Do you often feel overwhelmed with worry? Do you find yourself feeling panicky, or have trouble sleeping? If this sounds familiar, you may have anxiety. And you’re not alone: anxiety affects one in five people in the UK.
As a therapist I understand how difficult life can be if you have anxiety, and I want you to know you can overcome it. Read on to find out more about anxiety and the steps you can take to recover.
What is anxiety?
We all get anxious sometimes. It’s a natural response that puts our mind and body in ‘fight or flight’ mode and helps us react faster to potential challenges. But if we feel anxious very often or very severely, this impacts our quality of life.
Because anxiety affects the way you think, everyday situations may seem dangerous. You might avoid certain people or places, or stay late at work to check you haven’t made a mistake. Anxiety causes physical changes too, which aren’t dangerous in themselves but can feel very unpleasant and scary.
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
Anxiety can be experienced in lots of different ways. Sometimes there’s a specific trigger, like fear about health or social situations. Some people are affected by extreme worry with no clear cause, which might be diagnosed as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). PTSD, panic disorder and OCD are also kinds of anxiety.
Symptoms vary from person to person, and can include:
- Pounding heart
- Sweating and shaking
- Tight chest and difficulty breathing
- Panic attacks
- Intense worry or fear, feeling of dread
- Trouble sleeping or bad dreams
- Avoiding certain people or places, or feeling like you have to escape from them
- Feeling disconnected from yourself or your surroundings
- Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Fatigue or exhaustion
How to overcome your anxiety
Too often, people live with anxiety for months or even years without getting the help they deserve. But the good news it’s actually very treatable. Although your anxiety won’t disappear completely there are ways you can reduce it, and take back control.
Different things work for different people, so you may want to choose the options you feel drawn to and leave the rest for another time.
1. Reach out
Fear can make you feel disconnected from other people, but talking about your fears can make them lose their intensity. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone close to you, you could call a helpline (I’ve listed some at the end of this post).
Seeing your GP is a good idea if your anxiety is very severe or having a profound impact on your life. Your doctor may diagnose a specific type of anxiety, and offer treatment tailored to you. This might include a self-help course, referral to therapy, or a medication to help you relax.
2. Learn relaxation techniques
Breathing exercises are a simple way to relax you, and you can do them anywhere. They can help you feel calmer even if you’re in the grip of a panic attack. Regular breathing exercises can help prevent future attacks too.
Anxiety often involves worry over events in the past or the future, and many people find meditation helps them focus on the present moment, stopping worries from spiralling.
Some people find keeping busy works better to stay calm. If this helps you, give yourself time for activities you enjoy, or try something new. Being creative, gardening or volunteering can all distract your mind from worry, and keep you focussed on the present.
3. Set aside worry time
It might sound strange, but setting aside half an hour every day to address your worries can actually reduce your anxiety.
It’s often really hard not to worry when you have anxiety, but having a set ‘worry time’ means you’re giving yourself permission to spend the rest of the day without worrying. Schedule your half hour for the same time every day – and as worries occur to you, make a note of them in a journal, so you can address them later.
Writing down your worries can be helpful in itself – you gain perspective over your worries rather than getting caught up reflecting on them. You might also find your worries have resolved themselves by the time your half hour arrives.
4. Go to therapy
There are different kinds of therapy that can resolve anxiety, and some people find a combination of approaches effective. Here’s how therapy can help you:
Person centred counselling works by providing a safe space for you to talk openly, in confidence and without being judged. Counselling can help you explore why you feel anxious and identify the cause of your anxiety, so you can come to terms with it and move on.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy works by helping you identify negative thoughts and replace them with realistic ones. Your therapist will give you exercises to practice outside of the session to challenge negative thoughts. You can use these exercises as long-term coping strategies.
Hypnotherapy allows you to visualise scenarios you would normally find challenging while in a very relaxed state. The therapist offers calming words or ‘suggestions’ to replace your negative feelings. Because you’re so relaxed, you’re very receptive to these suggestions and they help you feel calm outside therapy.
5. Get a health boost
Studies have shown exercise (especially aerobic exercise) reduces anxiety and improves self-esteem. Choose an activity you enjoy – and you’re more likely to keep doing it. Exercise will help you sleep better, too. Just make sure you exercise more than 3 hours before bed, otherwise the hormones released during exercise could keep you awake.
Diet can also have an impact on anxiety levels. Swapping processed food for healthy meals can help relieve your anxiety. Try limiting how much caffeine and alcohol you drink, as these can actually increase anxiety.
6. Question your negative thoughts
Anxiety distorts the way we think, causing us to make negative assumptions. For example a friend not answering your call leading to the assumption that he or she is avoiding you on purpose. These thoughts lead to others, until we see the world and ourselves in a very negative way.
It’s helpful to notice negative thoughts as they arise, and consider whether they’re facts, or something you’re assuming. If it’s an assumption not based on fact, consider alternatives: ‘perhaps my friend was too busy to answer the phone’. This breaks your negative script, so you feel calmer and happier.
7. Face your fear
It’s normal to avoid situations we find frightening but this can cause our fear to increase. If you confront your fear in a safe environment, it will diminish.
This might sound daunting! But the trick is to tackle your fear gradually. Start by making a list of scary scenarios, then order them from least to most scary. For example, if you’re scared of dogs, looking at pictures of dogs might be least scary, while petting one would be at the end of your list.
Confront the least scary situation until your fear eases. When you’re ready, move on to the next one, and so on. When confronting a situation it’s important to wait until your fear response goes away, so you no longer associate it with being scared. If your anxiety is severe, you may want to seek advice from your therapist or GP beforehand, so you’ve got support in place if you need it.
How I can help
If you’re affected by anxiety, or you would like someone to talk to, you’re very welcome to get in touch with me. I’m a qualified person centred counsellor and hypnotherapist. I’m here to support you in confidence, whatever you’re going through. I offer face to face counselling in Manchester, and online or telephone counselling across the UK.
NCS – the professional association for counsellors has a national directory you can search to find qualified therapists in your area.
The Samaritans – is a free helpline run by trained volunteers, open 24/7
Anxiety UK – is a charity to help people affected by anxiety. There’s the option to access resources like online therapy by becoming a member. The website has a directory of local self-help groups.
No Panic – is a charity for those affected by anxiety and panic attacks. Their homepage has a crisis message you can access 24/7 to relieve an ongoing panic attack. They also have a specialist helpline.