As the first condition to be covered in our focus on mental health, I have enlisted the assistance of one of my friends and colleagues to talk about anxiety. In this post she gives some great, easy to understand information about it and some awesome tips on how to work with it. In the next post she will share her own personal journey with anxiety and how it has impacted on her daily living. You can find a short bio on Sam below her post.
You are a cave-man. You are just dozing off for the night in your cave while your precious family sleep soundly nearby. You feel sleepy and relaxed. Suddenly you hear a low growl coming from outside the cave. Your ears prick up immediately, you eyes peer out into the darkness … what is it?! Is it a sabre-tooth tiger? Can it smell your scent? Will it attack you? How can you protect your precious family? Your heart starts racing, your palms start sweating, your mind is running through all your available options simultaneously – where is your nearest weapon? Should you fight? Should you wake your family to run and hide?
This is the fight-or-flight response in primitive man and it is the same response we modern humans experience whenever we feel threatened or fearful. This is anxiety.
Anxiety is a very common experience for most of us. It is our survival instinct. It is a reaction that is both psychological and physical. And it is therefore completely normal.
For example, you might be planning on taking a holiday soon and travelling by aeroplane. You really want to go but you are feeling anxious about the flight. You watched a show recently that was about a plane crash. You keep imagining the worst case scenario in your mind. It is your thoughts that are causing your anxiety. But the response is a physiological one. When you lie in bed at night worrying about flying your body can’t relax. Your heart beats faster, you feel sick in the stomach and you cannot settle into sleep.
Many things can trigger anxiety: exams, public speaking, being laughed at (it is common to dream about turning up to school
naked!), job interviews, performance appraisals, being vulnerable, humiliated, rejected or exposed.
Anxiety can often play a positive role in our lives. For example, if I get a text from a friend saying they will be popping by in 5 minutes, my anxiety about how they might judge me when they see how messy my house is, motivates me to run around tidying up, whilst adrenaline pumps through my body. Even though for 3 hours prior to this I’ve been lying on the couch watching telly! My anxiety just got my house looking decent in record time!
However, excessive worrying can negatively impact our daily lives. We can suffer from generalised anxiety disorder, where our constant worrying can almost paralyse us. For example, we cancel our overseas holiday because our anxious thoughts about flying become all-consuming. Or we miss school on the day of our speech, because we have made ourselves so sick over the fear of stuffing up in front of our classmates and teacher that we are sweating, crying and shaking. Or we pretend we are not home when our friend wants to pop over, because 5 minutes is just not enough time to feel everything is good enough.
Perfectionism is a personality trait that can feed anxiety, because it is a constant state of never feeling good enough. No one can ever achieve ‘perfection’ so constantly measuring ourselves against some unrealistic ideal is going to cause a LOT of stress. It has been said that anxiety is the difference between who you are and who you think you should be. If we could accept ourselves as we are, we would feel calmer and less anxious.
Anxiety can also result in panic attacks, where the physiological response to the feared situation can be so overwhelming that it results in chest pain and/or hyperventilation. If you suffer from anxiety and/or panic attacks, empower yourself with knowledge and strategies. Start by talking to an understanding GP or psychologist or read up on symptoms and treatment. If you know you are susceptible, learn some strategies and breathing techniques that work for you. The main thing is to be able to identify the signs in yourself and try to stop yourself from spiralling out of control – slow your breathing down, bring yourself back to the present and challenge your irrational thoughts.
Some people simplify the concept of anxiety as worrying about the future (and depression as sadly lamenting the past). A lot of the treatment for anxiety (and depression) focuses on mindfulness, focussing on the present and self-acceptance. Trying to live in the moment and be grateful for what you have (rather than what you don’t have) can help.
Having anxiety can stop us from rolling with the punches and living our lives to the full. Sometimes there can be physical conditions underlying anxiety also. So it is worth going to your GP and getting some advice. It may end up being a combination of things: perhaps some medical interventions to sort out any imbalances as well as some strategies and information from books, online research, a psychologist or counsellor. Throw in some yoga and meditation to really reclaim your calmness!
Most importantly of all, dream big. Life is short, so take some time, set some personal goals and go for it! Don’t let anxiety paralyse you and stop you from living your life to the full. Get some support to put it back in its place.
My name is Sam and I am a 39-year-old mum of two and a counsellor. I support carers who care for a loved one with a mental illness or developmental disorder. I have a special interest in supporting parents and carers of children with autism and Asperger’s. I am also experienced in counselling and supporting clients who have suffered sexual assault, complex trauma, PTSD, grief, depression and anxiety.