This is the first half of a series of posts on anxiety and how to reduce it that I wrote and posted on Facebook recently. Hope you find it helpeful.
Anxiety effects a huge number of people, often without us noticing it from the outside and sometimes even being unaware of it as a sufferer. I lived with severe anxiety for decades without realising that’s what was wrong. To me life was just tough like that.
Here are some tips to spot anxiety in yourself and others. I’ll post in a few days on what you can do to reduce anxiety and live happier, but the first step is noticing it.
We all know the word but what does anxiety feel like? How do you spot it?
Anxiety is the name we give to a tendency to worry about lots of things that shouldn’t worry us. It can have many symptoms. Some people will have a few and some many. The usual suspects are – worrying about what other people think, re-running conversations wondering if you got your point across or came off foolish, hesitating to do something in case you fail, having a knot in your stomach, dreading situations that other people seem to find easy, pressure to go the the toilet when stressed, lying awake thinking for hours, fear and panic attacks can result and it could often include Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
While the feelings on the inside can be crushing they can build slowly so that it’s possible to think they are just ‘how life is’. We can tolerate anything, if we don’t realise what is going on we can end up suffering for years thinking we just need to try harder, or just accepting it as ‘life is hard’. I’ve seen people suffer into their eighties before realising it can change, and only then turning their life around.
Being aware that the feelings listed above are something that can change is the first step. It astounds me now to think I just lived like that for decades because it was all I knew. If someone could have spelled it out in a way that reached me, I could have had decades more happiness and success in life.
How does anxiety work?
Anxiety really makes you react to more things and thus create stress. Because you worry about more things your brain signals your body to activate the self preservation systems more often, and for longer. This creates physical and emotional stress in your brain and body.
Your self preservation system is only interested in your short term survival – will you be alive in ten minutes or an hour? It doesn’t look at what is coming later. It doesn’t care what you’ll be doing next year, and it doesn’t care if you feel happy. It’s a simple system designed to keep you alive. If you’re being mugged or slipping on ice it’s your best friend, but when it is switched on and kept on long term, it’s a real problem.
You feel bad, your mind constantly spots chances to fail and sees only what could go wrong, your immune system drops leaving you open to get more colds and infections – and they might linger, you can become absent minded – forgetting what you came into the room for and so on.
In some cases your mind can create larger reactions like panic attacks. In my case, sitting in a classroom used to have me on the verge of panic. That was my self preservation system looking to my anxiety, which told it crowds of people were a danger, and then working flat out to keep me from putting myself in that ‘danger’, by raising panic levels to prevent me from going.
The stress can pressure your physical health with damage to your cardiovascular system, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and fatigue.
The odd part is, it does all this to help keep you safe from an apparent threat or danger. The real issue is that your mind has wrongly identified which things are dangerous. That’s where you can change it big time.
In a few days I’ll post the next part – some helpful tips to manage anxiety and even reduce it.
Tips to deal with Anxiety Part 1
Once anxiety is active, your body and mind are being signalled to create a fear reaction to protect you from whatever is making you anxious. Your stress hormone levels increase, your mind processes faster (thoughts can race, reactions become faster, you feel more full of nervous energy etc.).
At this point your mind has switched on areas of the brain that are looking for danger, risk, or how things can fail. All to help you avoid them.
Because it wants you to be safe, your mind starts to imagine problems. For example if you’re not looking forward to seeing your boss and are stressed about that, your mind will create thoughts of the meeting going badly, seeing the worst case scenarios and so on. The mind is looking for what can go wrong and is running possible outcomes to see if it can find a solution. If you’re being mugged your mind will spot any escape route and have you running like you never knew you could, but sadly in most stressful situations there is no actual clear solution. The things that make us anxious are usually not real dangers so there is no immediate action to be taken, so the mind just keeps going over it, looking to help you but actually torturing you, making you keep feeling bad, running over and over the unpleasant thoughts, upping your stress levels and so on.
So, understanding this, here’s one very good way to interrupt that and lower your stress levels:
Your mind has to keep thinking into the future to worry, to construct the possibilities and images that keep you stressed. Each time your mind jumps into that future thinking, just notice it and bring it back to the here and now. It’s fine that it jumps, that’s normal, don’t beat yourself up over that, just keep taking control of it and bring it back to the now.
Noticing when its winding you up and then bringing your consciousness back to the present each time, will help break the cycle. The less time it runs the torturous scenarios, the less stress hormone is released, the easier it is to relax and get on with life.
Its estimated that the average person spends 47% of the waking day daydreaming of future events in this way. If you’re feeling worried, stressed or anxious, just bring your mind to the present. Notice how you physically feel in the here and now. This focuses your mind on the now, and keeps it from worrying. It also trains your mind to be more under your conscious control, and to worry less.
Focus on your hands or feet, (they have a type of nerve cell that the brain will notice more easily), and trace the outline of them in your mind. Feel each part, really notice them. It’s a form of Mindfulness.
If you spend 3 minutes, four times a day being mindful like this it has been shown to have a huge positive effect over time. Even reducing depression in 50% of cases. But using it even for a few seconds whenever you worry can help big time.
Try it. I’ll post a few more tips in the coming days.
Thanks for all the positive comments and feedback on the posts on this last week. I’m delighted and blown away by the response. Keep building your better life one step at a time. Make tomorrow a bit better, do that every day for a year and look how big a change that is!
Tips to deal with Anxiety Part 2
This one is a short one: Take a 30 minute walk five days a week.
An analysis of many studies and pieces of research on anxiety showed exercise could reduce anxiety by 48%.
It is expected that even two 15 minute walks a day can give the same results. If you find it hard to find time to exercise try and combine it with something that is already scheduled. For example; if you drive to work can you park 15 minutes walk from the entrance? That way there is less planning, making time, and getting ready etc. You just add the bare 15 minutes needed and you don’t have to make the time elsewhere.
In most cases anxiety builds gradually. (If it came on suddenly it’s probably related to an upsetting or traumatic event, in that case get appropriate therapy for the trauma and it will help the anxiety. There are four or five proven methods to resolve trauma).
You can de-construct it gradually too. Too often we think in on/off terms or black and white in life. The way to win is to view things as a bit-by-bit process. Can you set yourself a small challenge and succeed, and then set a slightly bigger one and overcome that too?
So, if you find that things you want to do are also things that make you anxious – something that you find makes your gut tighten when you think ‘Will it work, will I look foolish for trying’ or similar, then can you find a small part of the project and get familiar and comfortable with that size of risk? Use the mindfulness tip in the last post to help you do so. Train your mind that a small part is ok, and then, part by part, succeed with the project. Grow your confidence as you do so and bit by bit erode the conditioning of the anxiety.