Updated: Mar 21, 2020
The popular notion seems to be that depression is one of the most debilitating mental illnesses there is. But when it comes to anxiety, it can be so entwined within our daily life that sometimes it can take a while before you realise what has been happening to you is anxiety.
Anxiety evolved in our species as an adaptive skill, to warn us into action in the face of a perceived threat but when this anxiety impairs us to a degree that we are unable to function properly is when it becomes a problem. Adaptive anxiety is just a state of tension/apprehension when we perceive something to be a threat but when anxiety becomes a disorder is when this apprehension and fear becomes excessive compared to the threat that is present. This simply means that our anxious reaction doesn’t warrant the intensity with which it presents itself compared to the situation we are dealing with.
Now, anxiety disorders come in all shapes and sizes. There’s phobias, generalised anxiety, anxiety in social situations, agoraphobia and panic attacks. Each of these disorders cause a sense of irrational fear and apprehension in response to a perceived threat. One of the best ways to distinguish between your anxiety problems is to divide them on the basis of psychological and physiological symptoms. Wherein, psychological symptoms change based on the kind of anxiety disorder you are dealing with, the physiological symptoms remain more or less the same.
Starting with the physical sensations we can experience during anxiety, it is vast. From sweating, increased heart rate, palpitations, hot flushes, hyper-vigilance, breathlessness, tingling in arms or legs, tensed muscles, getting easily startled, distracted, excessive irritation and anger some or all of these can be presenting as anxiety in you. And, when it comes to psychological sensations, they can include excessive thoughts of worry and apprehension such that you often get lost in them, feeling like the worst is going to happen to you and there’s probably no way out, the constant what-ifs, never ending confusion, apprehension when facing people, avoiding eye contact, retreating from conversations due to fear of not being liked, feeling like you’re losing your mind, being afraid of stepping outside the house, in a public place, a new situation.
So what can you do?
1. A very effective way to channel sudden anxiety is to learn to ground yourself. Whenever you find yourself getting more and more lost in your own thoughts and anxious sensations, the best way is to gently look out of yourself into the space around you and find an object you could hold. This could be a chair, a table, a book, pen, even your own arm and just take your time noticing this object. Ask yourself questions like, how does this feel, what colour is it, shape. This helps you bring back to focus and also reduces physiological sensations in your body.
2. Another way to do this is to practice what is called 5,4,3,2,1 technique. So anytime you feel your anxious episode rising, look around you for 5 things you can see and name them, 4 sounds you can hear around you, 3 things you can touch and feel, 2 smells you can smell around you and 1 thing you can taste in your mouth. Now the goal here is to only try to notice as many of these as possible. We are not aiming for a perfect score here.
3. Next is to find an activity that could be used as an outlet for your anxiety. Now if your anxiety tends to amplify too soon find an activity that matches that intensity like maybe running or boxing or cardio. Whereas, if you’re someone whose anxiety remains with you constantly in the background but is not that intense then activities like stretching, meditation, 10-min deep breathing exercises, doodling or using adult colouring books will be more effective. And there’s never any harm using both depending on how you are feeling that day.
4. Another helpful way to control your anxiety is to find an object that represents how you feel when you’re anxious. It could also be a small scene. For instance, when I get anxious it feels as if someone is filling up a balloon with too much helium and the balloon can’t help but fly with no control on itself at all. Once you do have this visualisation make sure it is clear and vivid in your mind and as real as it can be and then slowly work on managing this anxiety. How you may ask? By visualising it again. So what I often do is visualise this balloon growing as my anxiety grows and then I take a small pin and burst it. Sometimes it helps to visualise that I’m just holding the balloon in place and I go as far as to visualise how my hands would feel as I’m stopping it from flying away, what colour is the balloon etc.
5. For some of us anxiety can come in the form of tension, excess control, orderliness and in these moments the best way is to learn to unclench. So every evening for 10-15 minutes just focus on consciously relaxing those shoulders, maybe rolling them back also. Focus on taking 2-3 deep breaths and exaggerating the breathing-out action, unclenching your jaw and your forehead, move around your head and neck gently, relax your back, stretch out your fingers and let yourself smile. You may think you’re looking ridiculous doing this, but it works. Every time.
6. If you are someone who experiences anxiety only in specific situations it helps to look at it as a problem to solve and not a personal flaw. Here, it helps to take a problem focused approach. Spell out the problem, try to figure out what about that situation is making you anxious and what you can do to calm yourself. For instance, if public speaking gives you the jitters and the problem is that you fear you will make a fool of yourself in front of people then it helps to come up with an anti-anxiety ritual. To give you an example, say you know you have a presentation to give in 3 days, start preparing now. Take out an hour or more every day and practice giving your presentation, memorise every word you will say, every action if need be. See if it is possible to have a friendly face in the crowd on the day so you can focus your attention on that person. On the day of the presentation do a feel-good activity that calms you like maybe taking a hot shower, dressing up in your favourite clothes, having a good breakfast, leaving yourself a motivational note or watch a video that helps you.
7. There are also some items you should avoid consuming in case you are battling anxiety. These are known as panicogens which in the short term reduce anxiety by stimulating certain chemicals in your brain but in the long term only create a need for you to take in more and more of these items often causing withdrawal symptoms, one of them being anxiety itself. Some of these include caffeinated drinks, nicotine, processed sugar.
8. This one is a little time consuming but worth every minute. Take time out to understand your anxiety. Try to understand what really makes you anxious, what are the triggers that cause it and what sort of things help you. Once you learn something you can also master it. Just like any other subject but with anxiety it helps if you're in a safe space. Try to get a consult with a therapist, get as much information as possible and understand what you can do for your anxiety.
9. It is important to remember that with any anxiety treatment all we aspire to do is train our body and mind to understand the difference between a valuable and over-valued threat. This does not mean your feeling of anxiety is not real, it absolutely is. All this means is that what tension evolved as adaptive has now become maladaptive and needs to be re-tuned.
10. So for the last step, begin to train your body to switch on its zen mode more readily than it switches on its anxiety mode. This takes time as it has to be a conscious effort and requires for us to take care of our anxiety both physiologically by taking care of different bodily sensations accompanying anxiety; as well as psychologically by understanding what this anxiety does to our thoughts.
And this our attempt to slowly help you un-tangle that anxiety.
Important note: The purpose of this article is to educate you about anxiety and suggest a few evidence-based activities you can incorporate in your daily life. In case you feel your anxiety is not helped only by these solutions we urge you to book a consult with a clinical psychologist and find a more personalised treatment plan you can incorporate in your life.
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