Anxiety and me
When searching for anxiety online, many clients find that a lot of the information is really long-winded, medical, and scientific. I don't know about you, but I get bored halfway through if I don't understand something. So I have put together this information in a way that I hope is easier to relate to, read and understand.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a perfectly normal and healthy reaction to threatening or dangerous situations. It is very important for our survival, as it’s our body's natural protection - a built-in response if you like. Anxiety can affect us mentally, physically, or both.
So, what do I mean? Well, for instance, say you find yourself in a situation that makes you feel threatened; for me, this might be driving alone at night in an unfamiliar area. For you, it could be something different, physiologically or mentally - anything that causes fear, danger, or threat to you (or someone you care about). Faced with this situation, you might start to feel panic, unease, and fear. Those feelings that you experience in that instant are the body’s natural reaction to the situation; the brain has sparked 'fight, flight, freeze' mode.
What is fight-flight-freeze?
It is essentially the body’s response to stress. I could bore you with where it originated, but I won’t, as it’s easy enough to look up if you want to. When our stress response is ignited, it stimulates the adrenal glands which, in turn, trigger the release of catecholamine’s; "what on earth are they?", you may ask!
Catecholamines are hormones made by our adrenal glands, located on the top of our Kidneys. Some of these hormones include dopamine, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. These are the hormones that are responsible for causing that sudden rush, making our heartbeat increase, and causing our breathing to quicken and our blood pressure to rise, thus making us feel shaky, sweaty, nauseous, and short of breath. All of this prepares us for that fight or flee, or, as I like to say, "get the hell out of there!".
The 'freeze' reaction is as simple as it sounds; in any threatening situation we might just freeze, like the old saying 'a rabbit caught in the headlights'. You could feel so frightened or nervous that you do not know what to do, so you do nothing!
After the danger is over, it would usually take the body between 20 and 60 minutes to return to a normal relaxed state; however, for individuals that suffer from anxiety, this can take much longer or sometimes even be a constant state (it is always advisable to see your GP if you don't feel you can cope day to day).
Symptoms of anxiety
It is important to remember that anxiety feels different for everyone, however, there are some common symptoms that I have listed below. You might also experience other symptoms or difficulties that aren't listed here.
- feeling nervous, on edge, or panicky all the time
- feeling overwhelmed or full of dread
- feeling out of control
- having trouble sleeping
- low appetite
- finding it difficult to concentrate
- feeling tired and grumpy
- heart beating really fast or thinking you’re having a heart attack
- having a dry mouth
- feeling faint
These symptoms are completely normal during periods of anxiety and stress. They can be unpleasant, but by acknowledging and recognising that these symptoms are a result of your anxiety, whether it’s one, two, or a wide range of the above symptoms, it is a really valuable step in helping you begin to be able to manage them.
When anxiety becomes a problem
Sometimes we may feel anxious but we don’t know why. This can be a constant feeling that feels out of proportion to the situation, or waves of anxiety that come and go. When this starts to affect your daily life, this can become overwhelming and feel out of your control.
Everyone will experience anxiety differently, and we all have our own triggers; we may not always know what causes our anxiety, which can feel upsetting and stressful and can actually cause further anxious feelings.
We don’t always have control over things that affect our mental health. Factors such as our environment, bereavement, past and present circumstances, previous trauma, or our childhood experiences can all influence our mental and emotional state.
Learning to recognise your triggers
Learning to recognise your individual triggers is the beginning of a journey to gain control of your emotional and physical reactions, and feel better equipped to deal with these situations in the future in a less stressful way for the mind and body.
This can be a daunting task. As I found out when I started to work on mine, you have to be committed to change. A lot of us with anxiety want to just avoid situations that cause us to feel anxious, but this is actually making the situation worse. To be able to manage your anxiety, you need to face your triggers head-on and re-train your mind and body to respond differently. I will talk more about this in my tips for coping with anxiety.
Me and my anxiety
I have struggled with anxiety and OCD since childhood. I didn’t know why I was always feeling shaky, scared, and nauseous, and hated the thought of doing anything new or that brought attention my way. I struggled at school, and even though I had friends, I didn’t believe they actually liked me. I now know these thoughts and feelings were irrational but brought on by real experiences that have left their mark on me.
I didn’t have the most supportive parents growing up, and I don’t feel I was shown how to love and be loved. I was bullied in primary school, and then in my teens, I lost a really good friend to a motorbike accident.
The first serious relationship I got into in my teens made matters worse, as I was cheated on over and over again. Then, in early adulthood, I found myself in a very controlling and unhealthy relationship. All of this added to me never feeling good enough and having no self-worth.
There were so many factors over the years, too many to write about here, that contributed to me having anxiety, which developed further to depression and OCD the older I got. When I reached my late twenties, I decided something had to change, and that's when I started my journey to change.
Some people say to me now that I am a counsellor "how can you have anxiety, you’re a counsellor, you should be sorted", or words to that effect. Anxiety is something that will never leave me (I wouldn't want it to), however, I have learned to live with it and manage it. Over the years I have heard things being said, such as "stop thinking about it so much"; do they not think I would if I felt I could! Or, "calm down"... now that has got to be my favourite. Do these people not think I would have loved to have been calm!
What I now know is that, if I had a little support and listened to myself more and them less, I could have done it sooner.
Tackling your anxiety
For me, this meant I had to experience my triggers and work on changing my mind and body's reaction to them.
For starters, I had to try and adjust my lifestyle to make sure I was looking after myself by eating regularly, having some exercise, and trying to improve my sleep routine.
Did you know that at the root of anxiety is FEAR - False Evidence Appearing Real. We start to create scenarios of our feared situation; these scenarios are formed from our lived experiences and irrational thought patterns. These then spiral out of control and create scary scenarios that cause the anxiety - 'a vicious circle'. As humans, we are able to cope with a lot more than we give ourselves credit for, but those of us with anxiety tend to overestimate the danger and underestimate our ability to cope. Our anxiety also interferes with our body's natural 'intuition' or 'gut feeling' about a situation or circumstance. It is healthy and constructive to question and weigh up the pros and cons of a situation, however, when anxiety takes over, the above can happen - FEAR. Through working on my triggers, I have learned to trust my gut/intuition for the positives and negatives.
To start to tackle this catastrophic thinking, we need to start to rationalise what is actually happening. You can do this yourself with a bit of hard work and courage.
Tips for coping with anxiety
These may not work for everyone, but they worked for me. It is all about trying, and if you don’t succeed, try and try again until you do. There is a lot of information out there, and you will find what works for you.
One of my favourite things to say to my children now is, “Nobody is going to do it for you - if you want it, you have to work for it”.
Try to understand your anxiety and where it came from;
- what situations trigger you?
- why do you think this is a trigger?
Start to make a list, diary or spreadsheet of;
- what triggered you?
- when did it happen?
- where were you?
- how did you feel?
- how did you react/what happened?
- how long did it last?
Once you have all this information, you will then have a better understanding of what your triggers are and where they came from. Now you can start to work on rationalising your thoughts and feelings and building your resilience to these triggers.
Now it’s time to expose yourself to your triggers and start the process of 're-framing' - rationalising your thoughts and feelings and looking at them from a different perspective.
During this exposure and re-framing, it helps to have what I like to call a 'toolbox' of thoughts, experiences, or actual activities you can do to calm yourself. If/when you start to feel out of control, it is useful to have a few different things so you can find what works best for you. For me, it is going for a walk/run, or, if I can't do that, conjuring up my happy place.
I have included some examples below;
- imagining yourself in your happy/relaxed place
- going for a walk, jog, or run
- taking the dog for a walk
- talking to a friend or relative
- listening to music really loud and dancing like an idiot - oh, maybe that's just me!
You might be thinking that this sounds like a lot of hard work, and you’re right - it is. However, I promise you that the hard work pays off, and the end result is a life where you are able to manage and even control your anxiety, rather than 'it' controlling you. How do I know this? because at this stage, you will now know the root cause(s) of your anxiety, and you have your 'toolbox' to support you moving forward. I, and many others are living proof that this can work - you can do it!
How counselling can help
When I was working on my triggers, I discovered so much from my past that I felt I needed to explore further. I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about my thoughts and feelings. Therefore, to enable me to fully understand myself and support me to repair my self-worth and confidence, I sought the help of a counsellor.
A counsellor will support you to explore your individual experience of anxiety in a safe, secure environment. Together you will build an empathetic, non-judgemental and autonomous therapeutic relationship. This relationship will be the foundation of everything you do. He/she will support you with things you can’t talk to your friends or family about, and will not only help you to understand what your triggers are but also how to challenge them and change them.
Thank you for taking the time to read this information, and I hope you find it helpful. For more information about anxiety, counselling and the support available, have a look at the dedicated fact-sheet here on Counselling Directory. You can also read more on Mind and Anxiety UK.