There are a lot of different words for anxiety. It is sometimes described as worry, nervousness, fear, or stress. Everyone gets anxious some of the time and anxiety is a natural human response to when we feel under threat. It is that feeling of being afraid, or something feeling ‘not quite right’, or a sense of worry, particularly when we think about the future, or things that are just about to happen.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is our body’s natural alarm (fight/flight/freeze system) and is designed to tell us that there is danger so that our bodies can prepare for action, either by fighting the danger, staying frozen, or fleeing from it. The problem with some alarms is that they can be set off too easily, even when there isn’t an actual danger there. Think of a faulty car alarm that sometimes can go off when there isn’t actually any danger – this is what can happen to our anxiety alarm too!
Anxiety is very normal. You may recognise it as that feeling you might get before a job interview, a big presentation, or a new social interaction. Normally, what happens is that anxiety feels overwhelming for that time, but when the stressor is removed the anxiety goes away. However, sometimes anxiety can impact the ability to live your life in the way you want it to and becomes a mental health problem.
It may feel like a problem if:
- You avoid certain situations that make you feel anxious.
- Your worries feel ‘out of control’.
- You regularly experience physical symptoms of anxiety.
- Your feelings of anxiety last for a long time, even when the feared situation is over.
- You have a general sense of anxiety that doesn’t correspond to anything you might be doing.
How does anxiety impact our body and brain?
Since our bodies are preparing for some kind of action, this affects how our body feels and adrenaline is rushed into our blood stream to enable us to fight, flee or freeze. Below describes common symptoms that people experience when they feel anxious.
When the brain perceives a threat, it activates the body’s “fight or flight” alarm system, and adrenaline is released into the blood from the adrenal glands. We experience uncomfortable feelings because the adrenaline makes the body systems speed up, diverting blood towards the big muscles, preparing us to attack (anger) or escape (anxiety).
- Brain Hijacked: Thoughts race which makes it hard to think clearly and rationally. Feelings of being “unreal” or detached.
- Eyes Widen: Allows more light in, improves (or blurs) vision.
- Mouth Dries: Caused by narrowing of the blood vessels.
- Body Heats and Sweats: A side effect of all the speeded up systems is that the body rapidly heats. Sweating allows body to cool again, and to become more slippery to allow escape.
- Heart Beats Faster and Palpitations: Bloods pressure and pulse increase as the heart pumps more blood to muscles, allowing us to run away or attack.
- Hands tingle – Legs Tremble or “Jelly Legs”: Blood is diverted to large muscles, and small blood vessels constrict, causing tingling, trembling or numbness.
- Bladder relaxes: Inner sphincter muscle relaxes so we might feel urge to pass urine. Outer sphincter remains under conscious control (except in rare terror situations).
- Muscle Tense: Blood, containing vital oxygen and glucose energy, is sent to the big muscles of the arms and legs – ready for fight or escape. Can also cause aches and pains.
- Stomach Churns: Adrenaline reduces blood flow and relaxes muscles in stomach and intestines (blood diverted to limb muscles) causing nausea, butterflies, or churning.
- Breathe Fast and Swallow: Helps us take in more oxygen, which is then transported around the blood system. Sometimes experience a choking feeling.
- Head Dizzy or Light – Headed: Result of our faster breathing.
After the adrenaline has died down, we can feel exhausted, shaky, and weak.
Some common thoughts and feelings that people experience when they are anxious include:
- Rumination: Thinking about a lot of bad experiences or thinking about a situation over and over again.
- Feeling like you can’t stop worrying, or that bad things will happen if you stop worrying.
- Feeling that other people can tell you are anxious.
- Having a general sense of dread / fearing the worse.
- Worrying that that you aren’t connected to the world around you, or the world isn’t real (derealisation).
- Feeling that you are disconnected from your mind or body, which may feel like you are a character in a film (depersonalisation).
- Worrying a lot about things that might happen in the future and usually predicting that the worse will happen.
- Seeking lots of reassurance from other people.
What can I do to help myself?
Some of the below strategies are focussed to help reduce the adrenaline in your body or to start gently challenging our anxious thoughts. Others are to help switch your attention from the anxious situation or thoughts to something else. All these strategies can be applied anytime and anywhere! Like any new skill, these strategies take practice. Unfortunately, they may not work after one try but if you practice them a few times you may see they start to reduce your anxiety. What is particularly important is to be in tune with your senses by trying to ground yourself back to the moment and not being in your own head, worrying about the future, or thinking negatively about the past and getting back into the present.
Shift your focus of attention
- Use your senses to ground yourself back in the moment. Play this game called 5,4,3,2,1.
- What are five things you can see?
- 4 things you can hear?
- 3 things you can touch?
- 2 things you can smell?
- 1 thing you can taste?
- Then, take 1 deep breath.
- Another good exercise is to try and connect with your surroundings. Perhaps you can go outside and make a conscious effort to start by focussing on the sensation of your feet as you walk on the ground, or the sense of air against your skin. Listen out for sounds in your environment and focus your attention on them. When you notice your mind wander back to the old loop, gently but firmly redirect your attention to list to the sounds, or to notice things you can see around you.
- Plan in advance by having something in mind that you can shift your attention to if you know something can trigger you. Plan to text a friend or call someone. Listen to the latest podcast you like listening to or have some music that you know will improve your mood.
- You can practice these exercises anywhere and don’t involve anyone else. Mental distraction brings you back to the present. You can apply other exercises too, such as count backwards from 100 in 7s, or to name an animal or country that starts with each letter of the alphabet and to think of 10 blue items.
Challenge your thinking
We know that our anxious brain tries to make us prepare for worst-case scenarios by imaging what these might be, but then it tries to trick us in thinking that this worst-case scenario is the most likely outcome.
Below are some questions to help you start to challenge this way of thinking and to consider some alternative outcomes:
- What is it that I think is going to happen here? Is this a fact or my opinion?
- What’s most likely to happen?
- Am I getting things out of proportion?
- Am I overestimating the danger? Am I underestimating my ability to cope?
- Is there another way of dealing with this?
- What would be the most helpful and effective action to take?
- What would a friend or trusted person say to me?
Use positive coping statement to remind yourself that you are present and safe, and that you can cope. You can use statements such as “It might feel terrible right now, but these feelings will pass, and I can cope”.
Calm your body
Breathing exercises can make you feel in control and calm your entire body. Try these breathing exercises detailed below in this link:
Treatments for anxiety
There is no one cure for anxiety, but there are treatments that are clinically proven effective and are NICE recommended.
1. Talking therapies: Talking therapies have proven to effective in the treatment of anxiety. Engaging in psychological therapy gives you a space to understand potential triggers of your anxiety, what helps to address these, and what makes it harder to manage. It also looks at developing helpful ways to cope, amongst other things. There are different therapeutic approaches that have proven effective in the treatment of anxiety, for instance Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
2. Medication: Some prescribed medication can help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and reduce its impact on your day-to-day life. You should talk to your GP or psychiatrist about the options available for you, including the benefits and the potential side-effects of any medication. Medication can be prescribed as a stand-alone treatment or in combination with, for instance, talking therapies.
Understanding anxiety and its effects on the mind and body is a crucial step toward managing it effectively. By employing self-help strategies, challenging anxious thoughts, and considering treatment options, you can regain control and lead a fulfilling life despite anxiety’s challenges.
If you are experiencing anxiety, please know that you are not alone. There are many people who understand what you are going through, and there are resources available to help you. Please reach out for help if you need it. Access this link to find out more about our virtual therapy that is led by our team of Clinical Psychologists or complete an enquiry form and we’ll be in touch with you.