As I explain elsewhere on this site, those of us who have experienced significant childhood trauma are more likely to suffer from anxiety as adults than those who were spared such adverse experiences (all else being equal). Severe anxiety is devastating and utterly debilitating. Indeed, in my own case, I was almost unable to function at all, even in the most basic areas of life such as washing, shaving, having a conversation (I became almost monosyllabic), and shopping for food (I would frequently rely on having takeaways delivered to my flat) as well as feeling constantly, unremittingly suicidal.
When in such a state, it can feel almost impossible to help oneself, and professional help, medication, and possibly hospitalization may be required (as it was in my own case). However, when anxiety is not totally paralyzing or when we have recovered from an anxiety condition and wish to prevent relapse there are certain things we can do to help ourselves. I outline ten of these below:
1) Modelling: this involves thinking of someone we know personally or someone in the public eye whom we admire in relation to their ability to cope with stress and overcome adversity. We can then use this person as a role model; for example, when we find ourselves in an anxiety-provoking situation we may ask ourselves how the person we have selected as our model would respond and then try to emulate such a response.
2) Altruism: e.g volunteering/ charity work – perhaps a contradiction in terms, but benefits of altruism (there is no room in this article to go into whether ‘pure’ altruism can actually exist) can include distracting ourselves from our own concerns, getting our own difficulties into a better perspective and generally raising our own opinion about ourselves.
3) Take time to enjoy leisure activities (and stop feeling guilty about it): one unhealthy attitude that high anxiety can lead to is perfectionism which can manifest itself in various ways, a common example being so-called ‘workaholism’. We can fall into the trap of trying, obsessively, to reach the pinnacle of success in all that we undertake (or as much success as our talents will permit). However, paradoxically, we are likely, overall, to be more productive and efficient if we allow ourselves guilt-free time to simply enjoy ourselves. The alternative may be utter exhaustion, burnout, psychological breakdown, and/or stress-induced physical illness.
4) Look after our physical health – including ensuring that we get enough sleep (having to work when tired can feel tortuous and is highly stressful). There is also a great deal of scientific research showing why exercise is so good at reducing anxiety levels.
5) Pursue that which is meaningful to us: sometimes we can become so caught up in what society or other people expect from us and with the daily struggle merely to keep our heads above water that we fail to stand back and examine whether we are finding our lives fulfilling and meaningful. Instead, we live in a kind of fog, preoccupied merely with existing and surviving, that prevents us from seeing life’s potential.
It can be life-changing and, indeed, life-affirming, to consider if we would benefit from altering our direction in life in such a way that it becomes more aligned with our values. This could involve, for example, retraining to enable us to undertake a career that we find truly rewarding – a vocation as opposed to a job. We then need to make such a change feasible (see item number 6 beneath the chart).
6) Taking small steps: once we have decided what we would like to do in order to make our lives more meaningful, we can then set up a plan that will facilitate this. Often, so that we do not feel overwhelmed, it can be best to break the ultimate goal down into a series of more modest subgoals. It is then useful to set ourselves a timetable of by when we would like each small step to be completed. Each step needs to be realistic and achievable and we need to plan in advance how each small step can be achieved. The timescale we give ourselves to achieve our ultimate goal is up to us – for instance, we may have a one-year plan, five-year plan, or even ten-year plan.
7) Practice mindfulness: there is now very strong scientific evidence that learning mindfulness is an extremely effective way to reduce anxiety
8) Restart an old hobby: if we become very unwell with anxiety and depression it can stop us from doing things that we used to enjoy (indeed, we can develop a condition that prevents us from enjoying anything called anhedonia. However, doing nothing and just sitting at home (or lying in bed) negatively ruminating perpetuates the problem. Whilst it can seem almost impossible, taking up hobbies we used to enjoy before we became ill can help to kick-start some significant, positive change (the potential to enjoy these activities is still there, however, we may feel).
9) Take up a new hobby: the rationale here is the same as above
10) Connect with nature: a walk in the woods or other natural environments can be surprisingly therapeutic – the effect can be very soothing. A camping trip could be especially beneficial.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
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