Four little words beginning with 'F'...
The word ‘Anxiety’ consistently features in the top three or four keyword searches on counselling websites like this one; we live in anxious times so perhaps that’s not surprising.
Anxiety is closely related to Fear (the first of our F-words) and fear is an emotion that has the potential both to protect us from imminent danger and to stop us in our tracks.
How does Fear affect the body?
When we feel very anxious or afraid, our body responds in a very noticeable way:
- heartbeat rises - often dramatically
- palms become sweaty
- we breathe more quickly and shallowly
- feeling sick
- feeling the need to rush to the loo
- mouth goes dry
- we lose our appetite
Unpleasant though fear is, it makes sense from an evolutionary point of view; if you were suddenly faced with danger - say from a charging wild animal - then all of these bodily responses are designed to prepare you to deal with the threat.
How does Fear affect the mind?
When we’re full of fear or anxiety, it can crowd our other more rational and calmer thoughts, making it seem that the threat is much bigger than it really is. And while some threats may indeed be real, we can also be fooled into thinking that we’re under threat when actually there’s little or no threat at all. And then our fear and anxiety responses are kicking in when they’re not needed.
How do we react to Fear?
Here come the next three F-words:
- Fight: one of the ways in which humans have evolved to deal with threats is to prepare to fight them off. Our adrenalin levels go up and the blood supply to our muscles increases in preparation for action.
- Flight: sometimes, we perceive the threat as being too great to stand and fight against, so instead we flee from it.
- Fright (or freeze): ever seen a deer or a rabbit caught suddenly in the headlights of a car? Sometimes we are so paralysed by our fear that we are unable to do anything at all, other than freeze to the spot. Stage fright is an example of this.
In everyday life, when we wrongly perceive situations or people to be threats to our safety, each of these reactions can have damaging consequences.
The fight response can lead to aggression or attack prompted by the underlying fear driving it.
The flight response can lead us to run away from situations which frighten us or make us anxious, rather than learning how to manage them.
The fright/freeze response can lead us to avoid situations where we think we’ll feel anxious or fearful - because we’ve experienced it before and don’t want to go through it again.
On a long-term basis, untreated anxiety can have lots of consequences, such as sleeplessness, weight loss (or gain), depression, loss of self-confidence, loss of sex drive, heart problems etc. And it can have a debilitating effect on quality of life.
By learning how to manage our anxiety, we can limit the effects it has on us.
How to manage your anxiety
If you can, try to face up to your fears rather than avoiding them. Here’s an example: I used to get very anxious when I saw those brown envelopes popping through the letterbox which you just know are bills to pay. I’d avoid opening them and put them in a drawer ‘out of sight, out of mind’. This led to me having to pay late charges several times.
On another occasion, when I did finally open one of those envelopes, I discovered that it contained a cheque for an insurance payout, but because I’d delayed opening for so long, the cheque was now out of date and couldn’t be cashed. I’d missed out!
So now, I don’t give myself the chance to put the envelopes away - I open them immediately, conscious of my anxiety being there, but not letting it take over. And the more I do it, the easier it gets. Take small steps towards facing your fears and be patient with yourself - it may take time.
Breathing exercises can help: find a small rectangular object, like your mobile or a credit card, and very slowly run your finger along the long edge, breathing in as you do; then as you breathe out, run your finger along the short edge, again taking it slowly. Do this a few times but not so much that you end up feeling dizzy or light-headed. Breathing exercises like this can help your body dissipate its hormonal response to the perceived threat, helping you calm down.
Write about your anxiety; how and when it starts, what it feels like, tastes like, looks like, how it affects you, what name you might give to it, and keep writing until you feel your anxiety lessening. Writing long-hand is a great way of slowing down those racing, anxious thoughts because it forces the mind to focus on a task, and it externalises the feelings; getting them outside of your head and on to paper.
Get some fresh air and exercise; exercising has been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety because it helps to trigger release of ‘feel good hormones’ in the brain such as serotonin, endorphins and dopamine. Exercising in the fresh air, if you can, can help you feel more connected to the wider world and other people, while the negative ions in fresh air - paradoxically - have been shown to improve mental alertness and reduce stress levels.
Talking about your anxiety with people you trust. Whether that’s a counsellor, a friend, family member or within a support group; it can also be very effective in helping you feel that you’re not alone and that things can get better.