I’ve had several requests to write about coping with anxiety, and as the title of thus post may suggest, these tips are not just based on my clinical training and professional experience, but also from personal experience. Although my calm exterior makes it difficult for most to believe, I’ve suffered from anxiety and panic attacks since my school days. Thankfully, I’ve come a long way from breathing into brown paper bags. The tips below are based on what has worked for me, combined with my clinical knowledge and experience. It does not mean that I don’t feel anxious anymore…I do! I just know how to identify it quicker and intervene before it impacts negatively on my life.
Being a perfectionist and somewhat of a control-freak, my anxiety was heightened in situations in which I felt out of control. The overwhelming anxiety often led to panic attacks. When I was younger, they terrified me, but I now know that panic attacks cannot kill me – and I know how to prevent them from escalating.
The most important tool in defeating your anxiety is understanding where it comes from. For me (as it is for most), my anxiety was often the consequence of irrational thoughts (mind you, they do not seem irrational at the time) and situations I had no control of.
Here’s what helped me:
1. Mindfulness: Anxiety is often the result of worrying about some aspect of the future. By practising mindfulness (remaining in the present moment) in as many areas of my life as possible, not only am I able to enjoy the present moment but I’m also aware of the thoughts in my mind and how each thought makes me feel. Becoming aware of thoughts that make me feel anxious means I can debate them (discussed in the next point).
2. Debate your thoughts: This refers to dissecting and debating the thoughts that promote anxiety. E.g. I am anxious because I think I may fail an exam. In my mind, I will debate the possibility of this happening by examining the evidence for and against this thought. What are the logical reasons for believing this may happen? Have I failed this exam? Have I not prepared sufficiently? Facts help us think more rationally. Even if I am still worried, I have the chance to ask myself – what steps can I now take to ensure that this fear does not come to pass? E.g. study more, get help, etc.
3. What’s the worst that could happen? I often ask myself this question in situations that stress me out, only to reaslise that the worst case scenario isn’t that bad. It’s also important to realistically consider what the chances are that the worst case may prevail. I then consider, even if it does happen, what options do I have to address the situation.
4. Don’t block things out: When you feel anxious about something, you need to process it. Blocking it out makes you feel more overwhelmed, anxious and panicky. It makes more sense to have a plan – you are likely to sleep better.
5. Ground yourself: When I feel overwhelmed, I realise it’s about things that are not in my control (such as the actions of other people). I refocus by bringing my mind to focus on what IS in my control. One of the best ways to bring your mind to the present is the well-known grounding exercise where you look around to notice: 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. It’s an easy way to bring your mind to the present. If you notice the first signs of a panic attack coming on (e.g. increased heart rate), this is a useful exercise.
6. Breathe: Breathing is a simple, but powerful mechanism of helping us remain in the present and calm our minds. In order to feel calmer, its important to slow down your breathing. A simple way is to breathe in to a count of five, hold your breath for a count of five and breathe out to a count of five. If you can, a better way is to breathe in to a count of 7, hold for a count of 4 and breathe out to a count of 8. Because our breath is always present, it’s an easy way to help you focus on the here and now.
7. Focus on what you CAN control: Because a lot of my anxiety was about situations beyond my control, it really helped to refocus on what I could control – this helped me feel in control again. Simple things like deciding what time to wake up, to eat breakfast every morning, to plan my day (as far as I could), to switch of the data on my phone to prevent constant notifications, to allow my phone to go to voicemail, etc. helped me regain control.
8. Remind yourself of what’s most important: Without even realising it, we allow ourselves to become anxious about things that may not be that important in the greater scheme of things. So reminding yourself of what’s important and expressing gratitude for what is going well in your life, can help your mood. Perhaps you’re anxious about what others thought of your presentation or you are anxious about why a certain colleague seems to have ignored you – ask yourself these questions: Am I safe? Am I relatively healthy? Do I have family/friends that I know care? Do I have a home? Do I have a job? This helps you realise that things are not as bad as you may have initially thought.
9. Do one thing at a time: I noticed that because I have so much to do, I try to multitask, which heightens my anxiety. Because I have to share my attention, I am then not focused enough on any one thing, which means there’s a lot that can go wrong. So single-tasking has helped me do one thing at a time, and as soon as my mind wanders to the next thing, I bring it back to the task at hand, reminding myself that I’ll deal with the next task when I get there.
10. Surround yourself with those who can help you refocus: The best people to have around are those who understand your anxiety and are able to compassionately help you think more rationally about the things that worry you.
Do I still feel anxious sometimes? Of course I do! But these strategies have ensured that I refocus very quickly so that the anxiety does not affect me physically or impact negatively on any area of my life. And…I haven’t had a panic attack in several years