Anxiety and I have a colourful past.
It first noticeably impacted my life aged 14 when I found my nervous system going into overdrive at the smallest of things. I remember offering to cook dinner for my family and feeling so panicky that I had messed it up and was going to make everyone ill.
I also got very nervous at the prospect of going to parties and social events and had a big anxiety attack at my own birthday meal in front of all of my friends. It was horrible!
It came to a head during the dress rehearsal for a school play when mid-performance I completely froze. I couldn’t speak, the lights made me so hot and the faces of the other students watching me became a blur. I managed to utter that I felt unwell before running outside with palpitations, struggling to catch my breath and an overwhelming numbness in my hands.
My friends came to find me and brought our teacher who managed to slow my breathing down and get my fingers moving to get the feeling back. It was such a frightening experience and I went home in tears, unable to do the actual show.
My Mum took me to the doctors and I was referred to CAMHS for CBT which helped me to understand what anxiety was, what triggered it and how to re-train my brain so that I became less fearful.
Fifteen years on and it still affects me daily. Some occasions are easier to rationalise than others.
I’ve worked with multiple therapists for various difficulties over the years and anxiety always crops back up as it lies at the centre of so many different mental health problems. It’s still hard to nail even all of these years later, as it sneakily creeps up on you faster than you can tell yourself there’s no major threat.
If this sounds familiar and you struggle with anxiety too, I have put together a short list of five key tips that have helped me most over the years. Please read on and comment some of your own below if you would like…
Breathing techniques are incredibly helpful in lowering the heart rate and preventing the panic from taking hold.
When I feel my anxiety levels rising I kick start my slow breathing and find the process of exhaling at a reduced speed really calms me down.
I don’t know the medical technicalities but I believe that hyperventilation (the act of breathing very fast and not taking in enough oxygen whilst gasping) can exacerbate an anxiety attack so making sure you take long, deep breaths helps to counteract that.
Another major plus is that you can do it very subtly in public too, without those around you noticing what you’re doing.
Something that has helped me enormously is learning what anxiety is and how it actually benefits the body. Yes, benefits!
I’m sure we all know the basics – the ‘fight or flight’ response from the caveman days and how adrenaline prepares us to either face our perceived danger or run from it…but when you truly drill down into the effect it has on the body it makes so much more sense.
I don’t know about you, but I find the physical symptoms of anxiety pretty scary. My heart races, I feel sick, I get flushed, my tummy starts to flip, my fingers tingle – none of it is at all pleasant and adds to my fears. It’s a vicious circle.
I’m still not brilliant at it, but now that I understand what is happening and that it’s origins are actually to HELP not hinder me I can rationalise it more and relieve some of the fear.
I tell myself ‘anxiety is not harmful, just very unpleasant right now.’
Anxiety is relentless and exhausting, so it’s important to take some time to look after yourself when you’re struggling.
When I’m apprehensive about something, my nerves will be elevated so I have to use calm distraction techniques to settle myself back down. For me that’s walking, yoga, breathing techniques, meditation and guided relaxations or speaking to family and friends. Keeping my mind occupied allows less time for the negative thoughts to creep in.
It’s also a priority to take care of yourself when you’ve recently experienced an anxiety attack as you’ll be feeling vulnerable, tired and low in mood. I always feel a little sad once I’ve calmed down (and a tad emotionally battered and bruised) so simple things like having a hot bath, early night and listening to music I enjoy helps me to recover. You deserve to focus on feeling better when you’ve been through a traumatic ordeal.
Now, this one doesn’t work for everybody but I find it really helpful and calming.
Meditation means something different to each individual, but for me it’s phsyically stopping still, practising breathing techniques, focusing on the present moment and listening to guided imagery and audio relaxations.
This isn’t always possible in the heat of an anxiety wave and actually, it was never intended for that purpose either. Meditation practice is most effective when you have time to yourself, away from your stresses and usually in the comfort of your home or in an instructed class.
The more you are able to gain the benefits of this chilled downtime the lower your general levels of fear and tension will become.
Many people find it helpful for them to meditate first thing in the morning as it makes them calmer ahead of their busy days. Personally I find it more restful to engage in at night but whatever works best for you is fine. I really noticed a difference.
Monitor triggers and patterns
When you make a note of your anxiety triggers you will begin to see patterns of thoughts that lead you down the panic path.
Whilst attending CBT sessions, the therapist tasked me with the below exercise to track my anxiety levels and identify the key events that activated the ‘alarm response’ in me.
It was very revealing, and I noticed a few trends – mainly in the cause of the anxiousness and the negative thinking that prolonged it. I also couldn’t help but spot that I usually always recovered from it and noted that I was catastrophizing each time, fearing the worst and realising it didn’t happen.
Once I was able to learn from this, the anxiety lessened in severity and the perceived threat diminished.
I hope that helps. Please leave me a comment if you have other techniques that work for you.