Anxiety – what is it?
Anxiety is such a small, simple word. It’s something we are all familiar with and experience regularly – that worry we feel when we get called into a meeting with our boss, check our bank balance at the end of a long month, when our children are late home, or when we leave the house and can’t remember if we locked the door or turned the iron off.
And for many people, that’s as far as it goes. Anxiety is a warning mechanism: a useful biological reaction to uncertainty and unpredictability, the kicking in of the hormone cortisol and raising of our stress levels, to heighten the senses and enable us to deal with a potentially difficult situation.
We all experience stress and anxiety, and if we are able to manage it effectively it can be productive and useful. Some people even thrive on it, responding positively to the pressure and using the adrenaline to push them on to complete tasks or meet deadlines.
When it becomes too much…
But for some people, anxiety is far from simple or useful. Those normal stress levels tip over into unhealthy levels and you may find yourself experiencing excessive, uncontrollable worry. Without the proper tools to cope, you can find yourself unable to switch off those anxious thoughts. Situations which realistically and logically present no threat or danger can seem terrifying. You can find your sleep disturbed by irrational fears, lying awake as you replay everything you did or said ‘wrongly’ during the day. It can feel like a smothering and overwhelming experience.
And it is really not that rare – anxiety is one of the most common reasons why people seek therapy and counselling.
How it can feel…
Anxiety can be crippling for some – affecting everything you do and altering the way you think, feel and behave. The fear you may have of receiving a negative response which you experience as 'rejection' could stop you from taking any action in the first place, or mean you work hard to avoid people and social situations altogether when in this state. The thought is that if you’re expecting and anticipating failure or rejection, then it is easier to stay well away.
If a person suffers from anxiety, then a simple text sent to a friend or partner which goes unanswered can lead them to spiral. “Why aren’t they replying, they must hate me, what did I do wrong, how can I fix this? They may feel like the room is closing in on them in social situations. Even if you are someone who is able to go out, see friends and be sociable – even be loud and extrovert – you could find yourself trying too hard and overcompensating, inwardly not being able to shut out the negative thoughts, self-doubt and paranoia. You may find yourself taking on more than you can handle, to distract yourself from destructive, negative thoughts. Or you may continually procrastinate and never complete tasks because you feel paralysed by a fear of failure.
There are also many physical symptoms associated with anxiety. From sweaty and shaking hands, an elevated heart rate and light-headedness, or stomach pains and migraines, through to a full-on panic attack – a terrifying experience where someone can feel like they are having a heart attack.
Secret, shameful feelings
People who suffer from anxiety describe how they can feel silly, pathetic and less than everyone else – “they can cope, why can’t I? What’s wrong with me?” They can see themselves as weak, while everybody else is strong. These types of comparisons are unhelpful and only serve to fuel the anxiety and negative thoughts.
For someone who suffers from anxiety, admitting to and voicing any of these feelings can feel impossible because they think they are abnormal or unacceptable. Which in turn leads to feelings of isolation, difference and loneliness – and even shame.
However, talking to someone – whether it’s a therapist or a good friend – really can help to normalise your experiences and feelings. Receiving acceptance, reassurance and understanding from someone who understands and can empathise is powerful.
“Just relax” – yeah, right!
People without experience or understanding of anxiety may tell you to “just calm down, relax, and try not to worry about it”. But of course it is not as simple as that – there is no on/off switch. And when we realise one of the results of anxiety is constantly second-guessing and doubting yourself, convinced nothing you do will ever be good enough, we can see how life-limiting this kind of ‘help’ can be.
Exercise can help – in some cases it has been shown to be much more effective than medication. We already know it improves our physical health, but with the release of those feel-good endorphins, it helps mental health too. Yoga can be particularly useful for anxiety by releasing tension in the body and calming your mind.
Meditation and mindfulness – learning to accept your thoughts as simply ‘thoughts’ which neither own nor control you as well as implementing breathing and relaxation techniques - can help lower your heart rate and help you feel more grounded and in control whilst at the same time providing a break from constant anxious ruminations.
Complementary therapies – techniques such as Indian head massage, reflexology and reiki can all be soothing and relaxing and help with self-care.
Watch your diet and sleep – what you eat can hugely affect how you feel, and a high intake of alcohol, sugar or caffeine can trigger anxiety, as well as stop you getting that all important good night’s sleep.
Keep a thought diary – noting down your thoughts, and those times when you feel particularly stressed or anxious and why is an excellent way to understand your thought processes and can help to identify any patterns or triggers.
Start talking – opening up to people about how you feel, being honest and asking for understanding and patience can be transformational. If appropriate, find a good therapist you can work with, someone who is experienced and skilled in working with these issues. Your therapist will provide an empathic, non-judgemental space in which to help you explore and understand the source of the anxiety as well as introduce you to specific techniques to manage and relieve stress.
Most importantly, don’t keep your anxious thoughts and feelings to yourself. Understand that you are not alone and reach out to those you trust. You’ll be amazed at how much lighter you feel by simply sharing your experience.
- Mind article and podcast on Anxiety and Panic Attacks
- NHS advice on Generalised Anxiety Disorder in adults
- Keeping a thought diary to combat anxiety
- AnxietyUK – national charity supporting those living with anxiety
- Time To Change – personal blogs on Anxiety
- Living with anxiety: Britain’s Silent Epidemic (The Guardian)
- Counselling Directory - find a counsellor near you