Anxiety is something that we have all heard of and have no doubt all experienced at some point. We might feel anxious for a number of reasons. We might feel anxious about something happening in the future (e.g. a job interview, meeting someone, a test result, money worries etc) and we may worry and feel anxious about something that’s happened to us in the past. Health conditions, bereavements, trauma, stress and significant life events are just some of the things that can make us feel anxious. The way other people have dealt with stressful situations and emotions can also impact how we deal with them ourselves, especially if we haven’t been shown how to soothe ourselves.
It is important to know that anxiety is very normal however and is a natural response from our body and brain. It ranges from a sense of mild discomfort to catastrophic beliefs and utter panic. A little bit of anxiety can help us do and achieve things and can help us make plans for how to put things into action. However, too much anxiety is not so great and can be really debilitating especially if it starts to have a negative impact on our life and prevents us from leading the life we want to lead.
What actually is anxiety?
Anxiety is often a term to capture a wide range of feelings, physical sensations, thoughts and behaviours. When we are anxious we can feel a sense of unease and tension and this impacts us in a number of ways, primarily via our body (from our nervous system), our thoughts, our behaviours and our emotions.
Our nervous system can essentially be in one of these three states below:
1. Feeling calm, safe and socially connected
2. Feeling anxious / activated and in ‘flight or flight mode’
3. Feeling frozen and immobile / shut down
You may have heard of ‘the fight or flight response’ which is our automatic response when something dangerous happens to us. A part of our brain called the amygdala acts as our internal alarm system and if it thinks that something dangerous is happening to us, it sends a sudden signal to other parts of your brain which leads to a surge of adrenaline and other hormones… sending us into immediate fight or flight mode! This fight or flight mode is a completely normal and natural response to danger, and actually a pretty clever one too. It is this mode that has helped us survive for millions of years by making us run away from danger, or face and fight the danger in order to survive. Pretty handy when you were getting chased by predators in prehistoric times! Even though we aren’t getting chased by sabre tooth tigers anymore, our brain (or rather our amygdala) doesn’t know that, so we continue to experience the same adrenaline / fight or flight response to anything that we perceive as dangerous or risky.
The fight or flight mode can also make us feel activated and this can be helpful in some situations (for example it can help jump start us into doing things we need to do like writing a report, studying for exams, running out of the way of an oncoming car) but it can also feel totally overwhelming and have a way of making us feel like we want to run away, hide, yell, pace up and down, pore over our thoughts amongst many other things. When we feel anxious, we often feel a sense of unease, we worry, we get stuck in tricky patterns of going over and over things in our heads, and we can actively and deliberately avoid situations, people, places, memories, and emotions.
When we feel complete and utter overwhelm and danger our nervous system can then go to ‘freeze’ mode where we become immobilised and shut down. This is often seen in people who experience, witness or remember something horrific, it can become so much for their body and brain to deal with that they describe being frozen to the spot, can’t think what to do, and they simply shut down. This is again a normal response from the brain to both protect from seeing the reality of the horror, and as a survival mechanism so that they are more likely to be unseen by a predator. Understanding that the freeze response is an automatic and normal response from our nervous system can be immensely helpful to those who later blame themselves for not responding when they were in situations such being under attack, completely overwhelmed or subject to or witness to horrors.
How does anxiety affect us??
Anxiety affects our body and makes us feel physically uneasy. It can impact our breathing, can lead to tightness in our body, a racing heart, light headedness, dizziness, sweating, blushing, ‘butterflies in our stomach’, restlessness, headaches, feeling sick, amongst many other symptoms. It can also have an impact on our sleeping pattern and appetite.
Anxiety also hugely impacts the way we think. We might ruminate over thoughts, we might repeatedly go over a past situation in our heads, we might get caught up in worrying what others think of us, how we will come across in certain situations, how we will perform. It can affect our concentration, attention and memory. We might dread the future and regret the past. We might even start worrying about the fact that we are worrying!
Anxiety also impacts our behaviours. We might cancel future plans, we might not go to school or work, we might avoid travelling, we might stay indoors, we might only eat certain foods, we might avoid going to the Dr (or go there too much), we might repeatedly check things, we might constantly seek reassurance from others that things will be OK. These are just a few ways that anxiety can affect us.
Anxiety can also affect our emotions in that we can end up feeling sad or depressed as it impacts us so much, we might feel guilty if we think we are letting other people down, we might feel terrified that something catastrophic might happen, we might feel irritable or angry, we might feel dread about the future.
What can I do to help cope with my anxiety?
There are some simple and accessible strategies that we can do to help settle our nervous system and therefore reduce our levels of anxiety.
🌬 Deep, slow breathing from our diaphragm (the stomach area). Slow and deep breathing has a direct calming impact on our nervous system, especially when we extend the exhaaaaaaaaaaale. You can quickly check your depth of breathing by placing one hand on your chest and the other hand on your stomach. You can tell if you are breathing from your diaphragm if your stomach moves out as you inhale (like a balloon would get bigger if you pumped air into it) and your stomach moves back in as you exhaaaaaaaaaale. Shallow chesty breathers will notice their chest moving in and out as they breathe. This type of breathing will often increase the feelings of anxiety rather than decreasing them.
🌿 Connect with the here and now using your five senses. This ‘54321 method’ can be really helpful to calm yourself in an overwhelming moment. Look around you and name 5 things you can see. Listen out for 4 things you can hear. Find 3 things you can touch, feel them and notice what they feel like. Name 2 things you can smell. Notice one thing you can taste. Really tune into the here and now and this can help connect you back with the calm and soothing mode.
💭 Notice your thoughts and what you are worrying about. Ask yourself what is and what isn’t within your control. If there is some action you can take, can you do this? But if there is absolutely nothing you can do, can you sit your worries to the side and focus on the here and now instead? Noticing and naming your worries and acknowledging that they are just thoughts can often be helpful to reduce the overwhelm. Our previous blog about ‘What can I do about worrying?’ may be helpful to read.
🧘♂️ Sit with the anxious feelings. Instead of struggling with them and trying to push them away, can you give them space and a nod of acknowledgement? Sometimes when we just observe the feelings instead of struggling with them, they feel less powerful and can end up feeling like something sitting in the background rather than something screaming in our face.
💬 Notice your thinking patterns. For example, do you get pulled into thinking the worst case scenario? Do you notice and worry over the small details and not see the bigger picture? Do you blame yourself and take things personally? Getting to know your patterns of thinking can be good to then try to change these but also allow you to think ‘is this way of thinking helpful or unhelpful?’.
🚶🏻♂ Move your body. Sometimes connecting to our body can be helpful to mobilise us if we feel frozen, or can soothe us when anxious. Have a stretch, push your feet into the floor, go for a gentle walk, do some gardening, whatever may be helpful to connect you to a more soothing state.
🌻 Connect with nature. Being around green (trees, grass, flowers, plants, mountains) and blue (rivers, the sea, fountains, lochs) spaces have been shown to be helpful for psychological wellbeing and reducing stress. Even bringing some nature indoors like some fresh flowers or a plant can be helpful to connect you to the soothing mode.
📘Keep a journal or write your experiences down. Many people find that the act of getting things out of their head and onto paper (or their laptop / phone) can be very calming and can also help them process their experiences. It can sometimes help you see what is contributing to the anxiety and what might trigger it.
❤️ Speak to someone. Talking things through with a trusted friend or family member can often be helpful. If you think that anxiety is impacting you in such a way that you need more professional help it can also be hugely beneficial to speak to a trained professional. There are a number of psychological therapies that can help with anxiety such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), compassion focused therapy (CFT) amongst many others. Our previous blog here describes what to look for in a therapist and how to find one.
We hope that this blog has been helpful to give you a simple overview and understanding of anxiety. Anxiety is a feature in so many people’s lives but it doesn’t need to take over and end up BEING your life. Hopefully the strategies in this blog are a good starting point to helping you live the life you want to live while experiencing the normal ups and downs of life and anxiety.
Thanks for reading!
Jo, Jan & Catherine @thewellbeingrooms