Feeling anxious is something a lot of people struggle with from time to time. For example, feeling anxious before a job interview, before an observation or a driving test. Anxiety can also be good, it may get your adrenaline running and get you geared up before you do something important.
What about when anxiety is so bad you struggle to leave your bed in the morning? What if standing in a packed train causes you to change carriages because you feel so claustrophobic? What if delivering a presentation makes your mouth so dry that your throat starts to hurt, and you can’t get a word out? The type of anxiety that keeps you up awake at night and gives you the tight feeling in your chest and stomach for hours, days or even weeks. Sound familiar?
According to reported numbers from the NHS, Generalised Anxiety Disorder affects up to 1 in 20 people (1). In my previous blog post “Help! My Friend Has An Eating Disorder – 5 Tips” I mentioned that official statistics only refer to reported cases which means that there are many more people suffering from mental illnesses. So in other words, anxiety is very common!
I have always been anxious…
I suffer and have always suffered from anxiety ever since I can remember. I was a quiet, sensitive child who was hyper-aware of my surroundings, other people’s body language, and tone. I remember in school I always had sweaty hands when my class would present what we were currently learning about during assemblies in school. I always had sweaty hands. LOL. So embarrassing!
I hated loud noises, the sound of people arguing or even just violence on TV. A lot of things would just cause me to withdraw from the situation as far as possible. I am pretty much the same now. I also learned that these responses were related to the ‘fight or flight’ response that you may have heard of.
Of course, as I grew up I realised that withdrawing myself from situations, which heightened my anxiety, was not always practical. So I read tonnes of self-help books, listened to many YouTube videos and spoke to a lot of people who also suffered from it. I also was able to use my CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) sessions, which have been known to be really successful in dealing with anxiety, to develop better habits to deal with the triggers.
Here a few lessons that I learned throughout my experience:
Your thoughts are only as powerful as you allow them to be.
Think of a small bit of snow running down a mountain, it starts off small but gets bigger and bigger the more snow it gathers in its path. It clumps together and becomes a ball. Now think of the initial clump of snow as a triggered thought.
Let us imagine your manager has emailed you on Friday evening asking if they could speak to you on Monday regarding something important. You start to think about all the possible things that you could have done wrong. You start to check if you have answered all your emails. You think and think and think.
Consider these thoughts the extra bits of snow down the mountain path.
“Sometimes the more attention you pay to something, the more likely you are to think about it.”
Before you know it, you’re in a state of anxiety throughout the entire weekend over the email, your stomach churns, and you constantly wake up in the middle of the night worrying over it. Or, if you have been following, you have a massive snowball!
If there was no snow in the path, the little snowball would not have become so big, right? Similarly, thoughts work the same way. Sometimes the more attention you pay to something, the more likely you are to think about it, and think about it, to the point that you are in a state of constant and debilitating anxiety.
It does not always have to be this way though.
Here are a few things that helped me:
- Read a book – I will make another post about my favourite self-help books later soon!
- Listen to something – like a podcast or a motivational speech. Listen to something that would get you thinking about something completely unrelated to the situation that you are in.
- Close your eyes and think about a place or a memory that you associate calmness with. For me, it would definitely be me laying in the sun and having its rays on the skin on my face. Ultimate calmness.
- Take a deep breath; in through your nose and count to five then exhale through your mouth. I know this is a simple one, but I found that when I was anxious, my breathing would quicken or I would not take deep breaths. So remember this one if you do cannot do the above!
- Reason with your anxious thoughts. Is that person really judging you? Where is the evidence? Did they look at you? No. Did they say something to you? No. So where are these thoughts coming from? Just me. This internal monologue really helped me calm down on many occasions.
People are not judging you.
I remember on the trains during rush hour, I would always struggle to distract myself because it was so busy. It was difficult for me to even get a book out and read it because of the confined space. I would be anxious, trying not to make any eye contact with people, which was impossible because people would have their faces so close to yours. I would become hyper-aware of myself. If someone did look at me I would be paranoid that they must know that I am anxious.
This would happen over and over again. My coping strategy was to leave uni really late so I would beat rush hour, get a seat on the train and read my book on the way home.
Another time I was at my local gym and recognised someone I knew. The thought of bumping into a familiar face and working out near them made me feel so anxious that I left.
Looking back, I should not have had to change my plans or reschedule my day just because of the fear of people judging me. Do you see how powerful our thoughts can be?
Now I am able to withstand the discomfort. Sometimes it can still be really difficult but I try to make sure that I am prepared with the best coping strategies.
“Feel the fear and do it anyway” – Susan Jeffers
Keeping your body (and mind) occupied is important.
I realised over the years that the days where I did a lot of walking or used a lot of my brain-power such as reading in the university library, I would feel much less anxious during the journeys home. I mean, yes, we all know the importance of exercise on mental wellbeing (more on this in future blog posts) but I never really put the two together.
I realised that when the mind is often really tired, you tend to just stay in a mental state of relaxation. The only thing I would really think of is my next meal and my bed. I would be in a state of zen. So it sort of makes sense that my brain was not constantly evaluating my surroundings – it was just too tired to do so.
When I apply this to my life now, the days when I am quite sedentary, I do tend to feel more anxious over things. I feel more stressed which then also enhances my anxiety. When I have had a busy and productive day at work, my journeys home are less uncomfortable.
Caffeine is a BIG no-no.
I am not trying to offend any major coffee lovers here, but I guess you could say that coffee is pretty much like kryptonite for me. I did go through phases of drinking cups of instant coffee and drinking cans of energy drinks during school, college and university but I slowly weaned myself off. I was really not feeling the benefits of drinking caffeinated beverages and often I would feel really anxious soon after drinking them.
I tend to stick to tea sometimes but mainly herbal tea. I am a huge advocate for camomile tea because it helps to calm my nerves and puts me to sleep. Try it out for yourself!
I hope you enjoyed my blog post. I am really interested in knowing how you guys deal with anxiety. What do you do to keep calm in uncomfortable situations? Let me know in the comments!