Anxiety - friend and foe
Anxiety is our body’s way of responding to threat. Our systems are designed to keep us safe and to respond to danger in a way that prepares us to either stand our ground (fight) or to get us away from danger to a safe place (flight). These responses are instinctive and an important part of our make-up – if we find ourselves in a place where we are in danger, these physical and psychological reactions give us the additional strength and clarity of focus needed to get out harm’s way. In this way, anxiety can be a helpful, protective response.
Fortunately, most of us won’t often find ourselves in life threatening danger, however, anxiety may still be part of our day to day experience. Sometimes we are very aware of what’s causing the feelings of anxiety, for example when getting ready for an exam, speaking in public, or when responding to conflict at work or home. At other times, we find ourselves feeling anxious without really knowing what’s caused it – perhaps feeling anxious just walking around the supermarket, hanging out laundry or picking the kids up from school. The anxiety can feel overwhelming, resulting in feelings of extreme fear, panic and tearfulness and bringing with it physical symptoms such as lack of sleep, muscle tension and chronic pain. It can feel all consuming, making us fear we’ll always feel this way. We might wrack our brains trying to figure out why we feel this way, why it’s so hard to just relax and let go and end up frustrated with ourselves, annoyed that we can’t just “get a grip”. Very often, the process of trying to figure out what’s causing anxiety merely makes it worse. When this happens, anxiety can feel like the enemy within, unpredictable and to be feared in and of itself.
So, what can help? The first thing may be to simply accept that you feel anxious, instead of fighting the feeling and trying to work out what’s caused it, try turning your mind to recognising that you’re feeling anxious, that while it’s uncomfortable now, it will pass and that there may be a reason that you’re just not aware of yet, for the feelings you’re having. Reassuring yourself, or having someone else speak reassuringly to you, can help soothe the part of you that’s been activated and give you space to think.
The physical reactions that come with anxiety result in us taking short, shallow breaths, raising our heart rate and making you feel panicked. Making an effort to breathe deeply, from your tummy and slowing your breathing down can help slow down your heart rate. Some people find that counting helps them to focus on slowing down breathing and there are a number of different breathing exercises that can help.
Finding an activity to distract can also help, something that’s relaxing and enjoyable – some people find that gardening, exercise or household tasks help them move around and release some of the nervous energy that’s often generated by anxiety.
Dealing with the effects of anxiety is important to help you cope from day to day, however, taking time to talk about how you’re feeling with a loved one, friend or counsellor might help you understand where the feelings are coming from. You may find that, looking at things with a cool head and clear mind, you can see where circumstances have been building for a while and that it’s reasonable to feel overwhelmed. Exploring your situation in the safety of a supportive, non-judgemental relationship can help you identify changes you might need to make to reduce your anxiety levels and be at peace in yourself.
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About Susan Dobson
Susan is a qualified counsellor based in North Lanarkshire. Working for a private counselling agency offering EAP services and having a small private practice, she sees clients with a variety of concerns including anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, abuse and work related stress. Her writing draws on her practice experience.