In a recent study cited by the Mental Health Foundation, there were just over 8 million cases of anxiety reported per year in the UK and the global figures country-by-country are similar. During extraordinary times, particularly during times of crisis, economic or otherwise, people’s anxiety levels can increase significantly, as can other mental health outcomes, such as a depression and stress. And those 8 million were just the reported cases, which will represent only a fraction of the total number.
Anxiety affects an awful lot of people from time to time and for some people, for much of the time. In today’s podcast, I’m going to focus on different methods for managing anxiety if you are experiencing it, including taking a strengths-focused approach. It’s also worth checking out some of my related podcasts on this topic, in particular Managing stress and change – controlling the controllables (at Season 7, episode 4) and Managing your mindset in tough times – the path of possibility (at Season 7, episode 5).
My name’s Dr Paul Brewerton, the strengths guy, I’m a psychologist and a personal development expert and I publish my podcasts each Monday ready for you to start your week on a strong footing. I podcast on topics relating to life, work and strengths and today’s podcast is a proper intersection of all three.
First of all, how should we define anxiety and what does it look like? Most mental health professionals will tell you that anxiety-related disorders come in various forms, including generalised anxiety, panic, social anxiety, phobias and post-traumatic stress. In their diagnosed forms, each of these can be called disorders, but for many people, elements of one or more of these disorders can be experienced at different times, without it actually ever being diagnosed.
The American Psychological Association says that anxiety is “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry.” Anxiety is different for everyone, but symptoms can include physical and psychological. Physical symptoms can include heartbeat irregularity, faster breathing, feeling light headed or restless, sweating, sleeping problems. Psychological symptoms can include feeling tense, worrying a lot, overthinking and getting stuck on a negative thought or event, fearing the worst and so on.
What then can you do to get on the front foot if you find yourself experiencing anxiety? I have 6 top tips:
1. use your strengths,
4. challenging your thoughts,
5. talking to someone, and
6. accepting what you can’t control.
Please bear in mind that if your symptoms are severe, I would highly recommend getting professional help and support, so I offer these tips more as a means of dealing with day-to-day anxiety. So let’s go:
Strength choice and use
Your strengths are those qualities that energise you and which you are great at or have the potential to become great at. If you are clear on the strengths that you can call on when facing a tough situation, the very act of selecting, choosing and using your strengths can feel empowering, like you are better able to take control of a situation, to trust yourself that you will be able to overcome a challenge or to quell any sense of anxiety you may be feeling. So if I have to have a difficult conversation with someone at work or at home who I feel can be quite reactive and the conversation might get a bit intense, I might choose to reduce my own anxiety by picking my Empathy strength to help me understand them, as well as my Decisiveness strength to make sure I am direct and clear and decisive in what I say. If I choose to take those strengths with me as tools, then I can use them to prepare how I will approach the situation as well as feeling that my strengths are there supporting me when I’m actually in the conversation. So that’s my first tip.
Breathing, meditation and mindfulness
I see breathing, meditation and mindfulness as part of a similar set of strategies, which can be very helpful in focusing you on the here and now, typically on your breathing, and that way reducing your chances of getting stuck or focused on a particular thought or worry. A Mental Health Foundation online mindfulness course run a few years back saw an average 58% reduction in anxiety across 273 people when tested, so it can be a very helpful and useful approach. As a strategy, breathing can really be as simple as stopping whatever you’re doing or thinking for a moment, breathing deeply and just listening to and feeling your breath for a few seconds. Many wareable fitness apps today have a few breathing exercises included and phone apps such as Calm, Headspace and Buddhify are also good to look at if you want to get into deeper practice.
Exercise and sleep
Sleep can give you the energy to deal better with difficult feelings and experiences and with uncomfortable emotions. Lying awake trying to solve your problems just doesn’t work neurologically as you have reduced access to the problem-solving and decision-making centres of the brain when you are asleep or sleepy, so try to make your sleep high quality to feel well-rested and better able to cope. My podcast at Season 2, episode 7 on getting a proper sleep will give you some more tips on this. Exercise is a whole nother area that can help – even a 15 minute walk has multiple health and well-being benefits, including helping you to manage your anxiety levels by providing a different focus and by pumping a whole lot of health-providing chemicals around your body which can help flush out negative thinking patterns if that’s your goal. My podcast at Season 2, episode 11 on Exercise will give you much much more on all of that.
Challenge unhelpful thoughts that you may have
Quite often, your experience of anxiety can be affected by a thought or belief that may not be as accurate as you first think. So if it’s useful, checking your facts and keeping your unhelpful thoughts and beliefs at bay can be a good strategy. You may be worrying about the chances of something happening to you, or what someone is thinking or feeling about you or about something you said or did. Quite often, the time we spend on these anxious thoughts then gives them an emphasis in our minds that isn’t proportionate to their importance, leading us to make a whole wealth of assumptions about things without necessarily checking the reality of the situation. So try and get realer and check your facts.
Talking to someone else and sharing
Talking to someone else and sharing, as a method of accepting your own feelings and challenging your thoughts – so talking to someone you trust can be hugely helpful. For many people, externalising their thinking is necessary to do good thinking and to organise their thoughts, so it’s almost a necessity. For other people, having someone listen and sympathise and support and challenge when appropriate can be reassuring and helpful. To get the most from this, consider telling the other person what you would like from them so that they can get that balance between sympathy and challenge right and can give you what you need right now.
Accepting what you can’t control
My last tip relates to accepting that you can’t control other people’s behaviour and actions, or what goes on in the wider world. As a micro-example – think about someone talking loudly on a sleepy commuter train, and you choosing your response. You could get upset and huffy that the person doesn’t seem to appreciate how inappropriate their behaviour is and look to other commuters for support, while stopping short of challenging the behaviour with the person who’s talking loudly because actually you know that they’re not really doing anything wrong.
Or, you could get out your headphones and listen to some calming music, with the dual benefit of the music and not having to focus on the person talking. So that’s a good example of controlling the controllables and moving more into a place where you can feel more in control and less anxious.
That’s it for this week, you have been listening to my top tips on managing your anxiety, which have included: using your strengths, breathing/meditation/mindfulness, exercise/sleep, challenging your thoughts, talking to someone, and accepting what you can’t control. I hope you’ve found it useful. Till next time.
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