Most of us experience at least some level of anxiety and stress in our lives. We live in a society that is constantly demanding more from us and demanding it immediately. What happened to the days when if you weren’t home you couldn’t answer the phone, where you could have dinner with your family or friends and enjoy their full attention? It is not surprising that we often feel anxious or stressed.
A certain level of anxiety is normal: when preparing for an exam, going for a job interview, or faced with illness. It is what gives us that boost, but I am sure there have been times for all of us when this has developed into more: the dull ache in our gut, the pounding heart, shortness of breath, that inability to concentrate or to make a decision. Yet we keep going: there is too much to do, too many other people to think about. When I speak to friends and colleagues who are in stressful situations, big or small, I try to explain the importance of looking after themselves and not ignoring the signs of anxiety. If we don’t take care of ourselves how can we take care of those around us, and, even more importantly, aren’t we worth taking care of?
So what is anxiety? Anxiety is a natural biological response to danger. Our bodies are programmed to react to protect ourselves, either to fight or to run away (flight). When we perceive danger our bodies go through a natural process, releasing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to trigger this response. Our heart rate increases, our digestion system slows down, our muscles tense, our liver produces more glucose, all to help protect us. The problem is that with our lifestyle our bodies don’t get a chance to relax and return to normal in between stressful moments. If this happens too often our adrenal glands can work to excess and we can be in a constant state of anxiety. Imagine a pot of water on a stove: if it is cold, it is going to take a while and a lot of heat to reach boiling point, whereas, if it is constantly simmering you don’t have to turn up the heat much or wait very long before it starts to boil. This simmering pot can be what it is like for someone who is anxious or stressed and it can cause a massive variety of health problems.
So, whatever it is that fulfils you, that gives you space and time just to be, no matter how busy you are: make time for it. You do not have to justify why you need space … take a detour on the way home from work, walk round the park during your lunch hour, have reflexology, whatever it may be. And, for the rest of the week, here are some tips to help you manage anxiety:
- Eat well – It sounds obvious, most of us know what is “good” or “bad” for us, yet when we are stressed or anxious we tend to crave and reach for the things that are actually going to make us feel worse (sugary drinks, sweets, caffeine, alcohol) because we need that little boost. Instead try eating foods rich in nutrients such as vitamin B and omega-3s, which studies had shown may help reduce anxiety and depression. Wholegrains can also regulate serotonin levels which helps us remain calm.
- Get plenty of sleep – Often when we are anxious we find it difficult to sleep; try to ensure a good sleep routine with seven to nine hours a night.
- Smile – Research shows that laughter can reduce symptoms of anxiety so when everything gets a little too much try to find the energy for a smile and a little laugh.
- Breathe – Our breath is a great indicator of how we are feeling. When we are stressed it tends to be shallower and shorter, hence that sensation of a panic attack. By learning to be aware of this and to control our breath, consciously taking longer, stronger breaths we can send signals to our brain that it is okay to relax.
- Don’t worry – Yes, it is okay to worry. We all do it! But, try to put a limit on this and not go round and round in circles. Put a limit on worry time: 15 minutes, try to figure out a plan, possible outcomes and then once the allotted time is up: stop! Plan something for afterwards to prevent the temptation to carry on.
- Visualise something positive – Find your calming place: whatever your “happy place” might be, learn to visualise it when worrying or anxious thoughts come to mind. Learn to guide yourself to that place and it can help calm your mind and reduce your body’s stress reaction.
- Don’t hide – As much as we all want to hide under our duvet when we are stressed and anxious, try not to; instead, spend time with those who support you, go for a walk, and have a little chat. Socialising stimulates the production of oxytocin which helps to reduce anxiety helping us to react less negatively than when we are alone.
- Take time out – Kids and animals seem to have an innate sense of play; an ability we tend to lose as we get older. No matter how busy you are, stop thinking for a while and plan in your own play time!
- Accept that you cannot control everything – Today we are programmed to try and control everything: to be perfect and when we can’t we often become unnerved and anxious. Accept that there are some things that we cannot control and suddenly they become less stressful. Realise that no one is perfect, just do your best and that is okay.
- Just be – There is evidence that too much noise can increase our stress levels. Make time when you can completely switch off. Start small so that you can stick to it, five or ten minutes a day then build it up. Turn your phone off, don’t get distracted by Facebook, no TV, just be. Focus all your energy on just one thing: you!