Anxiety, that little self-judgemental voice! - 5 top tips from a counsellor.
Sorry if I raised your anxiety! Even that word or thinking of a work/ school presentation may be enough to bring on the physiological features of anxiety. It starts with a few negative thoughts, then quickly leads to talking faster, fidgeting, upset stomach, butterflies, dizziness, tingling in the fingers and toes, lessened cognitive ability, shortness of breath, and may lead to avoidance, panic attacks or running away
I know what you’re thinking! You know what anxiety is but what can you do about it? I am going to go through my top five tips of helping with anxiety.
Before going through these five tips it is important to recognise that we all have some anxiety as a way of protecting our self. Anxiety is an important function of our amygdala (the ‘is this safe or not?‘ part of the brain) and produces the feelings of being scared, worried and nervous. If our brain perceives something as dangerous, it can be almost impossible to change that immediately. We need to train our brain to interpret irrational fears into something that is normal or acceptable. This can take time and sometimes be difficult to do on your own. Counselling for anxiety is extremely effective and depending on the individual, can help return to normal functioning over a short period.
Let’s get started with my five tips to control your anxiety.
There will be upcoming blogs on some of these tips in more detail, leave a comment if there was one you wanted me to elaborate on.
TIP ONE: Stop avoidance
If you are avoiding the thing that is increasing your anxiety, this will just create more fear. The longer you don’t do something the more you remember the fear and negative experiences. We always think something is going to be worse than it is in general; but when we also have anxiety around this, our brain is thinking about ‘what might go wrong’ and subconsciously ‘am I going to be safe/ is there danger?’.
I am not saying just jump right back in but try some small steps, talk about it with someone, visualise yourself doing it, watch someone else doing it, set yourself some small goals.
TIP TWO: What is realistic
Anyone who has been worried about something could acknowledge their thoughts do not go from A to B like normal, but there is a ‘what if… B,C,D,E,F…..Z. I will give you an example, a student is having anxiety that they are going to fail their exam. Their thoughts may go to, if I fail I won’t be able to get into university; I wont pass school; I wont get a job; I wont be a proactive member of society; I wont be able to get a house; I will be homeless; and quite often an underlying fear, I will die. None of these thoughts are the reality of failing an exam but this is where our thoughts take us.
This catastrophising of thoughts is unhelpful and unhealthy; we need to try to stop this train before it consumes us and fear takes over. This takes practise. One good way is to ask yourself simply ‘is this realistic?’. A better way would be to write it out, make a map of your thoughts and then remove the unrealistic ones. If you can do that, take it one step further and challenge your negative thoughts by adding in some positive outcomes e.g. I pass the exam; I get a good mark; my teacher is proud of me; etc.
TIP THREE: Understand the physiological effects
Quite often people will go to the GP before a counsellor for anxiety as they may be having features such as heightened heartbeat, reduced appetite, insomnia, muscle cramps, headaches and upset stomach or bowel problems. If you google these symptoms you will also get some horrible illnesses come up. Anxiety is very physical and extremely exhausting.
Understanding the physiological effects of anxiety gives back some control to the individual, and this can make it not as scary. Understanding that your increase in adrenalin, heart rate and butterflies in your stomach is because your body has released cortisol; the tingling in your extremities is because your blood is moving to the larger muscles in your body; and you want to move and may be quick tempered as your body is preparing to fight or flight.
The physiological features help you to understand your body and mind. It can also help you to notice when your anxiety is increasing, as sometimes we feel it before we know it.
TIP FOUR: Positive imagination
Anxiety always gives us the worst or an unrealistic negative outcome for the thing we are overthinking or worrying about. We only think about what is going wrong or try to tell ourselves it will be ok. When we are not bringing in any positive outcomes around the anxiety topic, we are creating more and more negative neural paths. These negative neural paths mean that we will naturally go back to that negative way of thinking whenever that topic pops up.
One way of changing this is to use your imagination. Kids after a crisis, have this great ability of coming up with alternate endings, that are mostly extremely positive. As adults we lose this ability; we need to practise. A few ways you could do this are by taking something that raises your anxiety and:
· Write a list of positive things that come from it
· Create a brainstorm of positive opportunities
· Imagine yourself doing a good job
· Imagine yourself doing this and having positive feelings
TIP FIVE: Your brain needs rest too
As mentioned, anxiety is exhausting, mentally and physically and can impact sleep, eating, thoughts and behaviours. These things are what our mind and body need to function. It is also hard to recover from anxiety if we are mentally and physically drained, as challenging your thoughts is also hard work.
Sleep is severely impacted by anxiety, if you go to sleep with worries on your mind you may find that you do not enter a REM (deepest level) sleep and not feel rested when you awake in the morning. You also may wake up many times during the night and very commonly have trouble getting to sleep. Distract yourself before sleep, you could use meditation, music or reading. Just make sure your mind is in a positive and relaxed state before going to bed.
Eating- even if you are not hungry make sure you snack and keep your nutrition up. Do NOT use caffeine, stimulants or alcohol to manage. Your appetite will return as your anxiety decreases.
With anxiety your mind is running on adrenaline and overdrive; your mind needs some downtime too. Make sure you create time for your mind to have a rest. You may do this by engaging in an activity that creates mindfulness, going for a walk, creating art, playing music, listening to music, cooking or reading. Mindfulness means having moments when you lose track of all time and space and being totally immersed in that activity. It is important that you don’t have other thoughts or to-do lists running in your mind when you do this. Two tips to create mindfulness is a) do it with something you love and b) notice the really small things e.g. the sounds as you go for a walk; the rhythms in the music or the tones in the colours.
Take some time to find your act of mindfulness.
It will be unique for each person as to what helps their anxiety, it is not easy and does take time. If you are going through anxiety, please don’t do it on your own, talk to a trusted person and let them help you through it. Make sure you have some supports and there are so many useful resources on the internet and counsellors around that can aid your recovery. Remember anxiety is the most common mental illness and if it is impacting your everyday life or stopping you from doing something you enjoy, take some time to improve your health.
A few resources:
· Smiling minds (mindfulness app)
· Headspace (meditation app)
· Mycompass.org.au (self-monitoring emotions website)
· Mindspot.org.au (online counselling courses)
· Mindhealthconnect.org.au (online services and information)
· SANE Australia (online portal group support and conversations)