What is Anxiety?
Firstly, it is important to talk about what anxiety is. It is a normal emotion that is experienced by us all, we cannot stop anxiety it is an evolutionary response that has kept the human race safe for 1000s of years. However, in the modern-day world anxiety can cause issues for some people such as when high levels of anxiety are impact on daily functioning.
When I hear people talking about anxiety, I usually hear words such as: worry, increased breathing, shaking and panic. Let’s break this down into the following four sections, thoughts, feelings, behaviours, physical sensations and look at an individual’s experience.
Andy was experiencing debilitating anxiety every day. He was unable to think straight he was very hot and sweaty, he had believed that others could see how anxious he was. He very found himself in cycles of worry. Thoughts circled in his mind, often questions beginning with what if.
What if this goes wrong
Other people can see how anxious I am
I cannot cope with this
there’s something wrong with me
Avoid situations that trigger anxiety
Sit on the sofa at home and worry
Increase alcohol intake
Tight chest, increased breathing rate
increased temperature, sweating
Andy is experiencing the fight and flight response, this occurs when the brain perceives a threat, cortisol is released into the body which prepares the person to flee or fight. This is fantastic when there is a sabre-tooth tiger or a ‘real’ threat. However if the threat is something like your boss calling you into the office, neither fighting or flighting will be appropriate. This can cause the person to feel that there is a problem.
The human brain is incredible, however it has not yet evolved to know the difference between a real threat or a perceived threat. The brain and body responds the same way to both a perceived and real threat.
Five things that can help reduce anxiety
1. Here and Now
Bring yourself into the here and now: this can be done by engaging with your senses and bringing yourself into the present. For example, look for five things you can see four things you can feel three things you can hear and two things that you can smell. When people feel anxious thoughts our future based and can be hypothetical, predicting things that may or may not happen. This then triggers the fight-flight response.
Use your breath to ground you: when feeling anxious breathing rate changes, usually breathing becomes more rapid and shallow. This will alter levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide which can cause us to think that the physical sensations are intensifying. Try breathing into your belly and gradually reducing the rate. As you exhale you will be utilising the parasympathetic part of the nervous system this is known as the rest and digest, ultimately the opposite of fight and flight.
3. Everything passes
Tell yourself that this will pass this is a normal response and anxiety does not last forever when we allow space for anxiety to be there it will begin to reduce.
4. Acknowledge thoughts
4. Acknowledge your thoughts for what they are, mental activity. We are not our thoughts; how many times have you thought something which turned out to be inaccurate? We all have many unhelpful thoughts every day. We may not be able to decide what comes into our mind but we can decide what we can do with them. For example, saying to yourself I am having the thought that I cannot cope compared to I cannot cope creates space and distance between ourselves and our thoughts meaning that the thoughts lose their power.
5. Balance thoughts
If you are struggling with step four you can try to thought balance, ask yourself the following questions, what would I say to a friend in this situation? What is the evidence that this thought is true? What is the evidence that this thought is not true? If it did happen what can I do to cope or handle it?
If your levels of anxiety are impacting on your daily functioning then is likely that you will benefit from professional help such as therapy from the NHS and you GP.
A wealth of resources are available online from websites such as MIND. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is the recommended treatment for all of the anxiety conditions. If you are considering finding a therapist privately ensure that they are accredited by a professional body such as the BABCP which is the largest accrediting body for CBT therapists.