Simple Tools To Manage Anxiety
Many people have alarm systems in their homes. They are amazing. They allow us to feel safe when we go to sleep at night. They ensure us that our house is protected when we go on holiday. Yet those alarm systems are very carefully calibrated. They will only go off and start ringing with just the right amount of motion to show us that there is someone in the house. If they were too sensitive they may go off if a small fly was to fly around the house. If the alarm systems were more sensitive still, they may even go off if there happened to be a cat wandering around our garden at night. If they were not sensitive enough, they wouldn’t even go off if there was a troupe of dancers doing the line dance in our living room whilst we slept at night. So, we can see how this alarm system needs to be perfectly calibrated.
Well we too have an alarm system in our brains. It alerts us of any dangers and it keeps us safe and protected. This alarm system is that feeling of anxiety that we all experience from time to time. So, a bit of anxiety in response to a threat is healthy and a normal part of life. Yet what can happen when we find ourselves feeling really anxious a lot of the time, is that this alarm system in our brain has gone into overdrive. The alarm system has become too sensitive. We end up seeing lots of different things that aren’t really threats as scary things to be feared. It is almost as though that alarm system in our house is ringing when someone enters the house across the street, or even more unhelpfully when someone walks their dogs several miles away. Of course neither of these things are threats or things to be feared. Feeling anxious a lot, is basically our protection mechanism gone into overdrive.
I am a psychotherapist and I have noticed that a lot of people have been feeling a lot more anxious over the past year and a half. The reason for this is because we tend to get more anxious in times of uncertainty. Of course, the past couple of years have presented us with a lot of uncertainty. So, if you have found yourself more anxious recently and you feel that your internal alarm system has gone into overdrive – what can you do about it? Here are some simple tools that can help you to manage anxiety:
1. NOTICE AND WRITE DOWN WHAT YOU ARE THINKING AND FEELING: It is common when we are feeling anxious for our brain to get lost in negative thought spirals. For example, our minds may keep jumping to the worst-case-scenario and everything that could go wrong. We may also find ourselves worrying a lot about small things rather than realising that there are also lots of opportunities and things to look forward to in the future. What can help with this is firstly just to develop an awareness of and to write down, what you are feeling and what you are thinking about when you are feeling this way. For example, someone may notice and write down “I am feeling anxious, nervous and on-edge and this is because I am worried whether other people will judge me for having put on weight during the pandemic”. Just writing down how we feel and what we are thinking about, does something amazing in our brains – it switches on the part of our brain that allows us to think more rationally about our problems (the pre-frontal cortex) and allows us to manage our emotions more effectively. So, the next time you feel anxious, try writing down how you are feeling and what you are thinking about that is making you feel that way.
2. CHALLENGE YOUR THOUGHTS: Often we assume that everything running through our mind is true and represents reality. However, this is not the case. Our thoughts are just interpretations of situations and the world around us. Sometimes these interpretations can get really distorted and this is often what happens when we are feeling really anxious. What can help is to start to gently challenging our thoughts. Let’s say someone is feeling anxious and thinking “my friends are going to judge me and no longer like me because I have put on some weight in the pandemic”, they can start to challenge this thought. They may remind themselves that “well I have known these friends for ages and they are my friends because they like who I am and not what I look like”. Or they may remind themselves that “I would still like my friends just the same however they looked so this is probably true of my friends too”. Challenging and unpacking your thoughts can really help to manage your anxiety.
3. SHIFT YOUR STATE – TURN ON THE RELAXATION RESPONSE. A tool that I use very often with clients that are anxious is hypnotherapy or meditation. These are very powerful tools to get us out of a very anxious, nervous state and into a more calm and relaxed state. You could also engage in any activity that you find relaxing – for example, going for a walk, scheduling a massage or doing some yoga. All of these activities help you to get out of your head and to relax your body. Anxiety can often cause very physical symptoms such as changes in your breathing, your heart rate or cause tension in your muscles. Anything you can do to change your physical state and to lead you towards relaxation will really help to manage anxiety when it pops up. So be sure to take really good care of yourself when you are feeling anxious and do what you can to relax.
4. CHANNEL WORRYING INTO PLANNING. Often when we are feeling anxious we end up worrying about all of the things that could go wrong in the future. What can help is to actually allocate some time in the day to think about the future. What is helpful though, is to use this time to PLAN for the future, rather than spending all day endlessly worrying about what could go wrong. So, for example, when any worries about the future come up, you could gently remind yourself that at the end of the day, you are going to spend half an hour, actively thinking about and planning for your future. Planning is very practical and focused on finding solutions to problems that may arise in the future, whereas worrying just tends to involve endless and repetitive negative thoughts about the future. Channelling worrying into planning instead can be a really helpful way of managing anxiety.
5. BE KIND TO YOURSELF. A very important part of the work that I do with any client is to encourage them to nurture self-compassion. When someone is feeling more anxious than usual, it can be easy for them to start beating themselves up. They may have thoughts like “you are so hopeless, you are always anxious, you can’t do anything anymore” or “you are never going to get better”. They would never say these harsh and critical things to a loved-one that was struggling with anxiety and yet they beat themselves up at the time that they are often at their most vulnerable. What can really help is to encourage them to nurture a very kind and compassionate internal voice. To try and coach themselves as they would someone that they loved and cared about at the times they were really anxious. So when you are feeling really anxious, remember to be kind to yourself.
Many people have alarm systems in their homes. They are amazing. They allow us to feel safe when we go to sleep at night. Yet it that alarm system suddenly becomes far too sensitive and starts ringing even when someone enters the house across the road, there are some things that we can do to re-calibrate that alarm system. When you employ the tools discussed in this post, this is exactly what you are doing for your brain’s alarm system too. Thanking it for keeping you safe but also reassuring it that a lot of the things it sees as threats are not really anything to worry about… then with time and some fine tuning, that alarm system and you can work together happily.