Our era has been called 'The Age of Anxiety'. With increasing financial stress, family pressures, health problems, global economic turmoil and worldwide political unrest, we live in very worrying times. Recent statistics have shown that fifty-nine percent of people in Britain have experienced anxiety and seventy percent have suffered from stress. The number of antidepressants prescribed by the NHS also rose sharply last year as worries of the recession set in.
I would like to share five approaches that can be helpful in reducing anxiety.
The first step is to become aware of our thoughts and our internal dialogue, as much of our anxiety exists on an unconscious level. People tend to envision the worst possible consequences coming true. For example, someone worrying about finances may imagine him/herself poor, homeless, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This is often combined with the imagination producing stirring images that create a sense of panic and great distress. Memories of similar traumatic events from the past may also be unconsciously projected onto the current situation, which further exacerbates the problem.
Once we become aware of our internal thoughts we are able to discover the fears that are at the root of the anxiety. A good acronym for fear is: FEAR – False Evidence Appearing Real. Much of our fear may be based on invalid thinking. For example, when a person is having a panic attack they may misinterpret the physiological effects, and think that they are having a heart attack, thereby further increasing their anxiety.
2. Challenging our thoughts
By verbalizing our inner dialogue, we can challenge our irrational thinking and start to see the situation more objectively and calmly. This approach is emphasised in cognitive behavioural therapy, which teaches that it is not an actual event but our interpretation of it that determines our emotional response. By becoming aware of our cognitive biases (irrational thought patterns) we can change the way we think about a situation, thus reducing its emotional impact.
To do this one might ask oneself some important questions: Are there other equally plausible ways of seeing and interpreting a situation? Is it possible, even probable, that a dreaded event will not occur? How many situations have you worried about in the past that turned out much better in reality? It is also valuable to explore how one would best cope with the worst case scenario if it were to occur.
3. Sharing our feelings with others
Sharing our concerns and worries with a supportive person can be therapeutic, helping to reduce and lighten their emotional impact. It is most effective if the listener allows us to express our concerns fully, and doesn't interject with premature words of advice or encouragement.
4. Taking action
Facing a difficult situation and taking appropriate action where possible, reduces our fear and moves us from feeling helpless, or a victim of circumstances, to feeling more in control. Behavioural changes often lead to emotional changes; this is a principle upon which behavioural therapy is based. For example, a person who has a phobia of dogs and feels great anxiety around them would gradually increase his/her exposure to dogs until he/she could tolerate them without feeling anxious.
Creating and implementing a plan of action to deal with our area of concern is therefore a vital step. While this often requires courage, avoiding the problem just serves to maintain it. The fear associated with it can paralyse us and produce a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. It is also important to break down this plan into small, manageable steps.
5. Maintaining physical and spiritual well-being
Attending to our physical state helps to reduce stress; this includes getting enough sleep, exercising, eating properly, having time to relax, and medication if necessary. Breathing techniques or meditation can also be very helpful.
It has been demonstrated by much modern research that prayer helps reduce anxiety. A recent study interviewed two hundred and forty-six people before they underwent cardiac surgery. The results showed that those who prayed before the operation were more optimistic and suffered less anxiety.
These five approaches can be used in combination or individually. A person's particular circumstances, as well as individual character and personal preferences, will determine which approach will be most helpful.