Anxiety is one of the most frequent emotion that we experience in our lives. In my work I encounter much too often people who experience excessive levels of worry and anxiety that serve to no useful purpose, but to undermine their happiness and interfere with their ability to accomplish their goals.
When I try to get to the bottom of the reasons why we are so prone to anxiety, I find these answers:
- First of all, a certain degree of anxiety is healthy, it is part of the adaptive side of us, humans. It helps anticipate real danger and prepare for it. This part should stay.
- The other part of anxiety that I want to deal with in this article, is the anxiety that persists, or even escalades when there is no real threat. It is very similar to fear, but occurs in anticipation of a feared situation and usually leads us to want to avoid a situation or a reminder of it.
- Worry is the cognitive part of the anxiety and can often occur well before a potential danger. When we engage in worry, we often ask ourselves "what if" questions. It might look like we are trying to solve the problem by anticipating, but instead we just go from one potential problem to another.
Coming back to the reasons why people are reaching unhealthy, damaging levels of anxiety, these can be very different:
- It can be the biologic component - some people seem to have a neurologic vulnerability to worry and negative thinking;
- It can be the upbringing style - living in a house where anxiety predominates, everything looks like a problem;
- It can be the result of our internal critic - having too high expectations from ourselves;
- Or, it can be the result of a traumatic event in our lives, that is still emotionally unprocessed.
WHAT DOES ANXIETY DO TO YOU?
Anxiety and worry beyond a healthy limit displays many symptoms, not only mental, but physical and behavioral as well. Some of the most common symptoms are:
- Mentally: worries about what might occur in the future, rumination about past, thoughts about being in danger, feeling stuck in a situation;
- Physically: gastrointestinal disorders, shortness of breath, sweating, rapid heartbeats, dizziness, fatigue, dry mouth;
- Behaviorally: avoidance (avoiding situations or places where we feel uncomfortably), repetitive behaviors or habits (biting fingernails, tapping feet), distraction techniques (overeating, compulsive shopping, putting excessive energy into work).
The bad news is that unfortunately both avoiding and safety behaviors are not helping in coping with anxiety. Instead, both prevent us from fully facing our anxieties and from creating the opportunity to build our confidence we can handle things we fear.
The good news is that anxiety and worry can be kept under control by you! All you need is to understand that learning to keep your anxiety under control is like learning how to play an instrument: you need the theoretical input, and then to dedicate time and practice. It may not be easy, but determination, discipline and positivity are key elements for success.
After ruling out any underlying medical condition as possible cause for anxiety, the work on anxiety management can begin.
THE MULTIDIMENSIONAL APPROACH
Many experts in the field of anxiety management strongly advice that a holistic approach is the best. That means keeping your health in good shape is the starting point. Living a healthy life with regular physical exercise, a balanced nutrition, adequate sleep and relaxation is the ground for anxiety management. Dedicate yourself a few minutes a day just for you, not work, not kids, not family, just YOU. Think about what you wish, what brings you joy, what is important for you now? Having this daily habit is important because it keeps you connected to your life- status, since anxiety is very often a sign that something is not working as it should, being work, family or relationships.
Further we will deal with the mental part - also called cognitive restructuring - that will give you specific tools to use against unhealthy levels of anxiety.
Learn to pay more attention to your thoughts by observing them as soon as they appear in your mind, and before they escalate.
Often anxiety feelings are effects of anxious thoughts or images we play in our heads (for ex: this project will fail, I will end up alone, the plain will crash, what if I'll never find a job?). An easy way to do that is to practice journaling: identify and write down your anxiety thoughts for a few days or weeks. This will bring a lot in learning when, where and in which particular situation are you more vulnerable. Only in the moment you become more aware of your thoughts, you can distance yourself from them and become rather a witness, instead of getting involved.
Once you notice your anxiety provoking thoughts and you become their witness, you can start to dispute them.
To dispute your thoughts you should ask yourself: What is the evidence that the situation will be like that? Can you say for sure that this will happen? What would others say about this situation? Could that be other alternatives? In this step it is important that you split situations between those that are under your control, and those that are not. Because, when there is something you can do about it, better start looking for solutions, but when there is not really something under your influence, learn to adapt and accept the situation as it is.
To find good solutions and construct an action plan, you need a clear head. When your head is clouded with worries and anxieties, it losses it’s ability to function at it's best.
One of the best tools to increase your focus is to practice balanced, deep breathing exercises. Many people breath shallow or irregularly when they are anxious or tense and this leads to less oxygen to the heart. As effect our heart beats faster to supply more oxygen.
By practicing daily deep breathing for at least four minutes at a time you contribute to the restauration of the oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body.
Try breathing in through your nose to a slow count of 4, hold it for a count to 4, breath out to a slow count of 4 and again hold for a count to 4, during 4-5 minutes and see how are you feeling. If you put one hand on your upper chest and one hand on your stomach, your should feel your hand and stomach moving up and down as you're breathing.
Breathing is also good preparation for the next step that consists in exposing yourself gradually to the situations you fear.
By learning how to gradually expose to situations you fear in a relaxed state, you give yourself the opportunity to increase your confidence in facing the anxiety. The more you do it, the more your confidence increases.
A good idea is to start with exposing yourself to the situation where you experience the lowest anxiety symptoms and progress step by step towards situations that are higher anxiety loaded.
Use positive visualization before exposing yourself to the feared situation.
It means winning against anxiety first in your mind, prior to going into reality. This is an easy and effective approach for the optimal preparation of the situation you want to expose yourself to. The ground idea is to see yourself already succeeding in the feared situation. Practice it over and over again until you visualize success. When done well, a positive visualization involves the sensations of feelings, emotions and sounds that support imagery.
The information and practical tools that I offered you in this blog post are dealing with the "technical/skillful" part of the anxiety. In therapy, leaning these skills is however accompanied by the deep understanding of the trigger that contributed to the actual situation. In my experience addressing anxiety on both levels : cognitively (skills to manage it) and emotionally (exploring the life situations that contributed to the high vulnerability) can have a deeper, long lasting effect in overcoming anxiety.
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