Updated: Aug 14, 2020
Many of us have been there, that pounding feeling in your chest, sweating, inability to breathe…sound familiar?
Some of you may experience other symptoms, pain, light-headedness, or nausea…the list goes on!
Although each anxiety sufferer will experience their symptoms differently, commonly, anxiety can impede one’s ability to enjoy life to the full and can be incredibly debilitating… in some instances, anxiety may also become a life-threatening mental health issue.
Over the course of the next three weeks, I am going to give you some tip and coping strategies to help with the symptomatic relief of anxiety.
Please note: If you are someone who is suffering severely from your symptoms and has found that anxiety is having a big negative impact on your well-being or lifestyle, it may be beneficial to seek professional advice or help in dealing with the underlying causes of your anxiety.
Know your triggers
To combat this, there are two factors that are worth considering:
Firstly, what triggers your anxiety?
Diarising the events that trigger your anxiety will help you to identify any patterns. These could be situational (like the weekly shopping run) or in relation to sleep, hormones etc. If you are someone who “narrates in their head”( I am one of these people with a fairly constant internal dialogue) then give this voice space to be heard and write down the phrases that you hear. Over time this will help you to identify any causes of stress or anxiety and give you the opportunity to create a plan of action to help you avoid them or at least minimise their impact. Furthermore, having knowledge of what triggers you, will help you to discuss your triggers with others in seeking support for your daily stresses and anxiety.
Both positive and negative events will impact on anxiety levels.
A common misconception is that stress only manifests with negative experiences. Arranging a wedding or birthday, starting a new job as exciting and amazing as those situations are, will bring with them a level of stress. One of the most discounting things that can happen is expressing your anxiousness to others, only to have the response “but you should be excited/happy”. Know this, stress (and therefore anxiety) is induced not by whether something is good or bad but by the demand it places on our resources both physical and social. If we have a great demand on either or both, the chances of our health being negatively affected increases. With this in mind I have attached a link to a funky little tool that can help you identify life events and the units of stress that each of these stressors will potentially generate. The more units of stress, the higher the probability of ill health. This resource is a great opportunity to understand, explore and acknowledge the stresses in your life, and to make sense of why your health may be suffering or why anxiety may be manifesting. It is also a great way to see where your stress levels already are and what “taking something new on” may do.
Knowing your triggers and understanding where your stressors come from, for me, is the bedrock in overcoming anxiety. I assure you that making sense of this, creating time and space to acknowledge these triggers and to build a plan of action will in the long term reap huge benefits in combination with the strategies and tips that will follow in the coming weeks. When implemented regularly, and as part of a healthy approach to self-acceptance and self-care (which I will go through in coming weeks), you should expect to feel calmer, more relaxed and mentally stronger.
Many of you have heard of the fight or flight response that is triggered when we perceive we are in danger. Our body and brain enter a survival mode which prepares us for the action of keeping safe, whilst shutting down our more complex bodily responses. This reduces our capacity to think of anything other than survival in that moment and prompts a release of stress hormones which increases our abilities to stand and fight or run and hide. Great isn’t it! Evolution has gifted us this amazing tool and yet sometimes, this gift somewhat malfunctions.
When we experience anxiety, it is your body entering fight or flight mode but triggered where there is no real danger. For example, on long car journeys or the thought of going to a party. So what can you do to help deal with this?:
Conscious breathing helps to shift your focus from intrusive thoughts and anxious bodily feelings. As rapid and shallow breathing is often a symptom of anxiety, focused breathing helps you to regain control and calm the body, reducing tension, and allows you to return to a regulated state more quickly. To do this, you should aim to breath in slowly and deeply for 4 seconds and exhale slowly for 4 seconds.
What are you tell yourself?
Many people have complex driver behaviours towards perfection, pleasing other or perhaps being strong, that can feed anxiety. When an “all or nothing” approach is taken, maybe coupled with a need to complete tasks perfectly and to satisfy others in the process, it is common to feel overwhelmed. This in turn may create a cycle of avoidance, where you avoid doing certain things, that trigger your anxiety. This in itself can create anxiety, with an internal battle over what you need/want to do and the avoidance. It is important to observe and challenge the messages that you give yourself in terms of expectations of self and the expectations that you sometimes believe others have of you. Observe the words “should” and “need” and “have to”. Should you? Do you need to? Do you have to?
Anxiety has a devilish little way of causing one to overestimate or catastrophise situations and furthermore undermine one’s ability to deal with them. What are the facts? Your interpretation of events could be vastly different to the reality. Challenging these beliefs will help you to avoid conceptualising worst case scenarios and reduce cycling or intrusive thoughts that feed anxiety.
Although it may feel more comfortable to avoid stressful situations in the short term, you are more likely to bank this avoidance as a negative experience which will feed the anxiety felt when similar scenario arises. Therefore, avoidance can make anxiety worse in the long term. Taking small steps to face situations that make you anxious, will help you reframe your fear, and thus increase your ability to cope with it. We all have three zones that we place ourselves in (comfort zone, stretch zone and panic zone) and by challenging ourselves too much, we head from a place of comfort to a place of panic. Small steps will place us into a place of growth which means we become more comfortable with things that once we found difficult.
Be Kind to yourself
Being kind to yourself takes many forms. It is self-care in terms of time out for yourself, having a bubble bath, creating plans of action and taking time to exercise. It is also asserting yourself by saying both yes to things you’d like to do and no to things that you do not, creating boundaries, avoiding people pleasing if it causes stress and regarding your own needs. Creating a self-care bubble, where you acknowledge, value and act upon your needs, empowers you to maintain control and helps you to avoid feelings of anxiety.
Anxiety is mentally and physically draining, it destroys inner peace and creates scenario’s that often never eventualise.
We all have moments where our thoughts are concerned with future events and fear of what could happen. In these moments we sometimes drift away from the present and this can often lead to anxiety. Much peace can be found by becoming present, tuning out the “noise” in our head and focusing on our senses and our surroundings.
This is the practice of mindfulness and there are several ways in which mindfulness can help with anxiety. This is a huge topic in itself, so I am going to give you one basic tool that has proved successful in helping alleviate anxiety, the 5,4,3,2,1.
5 things you can see: What do they look like? What shape are they? What colours?
4 things you can hear
3 things you can feel: are they rough? Smooth? Slippery? Focus on the sensation they draw to your hand.
2 things you can smell: even fresh air has a scent.
1 thing you can taste: this may purely be the watery taste in your mouth.
The occupation of the senses during this “5-4-3-2-1” exercise means that the brain has to shift its focus from negative thought to sensory stimulus. It is a great way of focusing on the her and now and regaining control over our thought processes.
Switch off technology!
Ironically, I know you will be reading this on Facebook/the website, so please don’t switch of now. However, anxiety UK have conducted studies on anxiety and technology and have found strong correlations that suggest that technology has a detrimental effect on feelings of anxiousness.
FOMO, compare and despair, even the light given off by electrical devices, has been linked to a rise in mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. It is great to stay connected, however if connectivity 24/7 is making you ill, take a time out! The world of social media, news and film will be waiting for you when you return.
Fuel your body right!
We all know about the health benefits of eating well, but these principles are as effective for anxiety and other mental health concerns as they are for the body.
Some foods can help anxiety and some foods can severely exacerbate it. Try to avoid:
Sugar– it’s not just sweets, donuts and chocolate, its light salad dressing, ketchup and fruit juice, the concentration of sugar in all of these can cause “sugar spikes” which can leave you wired, emotionally unsettled and presenting feelings similar to anxiety. Sugar in general is great for quick energy fixes but terrible in terms of its contributions to mental ill health. Unfortunately, sweeteners aren’t great either with aspartame and its counterparts being heavily linked to anxiety and depression. Check your shopping basket, for excess sugars and sweeteners if you are struggling with anxiety, and if possible, try home made alternatives of the preserved versions of foods you find in shops.
Processed foods: such as meats, some cereals and white bread that contains refined flour, disrupt healthy gut bacteria which can lead to anxiety and depression. As more and more research is done in this area, it is becoming more apparent that poor gut bacteria could be a leading contributor to both anxiety and depression. So if you want to feed a healthy mind, you must first feed a healthy gut (or at least the bacteria in it).
Caffeine and alcohol: Caffeine is a known stimulant alcohol a suppressant. Both trigger responses in the body which induce anxiety but for different reasons. My advice, if you are thirsty, stick to the Adam’s Ale…maybe throw in a slice.
Gluten: a well known trigger for anxiety symptoms especially for those who suffer intolerance. If in doubt, get checked out! It could make all the difference to both your physical and emotional wellbeing.
Dairy: an estimated 10 percent of the adult population have some degree of lactose intolerance. This coupled with the fact that dairy is a known inflammatory (not great for arthritis, or asthma suffers either) means that diary inflames the gut and reduces the production of serotonin, which in turn increasing anxious feelings. Plant based substitutes may be a healthy alternative.
Exercise and catching zzzzzzz’s
Getting your heart pumping (in terms of exercise) can help stop your heart pumping (in terms of anxiety). Exercise can decrease tension and regulate mood, whilst helping improve sleep and proves as a good distraction from anxious thoughts. The release of neurochemicals such as GABA and serotonin, during exercise, as well as the effect that exercise has on controlling the responses of the amygdala means that your resilience towards anxiety and the fight or flight reflex increases. Even better, it only takes 5 minutes of exercise for these benefits to kick in! No need to sign up to the London marathon just yet!
Luckily, if you are exercising, your sleep will improve. Sleep is imperative for all the restorative functions of the body…including the mind. Unfortunately, as many sufferers know sleep disturbance is often a result of anxiety, so this can feed unhealthy cycles. Meditations, body scans and herbal supplements have all proven effective in aiding sleep disorders and therefore in helping anxiety.