By John Prendergast MCHPA(HyPsych) Anxiety & Psycho-Trauma Therapist
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.
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.
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.
How to spot and help, if someone you care about has anxiety.
Let me start by saying if you have a loved one who you think suffers anxiety, don’t start being pushy about it. Anxiety will make them defensive and pushing can make them less likely to help themselves. You need to be supportive and to help them to learn more for themselves so they can recognise it. Shock tactics rarely work and usually make things worse.
One thing we do when anxious is we hide it. Think about it. Anxiety makes you overly sensitive to criticism, if you felt like that wouldn’t you work very hard to hide something that you fear might make people judge you and that would make you stand out?
Anxiety sufferers are usually overly concerned with other people’s opinions. As such they hide their anxiety. I hid mine for decades. Few people could spot it.
They will usually be more likely to be stressed and unhappy with work and relationships. Some people are driven to success by anxiety but it’s much more common for it to hold you back.
So, given that it’s hidden what can we spot? There are a number of common factors. If several are present it might be a clue. They include:
· Are they always busy at parties – always helping, in the kitchen working – but not mixing at social gatherings, never seem to sit still?
· When they are involved in a group or society are they always happier to be holding an office, doing a job, or volunteering than just being a regular participant?
· Do they promise the world but seem very poor at delivering?
· Do they seem tired a lot? They can go great for short periods but then seem fatigued most of the time?
· Are they overly defensive? Do they seem to hold on to small slights and stay upset about them?
· Do they over explain things even when it’s not necessary?
· Do they have to be seen to be right all the time?
· Are they touchy about small things?
· Do they seem to always have to be giving advice but do not take it from anyone else? Is their opinion being given a lot?
· Do they micro manage? Do they point out a traffic light has changed before you can react or similar?
· Are they the person to whom others go for advice or a shoulder to cry on, but never seem to need (or be able to take advantage of) that themselves?
· Did they perform worse than expected in school/college/further education?
· Do they work in a job that keeps them from having to deal with many people?
· Do they tend to avoid many social situations – always busy, unavailable, other excuses?
· Always busy but rarely seen to get good results?
· Are they putting things off a lot? Do they seem to be unable to get small things done, does it take ages to get around to simple tasks? Do things usually get done at the last minute?
· Are they always talking about what they will do, or what is coming down the tracks, rather than living in the now?
These are all examples of behaviour that is common to people with anxiety. None of the points, by themselves, mean a person is anxious, but if a person does many of these things then it might indicate that they are anxious. Remember anxiety will make them take things overly personally, worry about other people’s judgement of them, keep them from risking failure, and so on. Can you see how this can be the case in the examples above? If so then you can get a sense of how to spot anxiety.
I’ll post more tips to help deal with anxiety and some advice on how to help someone who is suffering with it in the coming days.
One of the big problems related to anxiety is that having it, can kick off other issues like depression, stress, and panic.
In some cases these are just symptoms of the anxiety. They can all exist independently but for a large number of anxiety sufferers, it is common for the worry to create stress, to drag down mood, and to pressure the mind up to the level of panic.
A lot of depression is what’s known as ‘Reactive Depression’, that means it is being caused by something else. Depression that comes with anxiety can take many forms. The most common type I see, and which I used to suffer from, takes the form of bouts of a few days of low mood. The pressure of worry and the stress it generates makes you feel like things always go wrong, that they can’t change, and so on. This saps motivation and energy and you feel down. Normally that lifts after a few days at the start. But if the anxiety is left untreated, it tends to see a pattern where the depression comes more often and lasts longer.
In some ways this could be good news for you, if you suffer both depression and anxiety. Dealing with your anxiety might be the solution you need for the depression.
Panic is really a case of the anxiety becoming so acute that it feels like a different thing. It becomes so strong by itself that it feels like the anxiety has volcanoed into Panic.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is also often a related issue, as can be irritability, anger, and other problems.
The thing to take from this however, is that if you are suffering anything – take a step back and look at what is present there with it. It may even be that you can find the answer to one problem in another problem. Rarely do we have one simple symptom. Things merge into each other and kick off other problems. If you try and deal with problems in isolation then you may be only solving part of the puzzle.
If I’d tried to deal with my depression as just depression, it would have kept coming back as long as my mind was pressured by the worry and anxiety.
I’ve met people who smoked in response to stress who tried to stop smoking but didn’t deal with their stress. The result? When pressure in life returned, they went back on the cigarettes.
So, what is bothering you? Are you seeing and acknowledging the full picture? When you do, you can make a real lasting change much more easily.
Now it’s time for what I consider the most important tip when it comes to anxiety.
Tips to deal with Anxiety Part 3
Make a change in having anxiety! Reduce it, don’t just deal with it for ever.
Seriously. It is effecting every aspect of your life when it is present and it CAN change.
There is a lot you can do to learn to live with anxiety and to function better, but shouldn’t living with it be the last resort? How much better is it to reduce the anxiety so you don’t have as much to deal with? How much more would you do and achieve in life, without your fears holding you back?
Change the underlying template your mind uses to create anxiety. Your mind is storing information about things that feel bad and it will use that feeling to keep pushing you to avoid similar things that make you feel bad. Resolving that stored emotion allows the mind to take those situations out of the ‘anxiety file’ in your mind, and then they will have less power over you.
My mind used to associate groups of people as a place to panic and avoid. Now I speak to full rooms on a regular basis. The difference? I removed the old emotion that fuelled the reaction. My life has changed wonderfully.
Talking about it will help, but using a method that is more therapy than talk will yield better results for most people. Ask around, find people who used to have anxiety but who now don’t, ask them how they got there. Google the issue, look on youtube to see examples.
Take control of the search. You don’t need the answers yet, just the desire to change and the willingness to search for the answer that is right for you.
For one moment consider your dreams… is your anxiety between you and your dreams? If so, you know you want to change the anxiety. That’s success for you. Go for it.
Say no to anxiety.
Change is easier than you think.