Living on edge - dealing with anxiety
Anxiety - that horrible feeling when your brain won’t stop buzzing, when your jaw is clenched, your palms sticky, and your heart is beating so quickly that it feels like it might come out of your chest. We can't stop worrying and can stop going out to do things we enjoy. Anxiety can take over our lives, making them smaller so we think things are more manageable, safer, and so we can find ourselves limiting what we do to try to overcome these horrible feelings. We feel trapped and become isolated, feeling like a prisoner in our own lives.
We want it to stop, we want to feel better, but how do we get there? With more focus on mental health, there can seem to be an overwhelming number of suggestions, and it can be hard to find something that can really help us. Also, not all suggestions are going to work for all people: it’s about finding the methods that work for you.
Nine ways of dealing with anxiety
1. Look after yourself
This is a simple first step: looking after your physical health. There are a number of things you can do, such as eating the best food you can, limiting your alcohol and caffeine intake, and trying to sleep as well as possible. This can be hard, as feeling anxious often means waking in the early hours with our brains spinning, unable to go back to sleep even though we know we’ve only got a few hours until we have to get up. But we can manage our sleep as much as possible by trying to get into a routine: go to bed at roughly the same time every night, maybe have a warm bath beforehand which can help the body prepare for sleep. If you wake in the night, some people find it useful to write down their worries, whilst others just accept that they are awake but reassure themselves that they are resting so they don’t start becoming anxious about their lack of sleep, adding to the problem.
2. Physical activity
Many people find themselves less aware of their anxiety when they are busy, so going for a swim, taking the dog out for a walk, or some other form of activity might help. This might help shift your focus from what’s going on inside your brain to the sensations involved in the exercise: the feeling of moving through the water, the wind on your face as you walk the dog, etc.
3. Focus on your breathing
If you can’t get out or feel this doesn’t work for you, try some deep breathing exercises. There are a number of different examples of this; for example, breathing in for four seconds and breathing our for four seconds, or alternatively breathing in through your nose for the count of four, holding your breath for a count of seven and breathing out through your mouth for the count of eight. Again, this should help shift your thinking from your worries to the activity you are doing, and also deep breathing can have a positive effect on your body, especially if anxiety causes you to take more shallow breaths.
4. Bring your awareness back to the present
Anxiety can cause us to engage in extreme thinking, imagining the worst possible outcome, so it can be really helpful to bring our thinking back to the present moment, and the place where we are. One of the easiest ways to do this is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique; sit down and take a couple of deep breaths to calm yourself down, with your eyes closed if possible. Then, open your eyes and identify five things you can see; these could be in the room or out of the window. Then move to four things you can feel. This could be touching your teeth with your tongue, or the skin on your face, the fabric of your clothes, the furniture around you. Be aware of the sensation of touching them: ask yourself how they feel. Now you want to identify three things you can hear; are there birds or traffic outside the window? Are there noises in the room that you normally don’t notice?
The next stage is to identify two things you can smell. Maybe you’re wearing perfume, or there is polish on the furniture. Even if nothing is obvious, take a moment to really focus to see if something comes to you. The final stage is to find one thing you can taste. If you find this exercise works for you, then you could keep a small packet of mints or raisins with you to complete this exercise. Take a moment to really taste the food - be aware of the sensation within your mouth.
Hopefully, by the time you have completed this exercise, your anxiety levels have reduced and you are feeling more relaxed.
I find visualisation a very useful tool when dealing with anxiety. This means creating a safe place within your thinking that you can go to when you are feeling anxious and need to relax. First of all, you choose a general location that you really like, such as a beach or a lakeside. Then build a complete image of this place in your head: this includes the noises you can hear, the sensations (sun on your skin, for example), and the feelings (your fingers running through pure spring water maybe). Build as much detail as possible to make this place as real as you can and make this place familiar to you so that you can return to it whenever you need to. If you find yourself becoming anxious, then you can return to your beach, and all the relaxing feelings attached to this place should help reduce your anxiety.
6. Keep a diary of your worries
There is scientific evidence that writing things down really helps reduce anxiety and it can be that just identifying what is worrying us can reduce our response to it. You could keep a journal or diary next to your bed in case you wake in the night. This can also help when you can read back and see that things you were anxious about didn’t end up being that bad after all.
7. Talk to someone
It can really help to share our worries with a friend or a professional. In the same way as writing thoughts down, saying them out loud can help us unravel our thinking, and the support we can gain from reaching out to others can help reduce our anxiety levels generally.
8. It’s just thinking
Try to be aware that it's our thinking that can cause us to become anxious; that we can catastrophise, imaging the worst possible outcome. It might be helpful to just allow these thoughts to drift through our minds like clouds, remembering they are just thoughts, not real, so you can watch them float past without having to do anything about them.
9. Keep it up
When you find things that help reduce your anxiety, it is important to keep it up. As we’re all human, it’s too easy to do something (like cutting back on caffeine, or writing a journal) only to go back to our old ways once the crisis has passed. If we really want to overcome our anxiety, we have to work at it and remind ourselves to keep working at it until it becomes our way of dealing with moments of anxiety in our lives.
Hopefully, one or more of the methods written here will help. Keep trying, even if it feels a bit strange at first. Also, don’t forget that, if you feel you need more help, then do talk to your doctor who might be able to prescribe medication that could help. Even though many people try to overcome anxiety themselves, sometimes we need medical help, at least in the short term, to help us to regroup and then work at it ourselves. It's really important to be kind to yourself and give yourself a chance to feel better.
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