Managing Anxiety

I’ve always been a worrier. I think years of chalking myself up as ‘just a worrier’ masked what was, at times, a more profound issue.

The thing with my worries is that they tend to escalate out of all proportion. They manifest themselves in the form of invasive and negative spirals of thought, sometimes totally unrelated to what has caused the initial feeling of worry. When I’m anxious I become excessively introspective and my worries often rear their heads in the form of hypochondria. I will become obsessed with a pain/feeling/part of the body and feel totally convinced that it is diseased in some way. When I get out of these negative spirals I can laugh at them retrospectively, but while I am in them, the bad thoughts seep into every moment of my day. My anxiety also manifests as obsessive worrying about members of my family or my friends. On a good day, when my daughter has a cold, for example, I know it’s just a cold. When I’m feeling anxious, the anxiety morphs my judgement and emotions and I can spend the night awake, popping into her room to check she is still breathing.

One of the things I’m conscious of with my anxiety is the way I keep it inside. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve responded to the question ‘how are you?’ with a smile and a ‘yeah great!’ while inside I feel like I’m drowning. Sometimes I feel like a sugary, colourful human shell, with a vast emptiness inside and I’m afraid of the shell shattering leaving only emptiness and fragments.

As someone who continues to manage a relationship with anxiety, I wanted to share some resources here. These are from professional bodies as well as from friends who have dealt with similar issues to varying degrees. At times it may be that a yoga class or meditation app may do the trick to help us get out of a negative thought spiral. At others, this won’t scratch the surface and we may need to seek one-to-one help. If you are struggling, please know that you are not alone and help is out there. The NHS ‘Every Mind Matters’ site has lots of online resources as well as a helpline for urgent support.

I hope that this information proves useful and if you have further resources to share, please do add them in the comments below.

What is anxiety?

According to the NHS, anxiety is something that we all experiences at times; anxiety is a perfectly natural reaction to some situations. But the problem comes when the feeling of anxiety becomes constant, overwhelming or out of proportion to the situation. Anxiety can also cause changes in our behaviour, such as becoming overly careful or avoiding things that trigger anxiety. When anxiety becomes a problem, our worries can be out of proportion with relatively harmless situations. It can feel more intense or overwhelming, and interfere with our everyday lives and relationships.

Coping with anxiety

So how can we manage this emotional overwhelm?

Understand your anxiety

The NHS suggest keeping a diary to help you monitor your emotions – noting what you are doing and how you feel at different times to help you identify what’s affecting you and what you need to take action on.

Journaling for just 10 minutes at the end of each day to record any anxieties and strong emotions – anger, sadness, concern – as well as positive feelings and things to be grateful for, can also help.

Writing has always been a very cathartic process for me (hence this blog!) and the process of writing down my feelings often helps me to order and rationalise them, or at least to take a step away from them and look at them in a more objective way.

In a similar vein the NHS also recommend making time for worries. If your worries feel overwhelming and take over your day (which I know mine can), setting specific ‘worry time’ aside to go through your concerns each day can help you to focus on other things. This short video offers more advice.

Challenge your anxious thoughts

Tackling unhelpful thoughts is one of the best things we can do to feel less anxious. This short video from the NHS about reframing unhelpful thoughts might be a useful starting point.

A friend of mine also recommended this book on Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) by Stephen Briers: Brilliant Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: How to use CBT to improve your mind and your life.

Another friend suggested keeping a mood diary. Each hour of the day write down what you’ve been doing and how anxious you feel on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = not anxious, 10 = complete meltdown). Anxiety can feel like it’s always been there and it always will, and that it always feels really bad. A mood diary helps you realise how temporary it is, and that it’s more manageable than you feel it to be when you’re suffering. You can also look back at what you were doing when you were feeling more anxious, to help find patterns or things it’s best to do more / less of.

Shift your focus

Some people find relaxation, mindfulness or breathing exercises helpful. They reduce tension and focus our awareness on the present moment.

Meditation is also a popular solution to managing anxiety, although it isn’t for everyone. If you are interested in pursuing meditation but don’t know where to start, then you could try some of the apps available. The Headspace app is one I tried for a time. The free app Insight Timer has also been recommended to me. Both of these apps offer a range of mediations of differing lengths from five minutes to an hour, depending on how much time you have.

From speaking to friends who find meditation works for them, they suggest that persistence is key: you need to stick at it for a month or so to start seeing the benefits.

While I have struggled in the past with meditation, I do find listening to positive podcasts another good way to shift my focus or reframe my negative thoughts. I love Happy Place with Fearne Cotton and find a lot of the topics she covers and speakers she engages with really resonate with me. I have also had the GABA LIFE podcast recommended to me (with the caveat that it is quite ‘woowoo’!) and will be investigating it further. As well as Feel Better, Live More with Dr Rangan Chatterjee, which covers lots of health issues including mental health.

The NHS also has a free resource of relaxation exercises available here. These include Yoga Nidra classes (Yogic sleep) and breathing exercises.  

Face the things you want to avoid

It’s easy to avoid situations, or rely on habits that make us feel safer, but these can keep anxiety going. By slowly building up time in worrying situations, anxious feelings will gradually reduce and you will see these situations are OK.

Get to grips with the problem

When you’re feeling stressed or anxious, it can help to use a problem-solving technique to identify some solutions. This can make the challenges you’re facing feel more manageable.

I often find that talking through my worries with my husband can help and we can troubleshoot together. Being open about the fact that I am feeling anxious and talking about where the anxiety stems from and how it is making me feel/respond to other areas of my life is so important to helping our relationship. I know that worry about something like moving house, or starting anew job can make me very snappy about other totally unrelated things, or else make me irrationally tearful or overly sentimental. Sometimes it’s good to unpack the feelings and tackle them head on, rather than trying to pretend they aren’t there.

Lifestyle shifts

A lot of people I spoke to found that drinking less or giving up drinking completely also helped with their anxiety levels. Sleeping more also helps (although this is not always possible!) As well as getting outside for some kind of exercise, even if it’s just a walk or some gentle yoga.

I was recently listening to a podcast episode with Kelly McGonigal on the power of movement, which I would strongly recommend. She researches the positive impact of movement on our physical and mental health and she mentioned that there are many of us who need movement to counteract a predisposition to anxiety or stress. I am definitely one of these people and I know that a lot of my anxiety recently has been exacerbated by the inability to go running or swimming as much as I would like.  

Books

There are lots of books available to help with anxiety and related mental health issues. Often with this type of reading matter finding a ‘voice’ that chimes with you is key. Be mindful of whether you prefer straight-talking fact or more anecdotal guidance. Even if the content is good, if the author’s voice isn’t right for you – for me I struggle with anything too gentle and ‘fluffy’, or too pseudoscience in feel without the requisite notes section to convince me of the validity of the study – then you won’t get the full benefit of the content.

Reading Well for mental health provides helpful information and support for managing common mental health conditions, or dealing with difficult feelings and experiences. Some books also include personal stories from people who are living with or caring for someone with mental health needs.

Some recommendations from friends, which I will be added to my reading list, include the following:

Sane New World by Ruby Wax – Ruby Wax – comedian, writer and mental health campaigner – shows us how our minds can jeopardize our sanity.

With her own periods of depression and now a Masters from Oxford in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy to draw from, she explains how our busy, chattering, self-critical thoughts drive us to anxiety and stress. 

The Stress Solution by Dr Rangan Chatterjee – this book offers practical advice on how to deal with depression and anxiety, including lots of little things you can do day-to-day that my prove transformative.

Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff – Kristin Neff PhD, is a professor in human development whose 10 years’ of research forms the basis of her timely and highly readable book. Self-Compassion offers a powerful solution for combating the current malaise of depression, anxiety and self-criticism that comes with living in a pressured and competitive culture. 

Self-Compassion recognises that we all have weaknesses and limitations, but in accepting this we can discover new ways to achieve improved self-confidence, contentment and reach our highest potential. Simply, easily and compassionately. 

The Compassionate Mind by Professor Paul Gilbert – Throughout history people have sought to cope with a life that is often stressful and hard. We have actually known for some time that developing compassion for oneself and others can help us face up to and win through the hardship and find a sense of inner peace. However in modern societies we rarely focus on this key process that underpins successful coping and happiness and can be quick to dismiss the impact of modern living on our minds and well-being. Instead we concentrate on ‘doing, achieving’ and having’.

In this book, Professor Paul Gilbert explains how new research shows how we can all learn to develop compassion for ourselves and others and derive the benefits of this age-old wisdom. 

Therapies and professional help

Whether it is talking therapy, hypnotherapy or medication, if it feels like your anxiety is out of control there are options to seek professional help. The Mind website offers good practical advice and resources on this.

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