We have all felt anxious at some point in time. Some people experience this more than others. No matter the severity there are things that can be done to beat anxiety. Meaningful Minds Psychologist Jeanette discusses this in more detail.
As mentioned in my previous article (Taking a Closer Look at Anxiety, dated 24 July 2017), treatment options for anxiety include good self-help information, psychotherapy, and medication. In this article we will look at how we can help ourselves to manage anxiety. The self-help methods discussed below can be used in conjunction with psychotherapy and medication.
Talking to someone you can trust
Share with someone you trust how you are feeling instead of keeping all your worries bottled up inside. One could confide in a partner, a close friend, or a family member. Keep in mind that this is only one of the ways to help ourselves manage anxiety. If we only use this method, we may run the risk of overburdening our loved ones.
You can calm the body and mind by doing activities that you enjoy. It is important to unwind in this way when you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Otherwise, you may battle to fall asleep at night. Take time out to make sure you do at least one thing you enjoy each day, for example:
· Visit family or friends
· Participate in sport or exercise on your own
· Read a book
· Watch your favourite TV programme
· Go to the cinema
· Play a board or card game
· Do something creative (paint, draw, scrapbooking, writing, needlework)
· Take a hot bubble bath
· Listen to music
Other ways to improve relaxation include controlled breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation exercises, yoga, and meditation.
Regular physical exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, is a very effective method of combating stress and releasing tension. Exercise also improves your mood by encouraging your brain to release serotonin. Good aerobic exercises include walking fast or jogging, swimming, cycling, tennis, and aerobic classes at the gym. You should try to do 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week. Scientific data suggests that frequency is most important. It is better to exercise 20-25 minutes every day instead of exercising 3 hours on the weekend.
Following a healthy diet can contribute to managing anxiety levels. Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol can particularly help you to feel less anxious. Caffeine can disrupt your sleep and when you feel tired it is difficult to control anxious feelings. Therefore, try to cut down on coffee, tea, fizzy drinks and energy drinks. People often smoke and drink to help manage anxiety. Unfortunately smoking and drinking actually worsens anxiety in the long run. You can reduce your anxiety levels by giving up smoking and by drinking in moderation only.
Mindfully paying attention to the present moment can help you to be less caught up in thoughts about unpleasant events in the past and to worry less about the future. You may enhance your ability to be mindfully aware of your present experience by attending an 8 weeks mindfulness-based stress reduction course. Research has shown that mindfulness training can lead to increased left prefrontal-cortex activation, which is associated with more positive emotions, feeling more frequently energised and joyful instead of feeling anxious and sad.
Create a “worry period”
Trying to stop or get rid of an anxious thought only acts to focus your attention even more on the anxious thought. Instead, postpone your worries by creating a worry period every day at a set time and place for example, 18h00 to 18h30 in the study. It should not be too late as you don’t want to feel anxious just before going to bed. During this time you can worry as much as you like, but the rest of the day is a worry-free zone. If you have an anxious thought during the day, write it down and postpone worrying about it until your worry period. During your worry period, you may challenge unhelpful thought patterns and start solving problems as will be described below. If you are left with nothing to worry about, you should cut your worry period short and continue enjoying the rest of your day.
Challenge unhelpful thought patterns
If you suffer from chronic anxiety, you need to analyse your thought patterns to determine whether you are habitually drawn into cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are pessimistic attitudes not necessarily based on reality, for example:
Catastrophizing - always expecting the worst-case scenario to happen
Jumping to conclusions - automatically making negative interpretations without evidence for it
The mental filter - filtering out the positives about the situation and only focusing on the negatives
Personalization - to assume responsibility for things that are beyond your control
Overgeneralization - to generalize based on a single negative experience, expecting it to remain like this forever
One can learn to challenge these negative thought patterns and form new ways of thinking by challenging anxious thoughts during your “worry period” as follows:
*What is the evidence for the thought being true and what is the evidence against it?
*Can you identify any pattern of unhelpful thinking (cognitive distortion) being displayed?
*Can one look at the situation in a more positive and realistic way? What is the probability of the feared outcome? If the probability is low, what are the other more likely outcomes?
*Is the thought helpful? What are the costs and benefits of thinking in this way?
*How would you advise a friend who had the same anxious thought?
During your worry period, brainstorm every possible solution to a problem, evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each, and choose the best one. If you are not done solving a problem, carry it over to the following day’s worry period. Remember that not all problems can be solved. If you continuously worry about unsolvable problems, it may be that you are afraid to feel the underlying unpleasant emotions. It may be helpful to learn to accept unpleasant emotions as part of being human. Rather embrace feeling your emotions instead of defending against them which keeps you chronically trapped in a web of anxiety.
Reduce avoidance and safety behaviours
People often avoid difficult situations which they find anxiety-provoking. This can unfortunately make things worse. The longer we avoid the situation, the more intimidating it becomes and we never get the chance to prove to ourselves that we can actually cope with it. We can start building up our confidence by confronting difficult situations which should in turn lead to reduced levels of anxiety. To work on reducing avoidance behaviours, you can make a list of all the things you avoid and next to it predict the level of anxiety connected to this situation, for example:
Public speaking 90%
Inviting a new acquaintance for coffee 75%
Going to a party alone 85%
Rank the situations in order of difficulty and confront the situation that causes you the least anxiety first, in this example “Inviting a new acquaintance for coffee”. Although your anxiety levels may initially increase, it should eventually drop if you remain in the situation long enough. Repeat the feared task as often as possible. Your fear of the situation should start reducing, the more you confront the feared situation. You can move on to the next item on your list, once you feel more comfortable with regards to the first item that you practiced.
Alternatively, you may not avoid feared situations, but depend on safety behaviours to help you cope with the situation, for example include going to a party alone, but smoking more, fiddling with your handbag or avoiding eye contact. Like avoidance, if one does not eliminate the safety behaviours one can never prove to yourself that you can cope with the feared situation without these behaviours. Both avoidance and safety behaviours act to maintain anxiety. You should therefore, when you feel ready, start confronting safety behaviours in the same way that you confronted avoidance.
I hope you found the above tips on managing anxiety helpful. If you would like to speak to someone about anxiety or any other concern contact us on 081 759 4849 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Food for thought: One of the keys to feeling less anxious is to accept life’s inherent uncertainties and to give up trying to control everything.