The Oxford English Dictionary defines anxiety as ‘a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome’. I like the definition of anxiety as ‘overestimating a potential threat and underestimating your resources’.
Anxiety can be mild or severe. Most people experience fleeting anxiety at some point in their lives, such as when taking a driving test or having to give a speech. However, some people experience it constantly and find it very hard to reduce or manage it effectively and as a result anxiety negatively impacts their daily life.
Anxiety has an emotional aspect, a physiological aspect and a psychological aspect, which can translate into an unhelpful behaviour.
Emotionally you may feel fear, stress, or excessive worry about a real or imagined threat. This may turn into avoidant behaviour, such as going to bed or it may turn into obsessive negative thoughts.
Physiologically your heart may start to pound, you may have difficulty taking full breaths, and you might start to sweat or feel nauseous. You may experience muscle tension, perspiration, shaking, tremors, tightness and pain in the chest, feel dizzy or faint, have a rapid heartbeat or tingling or numb feeling in the hands and feet.
Feeling fearful about things that may happen or go wrong even if there is no reason for it. You may dread going out or doing something outside of your comfort zone, experience insomnia, or are easily startled. Your ability to concentrate may be severely impaired or you may feel unable to go through or complete everyday tasks. It can also mean an inability to enjoy anything or feel happy.
Does anxiety differ from fear?
Anxiety is considered a future-oriented, long-acting response broadly focused on a diffuse threat, whereas fear is an appropriate, present-oriented, and short-lived response to a clearly identifiable and specific threat.
How do you know if it is stress or anxiety? Life can be stressful—you may feel stressed about performance at school, traumatic events (such as a pandemic, a natural disaster, or an act of violence), or a life change. Everyone feels stress from time to time.
What is stress?
Stress is the physical or mental response to an external cause, such as having a lot of homework or having an illness. A stressor may be a one-time or short-term occurrence, or it can happen repeatedly over a long time.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is your body’s reaction to stress and can occur even if there is no current threat.
If that anxiety doesn’t go away and begins to interfere with your life, it could affect your health. You could experience problems with sleeping, or with your immune, digestive, cardiovascular, and reproductive systems. You may experience having headaches, stomach aches, a lack of energy, being irritable, decreased concentration or ability to focus, body aches and pains, weight gain or weight loss.
So, how do you know when to seek help? If you tend to identify with the anxiety column more than the others, it may be time to reach out and get help.
|Generally is a response to an external cause, such as taking a big test or arguing with a friend.||Both stress and anxiety can affect your mind and body. You may experience symptoms such as:||Generally is internal, meaning it’s your reaction to stress.|
|Goes away once the situation is resolved.||Excessive worry||Usually involves a persistent feeling of apprehension or dread that doesn’t go away, and that interferes with how you live your life.|
|Can be positive or negative. For example, it may inspire you to meet a deadline, or it may cause you to lose sleep.||Uneasiness||Is constant, even if there is no immediate threat.|
|Headaches or body pain|
|High blood pressure|
|Loss of sleep|
Notice if your mind tends to do any of the following:
- Personalising – your mind makes everything about you
- Black and White Thinking – it’s all or nothing
- Mind Reading – doing other people’s thinking for them
- Emotional Reasoning – using your emotions to interpret reality i.e. if you are feeling anxious saying to yourself it is a dangerous situation, rather than just your reading of the situation
If any of the above describe how you habitually think then start to be a detective of your own mind. Ask yourself what would be a more helpful thought. See the stress or anxiety as a normal response to change.
Our brain wants to keep us safe, but we want to grow, so turn down the volume on the brain, and learn to change your state through Breathwork. Question your thoughts and start to choose for yourself how you want to respond to life. Start to become comfortable at feeling uncomfortable. Easy does it- but do it.
Coping With Stress and Anxiety
Learning what causes or triggers your stress and what coping techniques work for you can help reduce your anxiety and improve your daily life. It may take time and trial and error to discover what works best for you. Here are some activities you can try when you start to feel overwhelmed:
If you are feeling anxious or feel that your stress levels are high try one of the following breathing patterns to take your body out of the stress response – the sympathetic nervous system, fight, flight, freeze into the parasympathetic nervous system, rest and digest:
- 5-5-5 – resonant breathing. Breathe in through the nose for 5 seconds and out through the nose or mouth for 5 seconds, no hold at the top or bottom, for 5 minutes
- 4-7-8 – parasympathetic activation, breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds and out through the nose or mouth for 8 seconds. Do at least 5 times.
- 4-4-4-4 – box breathing, breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, out through the nose or mouth for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds. Do at least for one minute.
Keep a journal
Write about how you are feeling on a daily basis, or when your anxiety is triggered. See if you notice a pattern emerging. Is it certain people, places or situations that increase your feelings of anxiety? Note also what reduces your anxiety levels.
Download an app, which teaches mindfulness. Our amygdala is hardwired to look for danger (real or imagined) and when our amygdala fires our pre-frontal cortex shuts down, which turns off our ‘thinking brain’. Our first point of call needs to be to return the body to a state of rest and digest, rather than fight or flight, by using the breathing techniques above.
Once calm has returned you can then ask yourself what thought processes caused the response that took you into fight or flight. How did that thought make you feel and behave? Just asking these questions may help to slow the brain and give you options for moving forwards.
Improve Physical Health
Exercise regularly, eat healthy, take regular meals, drink 2 litres of water a day and reduce caffeine intake. Stick to a sleep routine, and make sure you are getting enough sleep, 6-8 hours is ideal.
Other Ways to reduce stress and anxiety
Meditation, yoga, tai chi, chi gung, being in nature, being with friends, having pets you can cuddle, engaging in creative activities, having fun such as dancing or going to watch live music. Spending time with uplifting people, people that make you laugh or feel good about yourself.
Getting organized, which is a way of taking control of what you can control, can help.
Less than helpful ways to reduce stress and anxiety
Some unhealthy coping strategies that some people might try are things like using drugs, overeating, smoking, taking it out on others, watching TV mindlessly, playing video games all day, or oversleeping. All of these things might make you feel better in the short term, but in the long run they end up just making things a lot worse.
Whilst stress is a normal part of life and situation based fleeting anxiety is okay, when they continue for too long or become the norm, then outside help may be really useful. The first point of call could be your GP ( doctor).
Speaking to a counsellor, psychologist or psychotherapist, or other trained therapist such as a cognitive behavioural (CBT) specialist may also be beneficial. Left untreated anxiety can become increasingly debilitating. You can also work with a breath coach to help you to change your breathing patterns to reduce your levels of stress and anxiety.