Anxiety is an emotional state in which we might experience unpleasant feelings of inner distress, often with physical feelings and behaviours. It is quite common and most if not all of us will experience it at some level at some time in our lives.
It is a feeling of unease, usually as a reaction to a perceived threat at some time in the future. These feelings can be quite life limiting and can become chronic, what doctors might call ‘generalised’ anxiety, or they might be quite short lived, as in ‘acute ‘ anxiety. Sometimes, people might also experience panic attacks lasting a few seconds to a few minutes. It is quite common for people experiencing anxiety to seek to avoid such stressful feelings and so withdraw from situations where these might be experienced.
Although unpleasant, anxiety is in very many ways normal, in that it is the body’s natural response to a stress, and it is a very common condition. Stress responses probably originated when our ancestors needed to be vigilant to threat so the body released large amounts of adrenaline to help us meet or escape that threat. This has become widely known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. Though highly useful when faced with a sabre toothed tiger or an invader, rarely these days do we meet such threats. However our bodies still make the same chemicals and unless these are used appropriately, they can build up and build up until they come out in the form of anxiety symptoms. The bodily feelings we experience such as butterflies or fast heart rate are those things building up in our bodies.
Symptoms of anxiety vary in intensity and from person to person. They can include the following;
Feeling something bad is going to happen
Butterflies in the stomach
Sweaty palms, and excess sweating in general
Restlessness and pacing
Increased heart rate
Avoidance of stressful situations
Rumination – thoughts going over and over
Need for reassurance
Poor sleep, general restlessness
Apprehension and procrastination
This is not by any means a definitive list, and what can be seen is that the symptoms are a mix of what’s in our thinking, our physical experiences and our behaviours.
A great diagram describing the relationship between symptoms can be seen here:
There are many things we can do to help ourselves with anxiety symptoms. There are many great resources available on line including useful guidance here from Mind, the mental health charity:
Although there is wealth information online and in books, this can become overwhelming and itself become a cause for anxiety!
From my experience, a good simple start point is the 5 point list below.
Exercise - especially outside. This does not have to be endless circuits in the gym or running a marathon. A short walk outside in nature on a regular basis can help us regain perspective.
Breathing– Learning to control our breathing especially when having a panic attack is a really useful life skill. Watch out for my video about ‘box’ or ‘square’ breathing. In the meantime imagine drawing a square as you breathe. Starting at the bottom left corner breathe in up the left side of the box, counting say 5 seconds or whatever is comfortable for you, hold your breath across the top for a count of 5, breathe out down the right side for a similar count then hold along the bottom for 5 seconds or so. Don’t get hung up on the counting but do count something as you go; this will give you control.
Journal - keeping a record of how you are feeling is really useful. Getting things off your chest, especially before bedtime, can help promote effective rest and sleep. See my blog post regarding journaling.
Goal setting – Sometimes when we get anxious we can feel out of control. By having simple goals to achieve daily we can regain a sense of control and improve our self worth. Its best to have simple goals here, just something to achieve on a daily basis. This isn’t about life goals or big career ambitions, just everyday stuff. For example:
‘Today, I will take a 20 minute walk in the park, and when I get back, I will make some notes about it in my journal.’
Talk-Often we say ‘ a problem shared is a problem halved’. Spending time with friends or in community can be really helpful especially if we can talk about our worries in a safe environment. Sometimes, though, it’s not the right thing to talk to our friends and family about our concerns. At these times it might be more helpful to speak to a trained helper such as a counsellor, a doctor or other health professional. Either way, talking through your worries in a caring and supportive professional relationship can greatly help you to move forward through your anxiety.
I hope this helps.