Anxiety – an explanation with strategies & techniques to explore
This article has been provided by Carole Connelly and was published to coincide with Mental Health Awareness week (12 – 18 May), the theme for 2014 being anxiety.
Anxiety is part of our survival kit as a human being. It can stop us from taking inappropriate risks and putting ourselves in dangerous situations, however, it can become problematic if we start to design our life around avoiding it . This may stop us from doing the things in life that will increase our wellbeing and build our resilience to cope with future challenges.
It’s natural to want to get rid of uncomfortable emotions and sensations, however in order to build our tolerance and get out of the habit of avoidance, it’s key to find strategies that support us to build ongoing confidence as well as some simple techniques that will steer us to safety in a crisis.
The first thing that would be helpful is to understand what happens in the body during a stress response (known as fight or flight) as this will, in itself, reduce the fear around the uncomfortable physical symptoms that kick in. Stress hormones are released into the body so that the heart beats faster, we breathe faster to send more blood and oxygen to the muscles and we can become tense and start to sweat. In situations of physical danger this is an extremely helpful response, however when our ‘danger’ is more psychological, it’s not as helpful, so we need to find ways to counteract the effects.
The following are all strategies and techniques worth exploring, as they have been found to be helpful in countering the stress response:
Of the physical stress reactions, the breath is a permanently available resource that is in our control and will calm us and help us to think straight when we are in a stress response. By making the exhale longer than the inhale, we will get the symptoms of anxiety back under our control. Inhaling through the nose for the count of 7 and exhaling through the mouth for the count of 11 will immediately calm us so that we will be in a more resourceful state to decide what to do next.
Another technique that will help with calming, as well as building emotional tolerance, is a technique that you can remember easily with the acronym STOP.
- STOP what you are doing and be aware you have stopped
- TAKE A BREATH – paying attention to the sensations of the breath coming in and going out
- OBSERVE – simply notice what’s going on – any sensations, impulses, emotions and thoughts. Perhaps label them, without over-identifying, by saying ‘Anxiety is present, there is tension in my body’ rather than ‘I’m anxious’
- PROCEED – ask ‘What’s the most helpful thing for me to do next?’
A stress response will always push you to hone in on the negative which can build momentum really quickly, so using the breath to calm you will put you in a resourceful state to take appropriate next steps.
This is helpful to bide yourself some time – counting backwards from 100, or labeling things around you in alphabetical order for when you can’t get away from a situation; or watching a film or listening to some uplifting music when you can.
Challenge Your Thinking
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is recommended by the NHS in tackling a range of what are known as ‘distorted thinking styles’ such as All or Nothing, Catastrophising and Mind Reading which will all exacerbate anxiety. This may be offered through your GP but it is also possible to work through a CBT course online.
When we feel anxious we have a tendency to cut ourselves off from others, so it’s great if you can keep up with friends on a one to one basis as this is something that will keep your confidence moving in the right direction to deal with social situations. Organisations such as Anxiety UK might also be worth linking up with; they offer support and connection with others who are in a similar position.
Regular practice of relaxation techniques such as yoga which use the breath as well as relaxing and stretching tense muscles, will also help you to develop control over the physical symptoms of anxiety. They will also help you to get a good night’s sleep which is crucial when dealing with the challenges anxiety brings. A course in Mindfulness has also been proven to considerably reduce anxiety.
Coffee, tea, alcohol, nicotine and energy drinks all act as stimulants which can increase anxiety symptoms, so reducing any intake of these would support you alongside the calming techniques. Regular and moderate exercise will be helpful to ‘use up’ adrenalin which is released when we are in a stress response – if you can combine this with spending time with a friend then this will double the benefits.