If you are suffering from anxiety and struggling to work out how to manage it, you are certainly not alone. I am hopeful that reading this blog might be a start in recognizing that you could benefit from applying some new strategies or perhaps it might reinforce the importance of maintaining the strategies that work for you.
How common is anxiety in Australia?
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. Recent surveys have shown that on average, one in four people – one in three women and one in ﬁve men – will experience anxiety at some stage in their life. In a 12-month period, over two million Australians experience anxiety.
What does anxiety look like?
Talking about it like this is important so we may appreciate that anxiety is a part of life for all of us and comes and goes in response to challenging situations and high demands. However, for many it is severely debilitating and is experienced more consistently with a range of physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioural changes, often having a significant impact on daily functioning. Recognising it in yourself or others may allow you to manage it more effectively and take a less judgmental and more accepting and curious approach to the experience of anxiety.
Let’s take a look at some examples that illustrate what I mean as sometimes anxiety is obvious to others and sometimes it is very internalised…. Do you recognize anything similar in yourself or others?
- It is quite likely that the person next to you at work who we have always admired for their productivity and contribution to the team may in fact be experiencing anxiety in silence. They may be struggling to say no, taking on too much for fear of letting others down or not living up to the reliable hardworking perception that has been created.
- The friend that you have judged as disinterested in seeing you as she has said no to a number of invitations may in fact be experiencing social anxiety. For her it may be more comfortable to avoid going than face the awkward moments when her mind starts mind reading during conversations and predicting the worst such as rejection or judgement. She may also be suffering from depression as the anxiety has had such a big impact on her life that may reduce her motivation and make it feel like too much effort to go.
- The colleague that has a place for everything and a very clear order as to how they do things whom you may have labelled a “control freak” may be suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and simply find it incredibly anxiety provoking when something is not in place. They may have learned to control small things in their environment to manage their anxiety when as a child everything was chaotic and scary around them.
- The friend you know who has recently been sexually assaulted may be experiencing nightmares, flashbacks and be startled and hypervigilant in situations that trigger the memories such as when seeing people that look similar or when someone tries to get close to them.
- Perhaps you have experienced a time in your life where the worries and catastrophic thoughts just wouldn’t stop. Worrying is one of the most common forms of anxiety that people experience, but for some it generalizes to everything. My clients often say to me .. “if only I could stop my mind and stop worrying about all the little things all of the time – do you have a magic wand to wave so it will stop” or they say things like “ I always play out the worst possible scenarios over and over, all of them, and hope that by being prepared for the worst I will cope” Sometimes alcohol or drugs are used to numb things for a while so the thoughts calm down or other forms of distraction are used to try to block the worry but it doesn’t work long term.
- Have you ever seen someone have a panic attack or experienced it yourself? Panic attacks may come on suddenly and are often very intense. Many people report feeling worried that they might die or have a heart attack in response to experiencing a range of symptoms such as heart palpitations, chest pain and the inability to easily breathe. Others include sweaty palms, mind going blank, feeling nauseous and feeling a sense of dread and panic.
These examples are just a few of the main ways anxiety presents with each type having a broad range of symptoms attached. Sometimes anxiety is invisible and people suffer in isolation and in silence.
What we see as psychologists that is common across all types of clients is a sense of desperation to get a quality of life back again and an ability to manage these symptoms better so life may be enjoyable again.
Let me share some of the most common tips that may be helpful to manage your anxiety. As psychologists we do our best to provide you with an understanding of your anxiety, teaching you to recognize your symptoms and triggers so you are able to respond well. Here are some of the most common tips I might give with different people to facilitate a better quality of life.
7 top tips to manage anxiety
- Cultivate an attitude of acceptance about your anxiety and let go of the struggle. Learn to accept your anxiety in that moment. You don’t need to judge or berate yourself for experiencing anxiety or try to fight it. Allow yourself to feel it, breathe into it and let go of the desire to control it and do your best to not feed it through your thinking. The moment you stop being in a tug of war with anxiety to try to ‘beat it’ is the moment it will become easier to manage as you will no longer fear it so much and feel confident in your ability to manage it and notice it change of its own accord in time.
- Respond to physical symptoms effectively
- Practice slow diaphragm breathing to manage the fight/flight response. This can be a good way of preventing the tension building up as a daily practice and will then prepare you for using it at a time where you need to respond rapidly when panicked.
- Body scan meditation or “expansion” techniques to learn how to notice points of tension and learn to be curious and creative rather than judgmental in response to what is going on in your body. Learn how to make room for big feelings rather than try to shut them down.
- If flooded with anxiety due to a trigger that takes you back to the past, anchor to the present by naming 5 things you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell to help you see that this is just a memory and that it is not happening right now. This allows you through experience to recognize that you are safe and draws you right in to your present moment experience.
- Managing your mind with greater compassion and flexibility
- Don’t get hooked by thoughts – learn which ones are helpful to focus on and which ones aren’t and distance yourself from those that aren’t helpful in any given moment
- Schedule a defined worry time each day – learn to postpone engaging with the worries until this time and then immediately come back to the moment, using all your senses to focus on whatever you want to be doing that is not worrying about that particular thing.
- Recognise your common stories that exacerbate your anxiety and keep you moving away from living your life by your values .. “I’m not good enough”, “I will always be anxious”, “What if….. “, “I won’t cope” “I can’t do it” Learn how to notice them, let them go and not act on the thoughts. We can teach you strategies to detach from those stories that get in your way e.g. by saying to yourself “There’s that old I’m not good enough story again”….
- Practice mindfulness meditation regularly to train the brain into responding to thoughts differently.
- Prove your anxiety wrong through experimenting
- Experiment and test out whether your mind is right or not – Test out your predictions by facing feared situations rather than avoiding them. Our mind has a tendency to distort what we believe will happen and then we often avoid or procrastinate with the belief that facing it will be incredibly distressing and overwhelming. If you have been avoiding tackling something, go right ahead and see what happens when you do, armed with the tools of managing your thoughts and body so that you feel stronger to do so. You may be pleasantly surprised.
- Keep repeatedly exposing yourself to situations to ensure that what was once uncomfortable becomes more comfortable and your mind starts to see that this pattern of avoidance is past it’s use by date and no longer helpful to you achieving a calmer and happier life. In the case of those with phobias, facing things in imagination or in real life from the least anxiety provoking to the highest (a graded hierarchy) is a way to manage the anxiety and build confidence to face your fears over time.
- Make sure you are moving from worry into problem solving when you have influence and action is needed. When we get stuck in our mind we can forget that action is the best thing sometimes to address the worry. When things are out of our control action is sometimes not possible, so I always tell my clients to recognize when you are wasting time and energy and creating more anxiety by focusing on the things that you have no influence over.
- Recognise when your environment or response to your environment is part of the problem or when the systems you are part of are contributing to the distress. What can you change that will make a difference?
- Is there a relationship issue you need to raise with your partner?
- Is this workplace not aligned to your values and therefore will always cause you discomfort? Do you need to leave?
- Are you doing too much for others in your family and at work but not saying no enough or setting firm enough boundaries?
- Are you in a workplace where the culture is to work consistently very long working hours making it impossible to have good work/life balance? Do you need to challenge the culture or change jobs to achieve better self-care?
- Have you booked a holiday to look forward to so that you can change your environment and step back to reflect?
- Maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle –
- Ensure you get adequate sleep
- Practice regular mindfulness meditation and/or deep breathing
- Exercise regularly (types you enjoy) to channel the adrenaline, reduce stress and increase the endorphins.
- Eat well and enjoy foods that nurture and nourish, but give yourself occasional treats too. Do your best to eat mindfully – don’t eat with a screen in front of you. Enjoy the experience and savour it.
- Do the things you love that feed your soul and keep you engaged with the joyful aspects of life (for me I know that if I don’t express my creativity through singing or do regular exercise everything goes a little off track)
- Reach out to others to talk to and spend time with them regularly.
- Practice self compassion by being kind to yourself – treat yourself like you would treat your best friend
- Develop some structure and routine that works for you but ensure there is flexibility so that you don’t react strongly when things upset your plans
- Reach out for professional support with your GP, counsellor or psychologist to learn new strategies and have support
Try out some of these tips in your own life and see how they help. Everyone is different and will respond to different techniques and insights. Pay attention to your friends, family and colleagues and do your best to show compassion and empathy in response to their experience of anxiety as many feel judged and misunderstood.
If anxiety is troubling you or a loved one, we have many psychologists at Attuned who will be there to guide you to new ways of responding and a more meaningful life. Contact us if you feel like some individual therapy would be useful to commence.