What Anxiety is Like:
At random moments, I will get this building worry and fear that something isn’t right. Everything could be just perfectly fine, but my mind will trick itself into believing that something is wrong. It will convince itself that my life is falling apart. I will worry about one thing one minute and then start to worry about another thing. My mind constantly switches back and forth and will convince itself that things are worse than what they really are. All the while I’m trying so hard to calm myself down, but it is impossible….Brigette Borden
One out of every four people struggle with anxiety, yet most of my clients feel like they are weird, like they are the only person who cannot get this monkey off their back. They say things to me like “I know what I am saying will seem ridiculous to you, but what I’m worried about is so real for me and I just can’t stop.” Yet I see the effects of living with excessive anxiety often, in my clients, my friends, my family, myself. I write this so you know you are not alone or weird. In fact, I write it as a human being, because all of us will feel anxiety over and over again, whether we think that our brains work well or not. Tests, traffic, disagreements or a deadline are enough to send a ‘fight or flight’ response. This propels stress hormones and adrenaline throughout our bodies. But mostly I write it to try and reduce the shame that you feel about not being able to “control” it. It so often looks like everyone else can calm themselves down so easily, yet you seem to get triggered into worry and fear at the slightest prompting.
The reason you feel like you can’t get a handle on this exhausting problem is because sometimes, the body’s fight or flight response can become super sensitive, pressing “go” on the alarm when there’s no real threat. The message to surge comes from a part of the brain that’s been in charge of fight or flight for thousands of years. It’s so good at the role that for you for whatever reason (and there are many good reasons why people suffer from anxiety) it gets way too conscientious, triggering a sense of threat when you least need it!
Managing Anxiety: The Important Thing to Know
When there’s no actual threat, there’s no need for fight or flight. That means there’s no need to expend the oxygen and energy that your body has been provided with. The most important thing to know is you have to find ways to tell your brain to switch off this false alarm if you are predisposed to getting anxious. You cannot hope it will just go away.
What you may not know is how to improve at doing this. Best tip from me is to always remember that anxiety cannot be reasoned with. The way to manage your anxiety is not to use logic because it doesn’t play by logical rules. So when you tell yourself you are being irrational and it’s ridiculous that you feel so anxious, in fact, you are not helping yourself. The brain has had more practice at initiating the fight or flight response than you’ve had at stopping it, so typically, just trying to convince yourself that there’s nothing to worry about won’t work. The other important thing is that denying the impact anxiety has on your life is a crucial first hurdle to jump over. Most of us like to feel strong and resilient so it can provoke a lot of judgement inside to admit you are an anxious person. Take heart, as denying its impact is common. Maybe you minimise the problem and tell yourself that it is not that bad? Perhaps you put your head in the sand hoping the problem will go away. Or maybe you drink or smoke too much to calm yourself down. Whatever your coping mechanisms, be brave and admit that you have too much anxiety in your life and then you are on the road to uncovering effective solutions for you!
What to Do when the Alarm has been Raised in your Body?
You need to persuade your protective instincts that have so swiftly sprung into action with the fight or flight response, to calm down because you’re fine – there’s no need to get angry and defensive and no need to leave or freeze. You can feel and deal with this situation and it is not an emergency.
The relaxation response was designed cleverly by nature deliberately for this job, it helps you get quiet and peaceful again.
The best thing about the relaxation response is that, like the fight or flight response, it’s also hardwired in your brain. Being hardwired, there’s no need to believe the relaxation response will work – it just happens. It’s automatic, just as the fight or flight response is automatic, regardless of whether we actually need it or not.
When triggered the relaxation response automatically and instantly sends out neurochemicals that tell the fight or flight response you are safe.
The relaxation response will decrease blood pressure, lower heart rate, your pulse rate, reduce the oxygen in the bloodstream and increase the brain waves that aid your relaxation. For a great explanation of how this works in greater depth see karen@heysigmund and her article on kids and how to understand about an anxious brain.
So what Helps Trigger the Relaxation Response Best?
You know this one right? Some sort of physical exercise to settle down those overcharged hormones. Whether it be a great quick yoga destresser online or a run-up and down the office stairs at work, this will work at recalibrating those pesky hormones. Unfortunately, although exercise is THE best solution, sometimes it is the very last thing you feel like doing when you are highly anxious. My suggestion is to push yourself and do it anyway, find a friend to go with, do whatever it takes to get your body moving. If you need further motivation to attempt exercise of some sort then consider that these stress hormones can build-up in your body. Science is discovering how this can then lead to big problems in your nervous system. Problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure or a sensitivity to depression, fatigue, allergies, arthritis can occur. So you’ve got to take action right now to acknowledge the problem and find ways that work for you to manage it and get your body moving.
Exercise just a bridge too far for you right now? Keep reading…more tips ahead.
How do I Get Better at Calming Myself?
Control your breathing.
This seems so simple but it is amazing how often we don’t use this tool. Give your breath the attention it deserves, hang out with it and become better friends with it. You want to begin to learn to develop better positive qualities of mind. Feel safer and protected by using your breath to calm your mind.
When your breathing is under control, the physical symptoms of anxiety and panic decrease.
A couple of suggestions:
Alternate nostril breathing. – if you like youtube this clip shows you how.
Breathe in through your left nostril to the count of three, pressing your right nostril closed with your thumb, 1,2,3.
Breathe out through your right nostril to the count of three, pressing your left nostril closed ‘1,2,3.’
Repeat until your breathing is under control.
Make yourself aware of your breathing.
Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach.
Breathe in so that your stomach rises.
Hold your breath briefly.
Breathe out slowly, and feeling your stomach gently let go.Don’t worry if thoughts float in, that’s normal just keep trying to return to the sensations in the body.
Go to your happy place.
Try to make sure that the hand on your chest doesn’t move very much.
Repeat 5 times or as long as you are able, concentrating on breathing deeply and slowly.
Practice often – especially on the good days – so you’ll have it ready when you need it on the bad days.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation.
Start at the toes, scrunch them and really try and feel them in your shoes. Feel your feet on the floor in your shoes. Move up your legs tightening and then letting go each area of the body and using your breath to breathe in, tighten you feet, ankles shins, knees and thighs and then breathe out and loosen everything. Move progressively through the body and relax it. If you like to listen to someone help you through muscle relaxation there are many great apps out there now that do guided meditations. Personally, I love Buddify 2, easy to use and you can pick a guided session for the amount of time you have available.
Don’t Fight your Anxiety
Anxiety feeds off itself until after a while, you get anxious about being anxious. The more you struggle against it, the more it will hang around. Remember it thinks it’s there to protect you. The more you can accept your anxiety (befriend it) and assure yourself that it’s been triggered for a reason rightly or wrongly, the quicker your anxiety will stop yelling for attention. Your anxiety is a physical, neurological response of an over sensitive brain checking constantly for danger. Remind yourself of this to start the breathing techniques that will calm your physical symptoms.
Your anxiety is a physical, neurological response of an over sensitive brain checking constantly for danger. Remind yourself of this to start the breathing techniques that will calm your physical symptoms. Self-care like I’ve described above with the breathing techniques is not easy. It’s a skill you’ll have to practice for the rest of your life, but once you get better at managing you can feel much more a sense of mastery over your anxiety.
Also remember to commend yourself for recognising the need to do it, as this is a massive step in itself. Most of us accept anxiety as the background noise of everyday life (to the point where we actually get confused when it’s not there, the way city people get freaked out by natural silence when they try to go bush). Any technique to manage anxiety requires you to regard your own peace of mind as a precious resource that is under continuous assault, and to reflexively defend it. A sort of martial art of the mind which involves managing your mental health.
However, if your anxiety is bigger than what has been described above and you get a really scary physical response from your body where you think you are having a heart attack or you literally cannot breathe, then read my article on how to handle panic attacks. General anxiety and panic attacks need different self-care tools.
And Finally …..Befriend it
Or alternatively, if none of these suggestions fit with where you are at, you may need to seek support, talk to someone you trust, work with providing your anxiety assistance from every angle. You can get a lot better when you have a skilled professional in your corner, helping you understand what triggers the anxiety and the best way to manage and soothe it when it occurs.