What we call anxiety is a normal part of being human. Without it we would not survive. It is an evolutionary system which affects our physical and mental capacity in times of danger and informs our behaviour. We go into high alert, hormones are released, our bodies tense and are ready for action, our brains divert power to more primitive areas. We are primed ready to find a way to survive.
That was very useful when we were running from predators, but in modern life the same threat system can be activated when we are safe. When our system becomes over-primed, when we start seeing or expecting threats where there aren’t any, that’s when anxiety starts impacting negatively on our day-to-day existence. It’s like a programme which can be copied across different aspects of our lives; making friends, studying for exams, pursuing our ambitions and dreams. The good news is that anxiety is manageable and with insight and some hard work, you can live a life which is not ruled by it.
We’ve created this round-up of some of the most successful approaches to dealing with anxiety as a good place to start to make changes.
Practice sitting with the discomfort
You will probably be aware of lots of Instagrammable and Snapchatable quotes about “Staying Positive” “Positive Vibes” “Thinking positive Thoughts”. While well-intentioned, by applying this, sometimes tyrannical, positivity to our lives we crowd out the legitimacy of all the other emotions that we can be feeling during a time like this. It’s OK to feel sad, scared, concerned, lonely etc. This is all part of life and necessary for our growth. Learning to sit with anxiety, acknowledging you feel it and ,importantly, knowing that it will pass, is a great way to strengthen resilience. It might be useful to think of it as a wave that passes over you and then dissipates.
Perhaps you could practise seeing emotions as clues to aspects of your life that you might need to shine a light on. Using this time of lockdown as an opportunity to reflect and understand where you might need to invest in different aspects of your life. Times of crises can be very influential in shaping who we are – think of the generation that lived through World War II.
Dealing with Uncertainty
Anxiety loves uncertainty. You’ll notice that when we experience anxiety it usually relates to an imagined future. It may have its roots in our past experiences but the focus is on what is happening in the near or distant future. People that suffer from anxiety very often overestimate risk and underestimate their ability to cop. The difference between the imagined size of the threat and our sense of helplessness is where anxiety sits.
We are currently in a period when uncertainty is part of our day-to-day and the threat to many in our society is not imagined. To help deal with this, it is very useful to understand what you can personally control and not control. If you can control something then make a plan, execute it and then let go of the worry. If you can’t control it, acknowledge the discomfort of this but let it go either mentally or by writing it down in a worry journal or scheduling a period of time each day which is reserved for worry. This allows you to explore your emotions but within boundaries.
Make a list and divide it into what you can and can’t control. For example;
What I can Control
- I can wash my hands regularly
- I can comply with government guidance and stay inside and practise social distance-ing
- I can keep in touch with my mates through phone and online apps
- I can use this time to practise a new skill/read more/catch up with box set
- I can stay fit by doing exercise at home and going for a safe walk every day
- I can be kind to those around me and make life easier/pleasanter for them
- I can limit my news and social media I can live in the here and now and not forecast the future
What I can’t control
- I can’t control other people’s behaviour
- I have no magic cure for the Covid – 19
- I can’t change government guidance
- I can’t hang out with my mates face to face
You’ll soon find that there are many things that you can do, that are in your power to make this time easier. Focus on these. “Put down” the things that you have no control of. Stop holding on to them and focus on what you can do.
Reframe your thinking
How we think about things affects our emotions and our behaviour, especially when it comes to anxiety. As mentioned above, it is probably more useful to look at our thoughts not in terms of negative vs positive. It’s more useful to think of them in terms of being helpful vs unhelpful. When we find ourselves thinking of an unhelpful thought, it can be very useful to try and turn it into something more helpful
For example “I hate being forced to stay inside” might turn to “I’m staying inside and saving lives”
A further, more reflective example could be
“This social isolation is driving me crazy” becoming “I’m finding this social isolation quite tricky, but it’s keeping me and others safe and maybe I can use it as an opportunity to invest some time in myself.”
By reframing our thoughts in this way, we acknowledge how we are feeling, the situation we are in and we also engage our problem solving skills. This quickly reduces our feelings of helplessness. Remember we said that anxiety can be triggered by our underestimation of our ability to cope? By changing our thinking into more helpful mode we start implicitly feeling that we are more in control of how we react and are less a victim of circumstance.
Watch Out For Distorted Thinking
Another way of looking at our thoughts is recognising some of our distorted thought patterns. Some of the ones which might be particularly relevant to this situation are
Catastrophic thinking – thinking the worst possible scenario,
Fortune telling – forecasting the future with no facts
Emotional thinking – because it feels bad it is bad
When we fall into distorted ways of thinking it affects how we view the world.
If we tend to catastrophise then we can quickly take something insignificant and blow it out of proportion. We might not consider the actual reality or the tiny probability of the worst case scenario happening. Even in a situation which is serious, this kind of thinking will lead us to imagine the worst possible outcome rather than allowing us to engage in more helpful and realistic thoughts.
Fortune telling could take the form of imagining all sorts of reasons for something possibly happening. For example, thinking of reasons why a friend hasn’t phoned back; they don’t like me, they’re off doing something more interesting, I’m boring, they’re offended by something I said, when in reality they’re just busy with other things.
Emotional thinking could manifest as a niggly feeling that many people get when they are anxious. Because we have this feeling and very often some physical sensations like a butterfly tummy, we use these feelings to inform our thoughts. If I’m feeling anxious then there must be something wrong.
When we are in threat mode, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered – this is where all the flight/flight/freeze reactions take place. Hormones pulse through the body and we are on high alert for threat. When we are in this mode our parasympathetic system – the rest & digest system, can’t regain balance. It’s like a switch – only one can be active at a time. This is why so many therapists recommend meditation. It’s not just some in vogue leisure activity. Meditation helps to strengthen your parasympathetic system so that when you need it you can access it more readily. It also builds your ability to control focus, which is a great skill for anyone who suffers from anxiety. Like most things, the benefit is in regular practise. Little and often can really make a difference. There are many apps and youtube videos on meditation and having to stay home gives us a great opportunity to try it out.
Focus & Refocus
We can to a great extent choose what we focus on. As a demonstration of this put on some music, anything that you like as long as it has different instruments or layers of sound. Now try and focus your attention on say the vocals – stay with that for a few seconds before picking out the beat or perhaps keyboards… You will probably experience the music slightly differently depending on what you choose to focus on. The takeaway from this is that you can choose where to focus in all aspects of life and where you focus will affect your perception.
Safe space visualisation
If you do find that things are closing in on you and you are feeling anxious, it can be really useful to have a mental safe place you can access. Close your eyes and think of a place, imaginary or somewhere you’ve been in the past – (preferably not your bedroom). This is a space only for you, no one else can visit here. Look around you and drink in what you see. What colours can you see, what objects are there, can you smell anything, if you were to touch some objects what would their texture be, how is the light in your safe space, is there any movement in the air. Remember this is your safe space. Spend around five minutes looking around. Your mind will potentially wander, that’s ok, just bring it back gently. After some time, come back into the here and now.
You can use this safe place whenever you need to. If you are someone who isn’t able to visualise don’t worry, this can be adapted to focus on other senses such as touch or smell.
Grounding is a technique that brings us into the here and now. If we are feeling anxious and perhaps having unhelpful thoughts and worries, by being able to ground ourselves we step out of our minds and into our bodies and this moment.
There are many techniques to do this. A simple online search will bring up hundreds. One of the most popular is the 5,4,3,2,1 technique. Look around the room and find five things you can see. Describe each one e.g. I can see a chair with is yellow and looks old but comfortable. Do the same with 4 things you can hear, 3 you can touch, 2 you can smell and 1 you can taste. This is a simple mindfulness exercise that helps to break any spiralling or anxious thoughts by pulling your attention into the moment, not an imagined future.
There is no magic wand regarding anxiety, but the techniques outlined above have all proven very successful in helping people recalibrate their anxiety. The most important thing is self-compassion. We can all be kind and supportive to friends but it’s much easier to be harder on ourselves. If you regularly find yourself saying unkind thoughts to yourself then ask yourself if this could be a source of your anxiety. If you are constantly telling yourself you are not good enough then perhaps that might be related to social anxiety? If you wouldn’t talk to a friend the way you talk to yourself then try to stop. Self-compassion is a superpower which we all have the potential to use.
If your Anxiety is Pervasive – reach out for help
The techniques and approaches outlined above can work to manage and recalibrate your anxiety. However, if you find your anxiety spilling out to different parts of your life e.g. social occasions, contacting people, worry so much about exams that you live in a brain fog, being nervous and unsettled for a lot of your days, then it might be an idea to reach out for help.
There are many organisations and private counsellors who are able to very successfully help you work through your anxiety and these are offering online and telephone services in these days of social distancing.