HOW TO COPE WITH ANXIETY
For someone who has dealt with pretty severe anxiety on and off since I was about 13, it is only in the last year that I’ve become fully aware of what I’ve been experiencing and recognised it as ‘anxiety’ rather than ‘stress’, and in turn started developing some healthy coping mechanisms to use when it arises.
I think about anxiety as a protective mechanism formed by the brain in order to keep us safe - as our survival is it’s no.1 priority. It keeps us away from any perceived danger, enables us to activate that ‘flight or fight’ response; ultimately, it keeps us alive.
In the basic sense, it’s a good thing. It’s closely related to a natural physiological response that is displayed across the whole animal kingdom.
The problem however, arises when your ‘old’ and ‘new’ brain overlap; when your innate animalistic responses overlap with the conscious, thinking mind - causing connections to be made between ‘normal’ things to the danger response. The problem is when your brain starts to perceive safe things as threatening or harmful, even when you know or recognise them, underneath all the anxiety, as perfectly normal. This might be in relation to things like exams, flying in planes, certain animals - all things that can be quite commonly feared. Though as with everything, these things can be on a scale of severity - your friend being afraid of snakes might be very different to someone with Ophidiophobia.
For some, their fears might be slightly less ‘common’, such as social interactions or events, certain foods or plans being changed. All of which can be on a similar invisible scale, from feeling a small amount of nerves, to a full blown anxiety/panic attack, where you might be unable to stop yourself from crying, screaming or feel like you’re having a heart attack. This can cause problems, as it can detract from the way you’re able to interact and live daily life, and from you living as the best version of yourself.
So how can we deal with anxiety, and aim to reduce the impact it has on our life?
For me, the most important thing in relation to dealing with my anxiety has been recognising when I feel anxious, and the severity of it.
I like to imagine my anxiety as a scale from 1-10. Depending on where I feel I roughly am on the scale depends on the action that I take in response. For example, if I’m feeling around 2-3 on the scale, i’ll be much more likely to try and push through those feelings and continue with the trigger that has caused me to feel anxious, than if I’m sitting around an 6-7, where I would probably need to find a quiet space to work on my breathing and let myself feel the emotion.
It’s up to you which techniques you want to try out or adopt depending on your anxiety level, but I’ve roughly ordered them, beginning with the start of the scale to the end to help out! Remember to do what works for you though.
The most commonly used coping mechanism by those experiencing anxiety. HOWEVER, please note that ‘push through’ in this sense does not mean the same as ignore or suppress!! I’ve definitely been guilty of the latter two in the past, and I can tell you first hand that these are not healthy ways of coping. You’ll end up pushing the emotion back down inside you, with all the negative energy and beliefs - which will fester away inside until you reach breaking point. Pushing through is a way to deal with low levels of anxiety, for example when you find yourself anxious in a situation you know you really shouldn’t be e.g. eating a piece of cake or meeting new people, situations where you know the outcome will be beneficial to your personal growth; whether that be in terms of mental health, self-esteem or confidence.
This is a method I know myself and others find ourselves doing naturally in anxiety-provoking situations; we find ourselves talking in our head, telling ourselves rational thoughts and beliefs that counteract what you’re feeling or thinking. This is especially useful when combatting irrational thoughts or ‘lies’ your mind tells you - about not being good enough or deserving, combatting the fear of failure or judgement, or more specific things in relation to the thing that you fear.
Sounds simple, but writing to-do lists and doing a little (yes, I mean little - nothing too excessive here) bit of planning can really make a difference to your mental clarity and anxiety levels. I’m not talking mile long lists or obsessively planning out your day hour by hour - more like scheduling a few catch-ups with friends, and a few intentions for the day. Even setting one goal each day can help you feel a lot more in control in life, and help you work towards whatever it is you want to - I know for me, a lot of my anxiety can arise when I feel like I’m not being ‘productive’ or am ‘wasting time’ - two ideas that I think we all need to work on more in society.
Breath work/mindfulness/meditation has been INCREDIBLY helpful when I find myself feeling anxious, in feeling more grounded, relieving the physical symptoms I feel in my body, and learning how to be more in control of my thoughts. Once you move past the physical side, it can be used to train your mind and find a sense of mental clarity. The basics are simply closing your eyes and focusing on your breath, and when any thoughts arise and you find your mind wandering, try to move your focus back onto your breath without any judgement or self-criticism. I could write so much more about this area - and will soon in a separate blog post. In the meantime, if you want to try this further, I would recommend searching guided meditations on youtube or downloading an app like Headspace, Calm or Insight timer.
Journalling has been a life-changer for me, allowing me to articulate my thoughts in a way that I can look at from a different perspective, or simply letting me empty my busy mind when I feel overwhelmed. When I find my head filled with anxious thoughts, I’ll write out everything I’m thinking, unfiltered, with no judgement to myself, and recognise any irrational or disordered beliefs. On a clean page, I’ll rewrite these same thoughts, but the truthful/rational/logical version of them. Not only is this really helpful in dampening anxiety and calming yourself down, it also helps long term to re-wire those neural pathways, and recognise those same thoughts if they arise again in the future (which they usually do,) so that you can combat them sooner.
On another note, it’s really motivating to read back on old posts, and realise how much you’ve changed and grown - and even, how my anxiety levels have improved!
TURN OFF SOCIAL MEDIA
As the title says. When I feel my anxiety levels surging - my phone is the first thing I switch off (unless using it for music etc. to distract.) When we find ourselves in an anxious state of mind, we are much, much more likely to start comparing ourselves to others, which social media is the perfect tool for. We can use this comparison to heighten the negative self-talk that often is associated with an anxiety disorder; encouraging ‘black and white’ thinking, catastrophising situations, telling yourself to be more sociable or productive or should be achieving more in life etc. etc. Not helpful!
Note: ‘mindful.’ There is a fine line between useful distraction and the kind of distraction that allows the situation or the feelings to be swept under the rug and never addressed, but on a positive note, some forms of distraction can, truthfully, be really helpful short-term to deal with anxiety symptoms - especially when they feel too overwhelming to even attempt try any breath work or journalling. These might include talking to or phoning a friend or family member to take your mind off the subject, reading a book, watching tv or youtube videos, getting some fresh air, listening to music. These, when used mindfully, can help you find calm and feel more grounded, before taking time to reflect on what you were feeling and address it - because, honestly, not everyone is able to be self-aware and work through those thoughts and feelings in the moment - it takes lots of practice.
LET YOURSELF CRY
Sometimes, emotion just demands to be felt, and the best thing you can do is just let yourself feel it. Whether that be wrapping yourself in a duvet or crying your eyes out in the shower, sometimes it’s the most helpful and most cathartic thing, especially if you’ve been bottling it all for a while. Remind yourself that feeling a certain way does not make you weak, no emotion is inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and feeling these things allows you to feel the more enjoyable emotions - it makes you human.
Aside from developing mechanisms to put into action when you need to, an arguably more important part of ‘dealing’ with my anxiety has been working through the root issues that cause it. On the forefront, it might seem like a particular event or situation is the direct cause, more often than not this threat your mind perceives is linked to a much deeper issue. A simple example that we all most likely relate to are exams - we don’t tend to be anxious about the actual act of the exam itself, but more the implications it might have on our future and our lives; the fear of failure and in turn not being successful, letting down family, teachers, and ourselves. But there are more complex anxieties - for example, you might feel anxious about going to social events, because you feel self-conscious about the way you look or interact, linked to low-self esteem and insecurity. Or you might fear eating a certain food because you’re anxious about the health implications, linked to worries about weight gain, linked to insecurities about not being good enough or being lazy, linked to worries about being successful in life, accepted and loved by others. It’s not about the exams, being social, or about food, it’s about so much more than that. It can be frustrating to make these links because when the anxiety arises again, you’re able to make the links and understand how irrational they are, but sometimes still can’t control yourself feeling them - and that’s okay, and perfectly normal. These neural pathways have been built up over time, you can’t expect them to suddenly disappear. But identifying these thoughts are the first step in re-writing them.
I hope that these tips and ideas might be useful for some of you also dealing with anxiety, and to know that you aren’t alone! If there’s anything I’ve discussed here that you’d like me to expand on more or if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch through my Instagram here, or sending me an email.
oceans of love,