If you are reading this because you experience anxiety, you will sadly be aware of the debilitating effects it can have. At its best anxiety is a mild palpitation or a slight sweat of the palms, at its worst it is a deep sense of dread followed by a full on panic attack leaving you feeling terrified and completely out of control.
Anxiety can be overwhelming. Bearing that in mind, I have tried to be succinct in writing this in the hope it feels accessible for you.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a form of fear. Fear is a protective response that we all experience when we perceive a threat. Anxiety occurs when that fear becomes excessive and we perceive a threat that is not actually present.
The affects are two-fold. The immediate affects are:
- Cognitive distortions (Thinking and fearing the worst possible outcome)
- Physical repercussions (Increased heart rate, shortness of breath, dizziness, ‘jelly’ like feeling in your legs)
The long term affects can be on behaviour. This includes aspects of behavioural change such as avoiding social gatherings, fearing use of public transport, becoming panicky in social situations and dreading going to certain places.
How can it be helped?
The good news is that anxiety can be managed by challenging the two immediate ways it affects us. This means challenging our cognitive responses and alleviating the physical symptoms. The body can be like a file cabinet for the mind and this is why it’s important to alleviate tension within the body. The idea here is that you are focusing your attention elsewhere, NOT on the anxious feeling. By doing this you are reducing emotional flooding and learning how to regulate the effects (known as affect regulation).
Below are three simple methods to try to help you to achieve this.
Calming the Body
You may be tired of people telling you to ‘take a deep breath’ or ‘focus on your breath’ but there are several variations of breathing that can help to calm the mind. Here are some options that may be useful to try.
- Take a deep breath in.
- HOLD your breath for 3 seconds (Count 1,2,3).
- Exhale SLOWLY (You can count on the exhale if you need to). Do this three times.
- Now notice what you’re feeling (Calm, relief, relaxed, any sensations in the body).
- Name what you are experiencing and repeat this to yourself as many times as you need too.
I am Calm/Relaxed/Okay/Safe.
This is known as the 7/11 rule and its very simple
- Inhale and count to 7.
- Exhale SLOWLY and count to 11.
- Do this three times and follow steps 4 and 5 above. If 7/11 doesn’t work for you then you can change this. Choose a count that does work for you, for example 5/9, or 6/10 etc.
This is known as the 5,4,3,2,1 approach. Below is only a guideline. You can mix and match accordingly; find whatever works for you and go from there.
- Look around you and name five things you can see. Notice things that you haven’t seen before. List them, one by one in your mind.
- Name four things that you can hear? Are they nearby or in the distance? Notice them and name them one by one.
- Are there three things that you can touch or feel? You can even stroke your arm or touch your hair. Notice the texture, is it soft or hard? Touch an item of clothing, what does it feel like? You can even carry something with you. Some people have a ‘worry stone’ or a sentimental item that they hold or squeeze when they are triggered.
- What are the smells around you? Name two if you can. Can you smell coffee or flowers or freshly cut grass?
- Is there one thing you can taste? Perhaps you can chew some gum or eat a snack. Focus on the taste and the texture.
Challenging Anxiety Provoking Thoughts
It is easier to challenge our thoughts when we have minimized the physical symptoms of anxiety. In the early stages, rather than replacing the anxiety provoking thought, it’s useful to develop some counter statements in response to the thought. Here are some useful questions to ask yourself:
- Is my thought a likely scenario or a worst case scenario?
- Could I be making assumptions or jumping to conclusions right now?
- Am I basing this thought on feeling or fact?
- If so, what is the feeling (fear) and what is the fact? (That I am safe, okay etc.)
- What evidence is there to support this thought?
- What evidence is there against this thought?
- How likely is it that this will actually occur?
- What is the likelihood that this WILL NOT occur?
- What would I say to a friend right now?
Often with anxiety, our responses become habitual. A key question to ask yourself is:
Am I having this thought out of habit? Do the facts actually support it?
It is a good idea to write down the answers to these questions. It is an even better idea to practice these techniques daily, so they eventually become a replacement habitual response. However, even if you try one of these techniques you are off to a good start.
The experience that occurs when we become anxious is known in psycho-therapeutic terms as flooding and more often than not it is instigated by a trigger. Triggers vary and can be subjective. They can be things like getting on a crowded bus, going to meet friends or any such event that is anxiety provoking. It can be useful to consider what your triggers may be, so you can be more prepared.
Remember, the aim of the exercises described above, are to provide you with a toolkit to implement when you are triggered.
It’s imperative to remember what you CAN do when triggered.
- Stop and catch the emotion
- Take some time out
- Put the tools into practice.
This post is primarily concerned with managing the two immediate responses one has to anxiety. I hope to write a further post which will explore further techniques for creating a safe space, wherein you can feel calm. Now, it’s time to start practicing! Good luck.