.
Maybe you’re working yourself to exhaustion at work, have had something on every evening and, in between that, you’ve had pretty hectic weekends.
Something awful doesn’t have to have happened in your life to justify a more intense bout of anxiety. In this incredibly common case, you’re running on empty and your body wants you to take a breather, but chances are you didn’t listen to the first warning or two. Or maybe you’re stuck in a toxic work environment that goes against your own core values; your conscious mind may want to keep the head down and plough through for money’s sake but your more intuitive subconscious is telling you to get the hell out of there for the sake of your mental health. If your eyes are wide open, this part’s usually easy to conquer.
Step 3: Acceptance This is where it gets tricky. You know why you're feeling anxious and you now face an internal conflict wherein you naturally try to run away from it and, as a consequence, you feel it more.
Your body does everything in its power to resist and stop the anxiety; understandably so as it’s a truly crap experience. Stop what you’re doing and accept it. Accept that anxiety is something that every single one of us is managing; some just feel it worse than others.
Accept that it’s not a permanent thing. Most importantly, if you’ve had a really bad bout, stop looking at your anxiety as something to be cured and never experienced again. Instead, accept that you’re human, that it’s normal, that it’s understandable and that it’s something we will all feel at certain points in our lives, but know that you’ll get really good at dealing with it.
Step 4: Understand the negativity bias This is a very basic flaw of the human condition and, to go back to our cavemen days once more, it too is all about survival. Our brains are programmed to focus on the negative: We receive 100 compliments and just one insult but it'll be that one negative that we focus on. We'll hear and worry about that one unfortunate person who died of an obscure illness and ignore the thousands who didn't.
Sound familiar? This is both nature (how our brains work) and nurture (just watch the news and you’ll see how society has been conditioned to focus on the negative). You may have experienced one particularly anxious day and one day without a care in the world, but thanks to the negativity bias, it will be the former, negative experience of anxiety that will have a greater effect on our psychological state, rather than the latter. Understanding this helps you take a step back and consciously bring your attention to the positive. A gratitude diary – where you list the positives in your life on a daily basis – will help to correct this imbalance.
Step 5: Mindfulness You feel anxious, somebody tells you to try "mindfulness", you try it and . . . nothing. Yep, we've been there. You're impatient, you want to feel better now not next week, and you just can't see what all of the fuss is about. The good news is you're not alone in this struggle, but, mindfulness, as a tool in your arsenal against stress and anxiety, is overwhelmingly backed by science. What's more, it's a skill that takes considerable time to develop and requires daily practise. Apps such as calm.com and Headspace make it a whole lot easier to find your inner Zen. Stick with it; the "om" will come.
Step 6: Diet There have been countless tomes written on this step alone – your diet can wreak havoc on your state of mind – but for an instant and noticeable effect, go caffeine free. If you're already in an anxious state, your body is over-stimulated, caffeine will serve only to exacerbate it. Ease off the sugar too and give your body a chance to reset.
Step 7: CBT Cognitive behavioural therapy, where you work with a therapist to alter the behaviours and beliefs that are fuelling your anxiety and/or depression, is one of the most practical and positive approaches you can take. It's very scientific, with plenty of real-life exercises that help you break the vicious cycle of anxiety. Rather than talk therapy, where you can often find yourself talking in circles, this is a measured and hugely (and scientifically) supported method of intervention.
Step 8: Stop comparing yourself to others This sounds easy but, again, it's quite the skill to acquire. We're all guilty of comparing ourselves to those around us. "He's doing better than me in work." "She takes on so much more than I do." "He has absolutely no fear when it comes to public speaking and I'd sooner eat my own skin than willingly get up on that podium." And so on and so forth. Comparing yourself to others is usually more of a hindrance than a help. For some, it's motivation, for others, it's a weapon to use upon themselves that – you guessed it – fuels anxiety. Focus on yourself. A) You're doing your best and b) chances are they're feeling it too.
Step 9: Make it work for you If you look at things from a positive perspective, you'll soon realise how that same anxiety that you've long considered as your own worst enemy is actually one of your most useful allies too. You feel anxious because you care, you'll naturally be concerned about doing a good job and will be a lot more motivated than the person who's never felt it. What's more, several studies have shown that those who experience heightened anxiety are often more intelligent and more creative than those who do not. Winning.
Step 10: Prioritise the things that give you joy An important, final step. Don't force yourself to do things that you just don't like or be someone you're not because you think it's "just your anxiety" holding you back. There's a fine line between managing your anxiety or conquering your fears and doing things that just don't sit right with you. If you hate the thought of slumming it at a festival and you really prefer to sleep in a mud-free zone, don't beat yourself up about it. Trying to suit other people instead of yourself will only give you stress. Find out what you like and do more of it and, most of all, know the difference between your anxiety and that which defines you; your own personality.
How to recognise anxiety
Everyone experiences anxiety in different ways. You may experience the following:
- Difficulty concentrating. A sense of feeling constantly on edge.
- Physical symptoms such as headaches, butterflies in your stomach, sweaty hands, high blood pressure, dizziness, breathing heavily, feeling faint, sweating.
- You may be smoking or drinking more than usual.
- You are eating too much or not eating enough.
- You are fidgety or rushing around nervously.
- You might also feel run down, tired, have problems concentrating or problems sleeping at night.
- You might feel worried all the time.
- You feel overwhelmed or panicked about even little things.
- You spend a lot of time thinking and often overthink things.
Source: SpunOut.ie, Ireland's youth information website created by young people, for young people.
Some good reading: Mind Over Mood, Dennis Greenberger; The Lifechanging Magic of not Giving a F*ck, Sarah Knight; The Rules of Life, Richard Templar; Rising Strong, Brene Brown; Thinking Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman; Flourishing, Maureen Gaffney; Thrive, Arianna Huffington; The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle.