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Ways to deal with anxiety

Anxiety is a powerful combination of emotional, behavioural, thinking and physical symptoms. Therefore, having ways to help cope with these different components can be helpful when learning to manage anxiety. We can learn strategies to help us in the moment when anxiety arises or ways to prevent the onset of anxiety; both are useful tools in the fight back against anxiety.

Ways of coping in the moment. It can be useful to practice these when not experiencing anxiety. Think of them as a muscle that gets stronger the more we use it. That way when they are needed they are strong enough for us to call on.

  • Grounding Techniques - Can help us to come back to the present moment and not get caught up in our anxious feelings. A popular grounding technique is 5,4,3,2,1. Here we name 5 things we can see in our environment, 4 things we can touch, 3 things we can hear, 2 things we can smell and 1 thing we can touch. Playing this game with someone else, or in our own heads can really help focus on the present until the anxiety lessens.

  • Breathing Techniques - Can help us to regulate our internal systems and calm the symptoms of anxiety. My favourite is boxed breathing. Here we repeatedly count a slow, steady rhythm of 1,2,3,4. For the first four, breathe in. For the second four, hold your breath. For the third four, breathe out. For the last four, hold your breath. Think of these as sides to a box and repeat the process as needed. This technique is used by U.S Navy Seals to help them cope with the stresses they face.

  • Write your thoughts down - This technique is used to help make our thoughts exist somewhere outside of us. Ideas such as journaling and freewriting are used to help combat anxious feelings. Once thoughts are written down then they can seem less overwhelming and we can start to question them. We can also choose to do something with the thoughts, like throw them in the bin or pin them on the wall. Helping us to gain control and autonomy over them.

  • Go for a walk - It may sound obvious but this technique can be particularly effective if the anxiety is triggered by a place or situation. Getting out into nature or green spaces can also help us tune into what may be happening in our bodies when we are anxious.

  • Accept the anxiety - This may be difficult but can be made easier with practice. Certain levels of anxiety are expected and healthy. Learning to accept the anxiety and its effects can be a powerful step in lessening its intensity. One way of doing so may be to reframe the feelings from anxiety to excitement.

Ways of helping prevent the onset of anxiety. Think of these as daily practices that help to alleviate the frequency of anxiety episodes.

  • Counselling and psychotherapy - Working with a therapist can help you to understand where your anxiety comes from, it may be a result of core beliefs that are outside of your current awareness. It can also help you to learn and manage the triggers for your anxiety, resulting in you feeling calmer and in more control of your anxiety.

  • Diet and lifestyle - Having a healthy routine can help with many aspects of our mental health including anxiety. Making sure we get enough healthy sleep is an essential step to preventing anxious feelings. Sleep is impacted by all aspects of our lives: what we eat/drink and when we eat/drink it, our levels of stress and amount of physical activity.

  • Avoiding alcohol/caffeine/nicotine - All of which are stimulants. Anxiety can be a common side effect of stimulants and anxiety symptoms can be made worse by it. Consider changing your routine around things like caffeine which stays in the bloodstream for many hours after consumption. If you find things like alcohol and nicotine are giving you short term relief from anxiety then you may be engaging in safety behaviours; ways of temporarily avoiding a problem that can actually make the problem worse in the long-term.

  • Mindfulness - Is a practice that enhances our ability to notice what is happening to our emotions, thoughts and bodies in the present moment. Mindfulness is an idea borrowed from Eastern philosophy. Daily mindfulness practices may involve things like listening to a guided script or focussing on our breathing. Practicing mindfulness is a great way to be more grounded and help us realise when we are becoming anxious.

  • Exercise - Apart from the obvious physical benefits, exercise can help reduce the symptoms and frequency of anxiety. Regular physical exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress, which can often exacerbate anxiety. Research has shown that a 10 minute walk can have a similar impact in reducing anxiety as a 45 minute workout. Also, people who regularly exercise are 25% less likely to be affected by anxiety.

Finally, some anxiety is healthy and part of our inbuilt fear response. Anxiety is a problem when it becomes disproportionate to its stimulus. Our ancient ancestors needed anxiety responses more as they lived nomadically and were hunted by predators. In modern civilisation we no longer require such a powerful fear response, but evolution has not yet lessened it. Therefore it can feel very much like a matter of life and death when we are faced with anxious feelings. Use some of these tips to help you get through and overcome those moments.

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