Does Anxiety Rule Your Life?
Is your mind consumed by worrying? Does stress fill your body with tension and unease? Do everyday activities feel nerve-racking?
If so, you are not alone. Recent studies of over 6 million GP consultations in the UK have shown a veritable explosion in anxiety in Britain since 2008. The most severely impacted are young women: over 30% of women aged 18 to 24 now say they suffer from anxiety.
Anxiety is often intensely physical. You may notice a sinking or tight feeling in your stomach, sweaty palms, shakiness in your limbs, a pounding heart, shortness of breath. You may feel stiff, even frozen with fear; or so agitated that you can barely hold still. Sometimes the symptoms assault us so suddenly and severely that we call it a panic ‘attack’.
Psychologically, anxiety may beseige you with worries about the future, or fill you with a terrible sense of dread. If your thoughts are running round in circles, you may well have trouble sleeping. You may feel ashamed of not being able to control anxiety, or even feel bullied by your own thoughts.
Why Do We Get Anxious?
Anxiety is our natural ‘early warning system’, alerting us to the potential presence of danger in our environment. With blood pumping strongly and muscles twitching, we’re ready to run from peril, or fight for our lives. With our attention locked on tackling the source of danger, other thoughts are unable to distract us.
But in the modern world, stressors can be very ill-defined. There is generally nothing to run from or (sensibly) fight with, so all that physical energy just gets held tensely in the body. And there’s often no clear solution to present-day problems, so all that compulsive, circular thinking just becomes a pathway to mental exhaustion.
Getting Curious About Your Anxiety
Most people’s fervent wish when faced with anxiety is to just get rid of it as quickly as possible. The idea of getting up close and personal with it can seem completely absurd!
But anxiety is delivering a message. So, to respond effectively, we can’t just rush in. We need to find out what’s causing this anxiety, in this person, at this time, in these circumstances.
If you realise anxiety is alerting you to a real safety issue, then you should do whatever is necessary to distance yourself from the source of danger. But when that’s not the case, you will need to get more curious. For instance, when did this anxiety begin? How often does it happen? Are there times or places when it’s more or less strong? What are the physical impacts for you? And, importantly, what kind of stories does your mind tell you when it’s anxious?
Addressing Underlying Causes
Sometimes your investigations will make it clear that your anxiety is related to some deep underlying issues. In this case, it’s important to see if you can do anything about the root cause.
Easing background stressors (where possible): Anxiety can often be impacted by the wider ‘background’ of our lives. For example, cost-of-living increases, climate change, social media and Covid have all contributed to upswings in anxiety for many people. Of course, it isn’t always possible to change our external circumstances; but we can at least consider what is more controllable. Are there certain aspects of your work situation or relationships that could be adjusted? Could you spend less time on social media or following the news?
Aligning life with personal values: It’s worth examining if your daily actions are in alignment with your personal values. When they aren’t, you may feel unsettled at quite a deep, subtle level. Might it be possible, over time, to adjust your life to align better with your innermost priorities?
Healing old wounds: Anxiety can also have a historical cause. If we were horribly bullied at school, we can quite naturally feel nervous of engaging with people or groups who remind us of those bullies. If a poorly-lit street was where we once got mugged, then all poorly-lit streets in future may feel quite terrifying. If this sort of historical trauma is keeping you trapped in an emotional replay, it may be appropriate to seek professional help.
Pushing Through Anxiety
Sometimes we need to push ahead despite anxiety. It’s taking up too much of our life, and we need to regain control.
Perhaps we know we’re dealing with an ‘unreliable messenger’. Ordinary, everyday activities that used to be perfectly manageable now seem to make us jittery, or panicky. It’s clear anxiety is overreacting – like a smoke alarm going off when we’ve slightly burned the toast. We need to find a way to ignore it.
Or maybe anxiety’s message is well justified, but life requires us to keep going, regardless. We have to carry on with daily responsibilities, despite nerve-jangling financial insecurity or health worries. We need to stay calm in that job interview, or we really want to give a speech at a friend’s wedding, even though our mind is in a spin.
In these kinds of situations, it can be helpful to remember that anxiety is an alert, not a command. We don’t always have to listen to what it tells us. Instead, we can soothe its symptoms, then push through it.
Soothing The Symptoms Of Anxiety: Four Key Principles
A Google search for “how to calm anxiety” generates over 1.3 billion results, so there’s certainly no shortage of advice out there! The ideal ‘toolkit’ of techniques will vary tremendously from person to person, so you will need to test out what’s right for you. But there are four essential principles that are helpful for everyone.
1. Relax Your Body
Because anxiety is such a physical thing, it’s always beneficial to help your body to relax. This may mean drinking less caffeine, or having a hot bath, or taking a few minutes to breathe in a pattern that includes long, deep out-breaths (something the body only does naturally when it’s completely at ease) – to name but a few examples. If your limbs are extremely restless, it can be helpful to let out some of that energy first, e.g. by taking a brisk walk. Relaxation strategies often sound simplistic, but when you find the right ones for you, they can have a profound impact on your anxiety cycle.
2. ‘Counterbalance’ Your Anxious Mind
This step is a little more complicated. We all know that just telling ourselves to stop worrying doesn’t have much effect. So you will need to get much more specific, and take steps to counter the precise stories, or tendencies, of your anxious mind that you identified in your initial investigations. For example:
- If anxiety makes your thoughts spin off into the future, you can bring the mind back to the present moment through a mindful awareness of current sensations – e.g. your feet on the ground, the colour of the room, the sound of your breath.
- If anxiety makes you imagine catastrophic outcomes, with big dramatic headlines, you can remind yourself to ‘read the full article’, investigating the nuances and alternative narratives of a situation.
- If anxiety undermines your confidence and self-belief, you can visualise your future self staying calm whilst doing a feared activity. (Mentally practising a desired outcome is a technique used regularly by professional athletes, to powerful effect.)
- If you get ‘lost’ in anxiety and feel helpless, you can mentally take a step back, noticing and naming what’s happening. Any part of you that’s observing, is a part that’s no longer drowning in the feelings.
3. Be Kind To Yourself
How we talk to ourselves, internally, is hugely important. If we call our anxiety “stupid”, or judge ourselves “a failure” for not being calm, this is guaranteed to add to our stress. Can you, instead, find some compassion for yourself? Try to talk to yourself with kindness and understanding. Remember your anxiety is trying to protect you, even if its efforts are clumsy or misplaced. Acknowledge the hard work you are doing to live with, soothe, and push through anxiety, day after day.
4. Make A Plan Of Action
When we get to know our anxiety, it can often be anticipated. We can turn down the volume on it by planning for its arrival. For example, if you suffer from social anxiety, you will know in advance of a party that you are likely to feel anxious. You can plan for that by putting support systems in place (e.g. arriving with a friend rather than alone); setting an ‘emergency strategy’ (e.g. deep breathing if you get panicky); and creating a mental ‘safety net’ (e.g. reminding yourself you can leave early if you feel overwhelmed).
Taking Back Control Of Your Life
Exploring the causes, personal meanings, and ideal solutions to your anxiety can be tricky. Some people feel comfortable doing this on their own. But if you would rather undertake the process with a professional guide, then counselling can help.
With the right physical and mental tools, the right plan of action, and a measure of kindness, anxiety doesn’t have to rule your life.