7 Practical ways to help with ANXIETY
Sometimes people seek therapy for anxiety with the aim of never being anxious again... this is probably not advisable! Anxiety, like all emotions, exist to communicate a vital message and they serve a helpful function. Anxiety & fear are connected to an innate internal alarm system that is instinctively triggered at the sense of danger or threat (whether real or perceived).
At the sense of this, our innate survival 'fight or flight' response is immediately activated within our sympathetic nervous system. Messages are fired between brain and body and prepare us to stay and fight the danger or to run and get away. Without this alarm we would easily find ourselves in all sorts of danger. It is our primitive survival mechanism that helps us to stay alive! Without this, we'd be walking in front of buses, we'd have no sense of danger. So an element of anxiety is essential for our survival.
However, the problem many of us face in our fast paced lives is that our internal alarm system is unnecessarily on constant high alert. Stress levels and lack of rest from work demands, personal demands, phone, emails, juggling several roles, travel, varied pressures means that many of us simply do not have enough of the rest or 'switch off' time that we need in order to recharge. It is vital we allow our nervous system to rest.
Some practical ways to help with anxiety include:
Notice what happens to the breath when you feel anxious. Changes in breathing is often one of the first signs of an activated nervous system. The breath usually starts to become shallow and fast, sometimes even stopping for a moment. Your breath constantly communicates a message to the brain so all the time your breathing is panicked, that reinforces the message that there is an imminent threat.
You can use your breath to help calm this reaction by taking slow, deep breaths for at least 3 minutes. Counting the inhalation and exhalation can also help.
One helpful breathing technique to help with anxiety is to visualise a breath square. Inhale to the count of 4, hold for 4, exhale to the count of 4 and then again, hold for 4.
Alternative nostril breathing (called Anuloma Viloma in yoga) is very calming for the nervous system too.
Keep it simple. Even taking a few deeps breaths when you notice you feel anxious can help.
Find what works best for you.
2. Cut down (or cut out) Alcohol & Caffeine (Sorry!).
I have seen many, many clients over the years who have come to therapy because that are struggling with anxiety - yet are not aware of the link between caffeine and alcohol consumption and anxiety.
When these things are reduced or cut out, there is often a report of a significant reduction in symptoms of anxiety.
If you are struggling with anxiety or panic attacks, one of the first practical things to try is cutting these out completely or at least cut them down for month. See if you find any improvement.
3. Practice Mindfulness.
Mindfulness means to pay attention to something in the present moment, in an objective and non-judgemental way. An ideal focus of attention to start with is the breath. The practice of 'Mindfulness of Breath' is especially helpful for anxiety as also relates to tip #1.
Mindfulness of breath means to practice gently focusing your mental attention on your breath. Noticing, observing the inhalation and exhalation. Counting each breath helps to stay focused.
This may seem a simplistic practice, however please do give it a try. The power comes from practice. The more you practice mindfulness the more you will enjoy the benefits. For anxiety management, the real power comes from progressing to 'mindfulness of thoughts'. This is because the moment you becomes aware of your (anxious) thoughts, you immediately create some distance to them.
What this means in practice, is that you can learn to recognise "I'm having an anxious thought", rather than just be consumed by them. Remember: thoughts are not facts.
Optimising your nutrition can also help anxiety. Eating a healthy, balanced diet is an ideal foundation to help support mental health and wellbeing.
Sometimes though, we don't always get the level or nutrients we need solely from the foods we eat. This is due to the changes in food production over the years, that the nutrient quality in foods is unfortunately not as it was years ago.
It may help then, to further supplement your diet with extra vitamins.
B vitamin complex - B Vitamins support a healthy nervous system and helps with mood and energy. Deficiencies link to anxiety and panic disorder.
Probiotics - Supporting healthy gut bacteria can also help support mental health and help with anxiety.
Magnesium - as a natural relaxant, magnesium is known as the natural 'chill pill' and so can help with anxiety. This can be taken as a supplement, body spray or bath salts.
Vitamin D - deficiencies are linked to anxiety, depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
5. Social support for Anxiety
Anxiety and anxious thoughts will tell us things like: "I'm the only one that feels like this" and "If anybody knew how I felt, they'd think I was crazy". It's important to recognise these things for what they are... anxious thoughts. Thoughts are not facts.
Anxious thoughts can drive you to isolate, which often only leaves us feeling more alone and anxious.
Interrupt this by reaching out to your support network. Talk to kind, understanding friends, family, neighbours or colleagues. Many people actually very much appreciate an open and honest communication about anxiety, especially if they are feeling alone with it too.
Developing a social support network can help with anxiety. It can help to talk to peers. It can help to enjoy spending more time doing things you enjoy with like-minded people. You can also combine this with other activities that can help with anxiety such as going to an exercise class, join a running club, yoga class, creative or support group.
Consider ways in which you can reach out, be it friends, family, colleagues, strangers, joining groups, seeking support from professionals for emotional and/or practical support that can help.
6. Make time for a Digital Detox
Screen time is associated with anxiety and depression. The less time you spend looking at digital screens the less you may feel anxious.
Too much screen time also has a negative impact on sleep quality - which in turn impacts anxiety.
Cut down on digital usage. Perhaps limiting time in the evenings or having set time each week for a complete digital detox.
(For me, I do not have emails open on my phone, so I only check them when I make time for that, rather than being interrupted by them constantly. I also have a cut off time in the evenings and at least one digital detox day a week.)
7. Talking Therapy for Anxiety.
Psychotherapy & Counselling for Anxiety is helpful for addressing anxiety. CBT Therapy in particular is considered very helpful for anxiety.
In CBT Therapy, you usually work with a therapist and learn to recognise any anxious thoughts you may be having. A CBT-trained therapist will help you understand how your thoughts influence your feelings as well as affect subsequent behaviours and actions.
By understanding this, you can then learn ways to slow down this anxiety cycle, recognise any unhelpful or irrational thinking and work towards challenging and changing this to thoughts that are less anxiety-fuelling and ultimately more realistic and helpful.
Many people find CBT therapy helpful for anxiety and it is certainly a good first-step talking therapy approach.
However, if you have already tried a course of CBT therapy and have not found it helpful enough, or if you recognise that particular things or situations 'trigger' anxiety or panic for you, or you developed anxiety or panic issues following a sudden or difficult experience (like, for example, an accident, personal injury, attack, loss, sudden break-up, job loss or bereavement) then it may be that your anxiety could be more trauma-related. In such cases, it may be that more trauma-focused therapies (like EMDR therapy) would be more helpful.
Speak to a qualified psychologist or mental health professional for more advice.
Dr. Sarah Davies is a Psychologist based in Harley Street, London, who adopts a holistic approach to supporting positive mental health and wellbeing.