I myself know only too well what it’s like to excruciatingly painful and paralysing anxiety for many years, at one stage leading to an extremely serious suicide attempt which left me in a coma in intensive care for five days (I have written about this elsewhere on the site) so I know just how agonisingly tortuous severe clinical anxiety can be.
Below, therefore, I have listed fifteen things that experts in treating and researching anxiety suggest we can do in order to alleviate our suffering :
1) Slow down breathing rate and breathe more deeply. This may sound too easy and simplistic to be effective; however, because of the physiological effect of anxiety, it can actually be very effective indeed.
In my own case, during my periods of high anxiety, I realized that I had been constantly hyperventilating (this refers to breathing that is shallow and rapid) like a panting, water-deprived dog locked in an overheated car at the height of summer, to exaggerate only mildly.
Indeed, people, embarrassingly for me, would comment on my breathing (including almost complete strangers) and ask if I was OK ( I wasn’t). My only recourse was to say I had asthma and I might be having a mild attack (I don’t have asthma). This could lead to awkward questions about why I wasn’t reaching with alacrity for my inhaler to which I would respond that I must have left it at home ( I hadn’t, I don’t own one).
Slowing down the breathing and breathing more deeply corrects oxygen and CO2 levels in the blood reaching the brain that our hyperventilation has disrupted. It is this that underpins its beneficial effect.
I have listed this advice at number one as, if I had to give just one, simple tip on how to reduce the adverse effect of how anxiety makes us feel, this would be it.
2) Remind yourself anxiety attacks can’t hurt you – it is true that feeling very anxious can be extremely unpleasant. For instance, someone in the grip of a fully-fledged panic attack may believe s/he is about to die or to go completely insane. Needless to say, this never happens.
The physiological aspects of anxiety are also unpleasant, such as a racing heart, trembling, and sweating. However, learning controlled breathing (referred to above) can significantly reduce these sensations, as can mindfulness and hypnotherapy.
3) Whenever possible, try not to avoid doing the things you want to do but that your anxiety prevents you from doing – such avoidance, whilst comforting in the short-term, perpetuates the anxiety and, over time, tends to augment it.
4) Remember everyone feels anxiety – we need to experience some anxiety as a species to survive as it prevents us from taking unnecessary risks or putting ourselves in obvious life-threatening situations. In other words, an appropriate anxiety response is adaptive and beneficial to us.
It is only when our anxiety response becomes over-zealous, so to speak, that it becomes maladaptive (eg when it prevents us from doing things that would benefit us).
5) Try not to overestimate threat and danger. Also, try not to underestimate your ability to cope if the worst were to happen.
Typically, anxious people tend to fall into the trap of doing both these things. Try, instead, to appraise matters calmly, objectively, and realistically.
Remember, too, that the anxiety of anticipating something bad happening is often worse than it actually happening.
In summary, anxious people frequently make the following 3 thinking errors:
a) they overestimate the probability of a feared event happening
b) they overestimate how bad it would be, should the feared event occur
c) they underestimate their ability to come to cope with the feared event happening, was it to.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help to correct a tendency to make such thinking errors.
6) Worry driven by anxiety can become obsessive, circular, and essentially futile. This is wasted time, not to mention utterly exhausting and debilitating. Instead, try to spend time focusing on your worry in a constructive way by writing out a plan which includes possible solutions, or, if this is not possible, ways of coping/increasing your resilience.
7) Behavioral modeling – try to think of someone who copes very well in stressful situations and think of useful ways in which you could model yourself on them (we all learn by such modeling – as children, our parents/primary caregivers provide our primary models (which, of course, is not always a good thing).
8) Reduce unnecessary, self-inflicted pressure – some forms of childhood trauma lead to ‘perfectionism’, the feeling we must get everything absolutely right and putting unnecessary pressure on ourselves constantly using words like should, must, and ought in our internal monologues. Sometimes it is necessary to cultivate a more relaxed attitude, particularly given the fact that we are unlikely anyway to perform at our best if we exert superfluous pressure on ourselves.
9) Accept that there is always going to be uncertainty in life and an element of risk in everything we do. Therefore, we need to realize that having total control over our lives is something it is utterly futile to attempt to achieve.
10) Experiment – if there are things you want to do but have been prevented, up until now, from doing them due to high anxiety, experiment with at least trying to start doing them, if you think it might be at all possible, and see if you can, in fact, contrary to your initial expectations, tolerate any anxiety this induces. Remember, your anxiety does not have to stop you – you can do these things despite the anxiety they cause.
Also, remember, many people believe that if they start to do something that makes them feel anxious, the level of anxiety will just keep going up, and up, and up… this is not the case: it will plateau and then start to reduce. Remember to keep your breathing steady and under control (see tip number one, above).
11) Consider therapy – various forms of therapy can be effective in helping us to tackle anxiety, including cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnotherapy, and mindfulness training.
12) Support systems – having support from friends and family is always beneficial. Sometimes we are afraid to ask for help, but can often be pleasantly surprised when we do.
13) Diversions – diverting our thoughts from our worries can be very helpful. Ways to do this include taking up a new hobby, interest, sport, or course, of education. If your anxiety has stopped you from doing something that you used to enjoy in the past, consider taking whatever it was up again.
14) Try to take at least one step each day to help you to overcome your anxiety, however tiny the step may seem. Small steps eventually add up to create big changes, and you may build up momentum more quickly than you thought.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)