Although anxiety is a completely natural response to a situation which threatens our safety, unfortunately, it can sometimes get completely out of hand, causing severe panic attacks, uncontrollable fear and post traumatic stress. Whatever the cause, whether a fear of flying or confined spaces,or an extremely distressing experience which has stayed with you, years after the event, or social anxiety which stops you from going out with friends, the resulting anxiety can prevent you from living a full and satisfying life. If you’ve been living with anxiety for years, it will take time and effort to learn to manage it differently, however, there is help at hand. You don’t have to go through the rest of your life as a nervous wreck.
Often when we feel anxious, it is the sensations we experience in our bodies, which we find as unpleasant as the situation which is causing the anxiety in the first place; so I’m going to divide the following suggestions into two parts.
Managing Anxiety symptoms
A good starting point is to improve your self-awareness, so that you are more aware of what is going on in your mind and body. If you don’t realise that your shoulders are up to your ears, your body is stiff and tense, your breathing is shallow and quick, then you can’t do much about it. Breathing is very important. Find a quiet space and sitting upright, focus on each breath in and out. The aim is to slow your breathing down, so that it changes from shallow quick throat breathing to deeper, slower breaths from your diaphragm. Place one hand on your ribcage below the breast (this is your diaphragm) and consciously allow your tummy to expand each time you breathe in and contract each time you breathe out. Regular practice can help to take your mind off the anxious thoughts and sensations.
Noticing Automatic Thoughts
If you’re not conscious of automatic thoughts, such as “I can’t do this”, “I’m a failure, everybody hates me,” then you can’t change them. Once you have awareness of your negative thoughts, try changing each one to a positive i.e “I can do this”, “I have achieved success in my life”, “I have good friends who care about me”. If you do this often enough, you will start to believe it, because of course it’s true. You do have the inner strength and resilience to survive your anxiety.
Secondly, although this might sound completely illogical, once you have raised your awareness, it helps if you can try to accept your anxiety in the moment. You might say to yourself ” I’m feeling really anxious and that’s ok”. Try practising that a few times and you might notice that your anxiety starts to subside a little. The reason for this is, by accepting your state of mind, you start to relax and stop fighting the unpleasant sensations in your body. As long as you continue to fight your anxiety, the more the tension in your body will rise.
Exercise is really important for managing anxiety. Walking, swimming, gardening, yoga and pilates are all great ways to calm the mind and body. However, a word of caution here. A strenuous workout at the gym or jogging 5 miles a day is definitely not advisable, as this type of exercise raises the pulse/heartbeat and adrenalin levels, which is counter-productive to relaxation and reducing stress. If most of these don’t appeal, getting out into the fresh air for at least twenty minutes each day does calm the body and mind.
You will know the old expression, “you are what you eat” and it is true. Anxiety can be reduced by making sure you eat regular balanced meals which include fresh fruit and vegetables, protein and less carbohydrate than you think you need. Snacking between meals is ok as long as it’s not full of sugar and carbohydrate. So biscuits, crisps, sweets will give you a quick sugar boost but won’t help your mood or increase your energy for very long.
The Vitamin B complex is essential in helping the nervous system to function normally, in particular B12. Also, Minerals such as Magnesium are really important in reducing anxiety and fatigue and also help with sleep. So you might want to eat more green leafy vegetables and maybe take a good vitamin/mineral supplement. If you don’t like taking pills, then you can get Vitamin B complex oral sprays and Magnesium body sprays/ bath salts which are an excellent alternative.
If you’re reading this and thinking, none of this is going to work for me. My anxiety is sometimes so bad, that it’s unbearable and I literally don’t know what to do with myself. Remember, it’s not one size fits all and different remedies work at different times. Also, when your anxiety is really bad, just try saying to yourself. “This feeling won’t last forever, it will pass”. Nothing stays the same. Our moods and feelings are changing all the time.
The Second Part is the situation or memories which are causing the anxiety. Again, there are various ways of managing anxiety in response to these. Some of them may take longer than others. In addition to the self-help measures I have mentioned, therapy can make a huge difference and help you learn to change your response to traumatic memories.
Person Centred therapy can certainly help you to address mild to moderate anxiety issues through encouraging you to talk about the issues which make you anxious and the therapist will work with you at your own pace, to help you understand where the anxiety comes from and how you can learn to manage it.
You might have heard of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) – NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) recommend this for specific anxiety issues such as phobias, OCD and trauma.
A more recent therapy to emerge is Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing or EMDR for short. This was originally used to help people with severe post traumatic distress, however over time it has been shown to help with all types of trauma from complex bereavement issues to sleep anxiety. Although all these therapies use different tools, they all aim to produce the same outcome, i.e. to reduce the stress response so that the client no longer experiences extreme anxiety when experiencing unpleasant memories, flashbacks and or sensory triggers, (hearing a noise, seeing, smelling, tasting or touching something which reminds the unconscious brain of the original trauma.)
There are therapists who have specific qualifications and experience in each of the above. (See list of directories at bottom of page.)
There is no right or wrong as far as medication is concerned. It all depends on the severity of your anxiety and whether you feel you can cope with the symptoms using the other methods discussed above. If you have reached a point where the anxiety is overwhelming and prevents you from leading a normal life, then you need to talk to your GP. There are several different ways of treating anxiety; beta blockers, anti-depressants and/or tranquilisers. It’s a case of finding out what works for you, with the least side-effects. Discuss which of these might be best for you with your GP, however, a word of warning; tranquilisers such as Diazepam are highly addictive and should only be used with caution. It’s important to keep in regular contact with your GP if you’re taking any of these medications.
www.bacp.co.uk (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy)
www.babcp.co.uk. (British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies)