You may well have found this blog as you search for answers on how to get rid of, or how to cope with, my anxiety. Often, we are looking for the answer to make our anxiety go away, that is if we are aware we are feeling anxious. I find it interesting the language that we use around anxiety as though you have caught some virus, or you are experiencing something that “normal” people don’t. Yet the reality is that anxiety is one of the many and varied emotions we experience as a human being. I find that it is how we experience anxiety, our attitude towards it, and the judgements and stories we tell ourselves about it, that create the difficulties.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety as defined by the NHS website as “a feeling of unease such as worry or fear that can be mild or severe”. However, my experience of anxiety is that it has many different forms and experiences, some of which we don’t even understand as anxiety. The more we develop our self-awareness and self-understanding, the more we see the many and complex ways anxiety can show up in our lives. It can seem like peeling an onion and each layer reveals something new. For some people feeling anxious is just normal, so that they may not even be aware that they are anxious. Often these people will say I don’t get anxious. As humans we all get anxious at some points in our lives. At its most basic, anxiety is a signal from our nervous system that something is not ok and is potentially threatening. It is a call to action, the problem is, it is not a very sophisticated or even clear call.
I often use the metaphor of a warning light that signals something is wrong. Most of us focus on getting rid of the light rather than trying to understand and respond to the signal. We can get frightened, and we react by just wanting it gone. Anxiety is uncomfortable, and we don’t like to feel uncomfortable emotions. Our brains have evolved to respond to discomfort by either pushing it away or running away or numbing it in some way. Just make it go. Often when I meet people for their first session of counselling, they want a quick answer to how to fix it or get rid of it. Everyone seeks the solution or technique that will solve it.
Anxiety can sometimes feel so intense it can trigger a panic attack, a very unpleasant and frightening experience. Alternatively, we may get caught in obsessive thinking loops where our brains are trying to find a solution, and we usually can’t find one. We can rationalise our anxiety as a way of avoiding dealing with something. It can be so easy to put something off and tell ourselves there are so many other important things we need to do, rather than the thing we believe is difficult or frightening. How we experience anxiety, it is both unique and universal. What is unique is the particular combination of symptoms that you as an individual experience. It is something that shows up in our thoughts, in our bodies and in our emotions. We use lots of images to show how physical it is, I have got butterflies in my stomach, or I feel sick to my stomach. Our nervous systems are incredibly powerful at trying to keep us safe, so we can find certain things physically impossible, and that feeling is real and debilitating.
What helps with anxiety?
As with anything, the first thing is to acknowledge that it is here, that what you are experiencing is anxiety, and that we all experience it to different degrees. If we didn’t feel anxious then we may put ourselves in dangerous situations. We believe that not feeling any pain or discomfort would be ideal, yet there are some people who have an illness which means they don’t feel pain and who hurt themselves because of it.
It helps if we begin to understand the signal, is this something that is happening now, or is this something that has happened in the past and I am worried it will happen again? We may know what that was in the past, or we may have no idea why we find certain things frightening. What matters is how we look after ourselves in that situation. Anxiety can also be something that we feel is always present, it is as though we get no respite from it. For some anxiety can feel like it is ruining their life and preventing them from doing things.
Learning to manage anxiety and working out what helps us individually is not a quick fix or easy solution, especially if it is something we have lived with for a long time. Each of us will find things that work for us and things that don’t work for us. Some situations are easier than others to deal with, my suggestion would always be to start with the easiest.
Learning to manage anxiety is something that needs to be accompanied by self-compassion. No one deliberately chooses to be anxious, nor can we choose how much it can impact our lives. There are techniques that may help, and I would invite you to try them out, the most common ones are around grounding techniques and self -talk.
Breathing techniques can be useful for some people and not so much for others. I find a long slow outbreath to be more helpful than focusing on my in breath. An internet search will reveal several different techniques about breathing and grounding. One of the easier ones is to start to look around and name what you can see quietly to yourself. Dropping your attention into your feet also brings you back to the present and shifts the energy from the top of your body down. It is not so much thinking about your feet as noticing the sensations in your feet. Can you notice the contact with the floor, are your feet warm or cold. Experimenting when you are not anxious is the best way to check this out.
It can be useful to ask yourself some questions if you are able to:
What is it that I am anxious about?
What is difficult about this situation?
Is there anything I can do?
Am I believing that this situation is unbearable?
Is there anyone who can help me?
Am I able to tolerate these uncomfortable thoughts and sensations?
It is important to notice what you are telling yourself about the situation or the anxiety. We often feel powerless in the face of our thoughts and physical sensations. It can help to notice and remember you have felt anxious before and you did deal with it. You may not have liked it, which is a different thing. It is not uncommon for people to say I am anxious, as though it describes who they are. A much more appropriate description would be to say I am feeling anxious. Just that simple change of language can start to alter the relationship to both your anxiety and yourself.
A Few Final Thoughts
This is by no means a comprehensive guide to what to do, it is more an invitation to be curious and to know that there are options for you. It is often a gradual process whereby you slowly gain confidence in your ability to deal with situations. You learn to trust yourself and know what works for you. I have found both therapy and mindfulness to be helpful, you may find a different path. Know that there is one. I like this quote attributed to Emma Stone:
“Anxiety is something that is a part of me, it’s not who I am”
You are more than your anxiety and beginning to know and understand yourself is a way of supporting yourself. You know which way works for you and I encourage you to trust yourself and build the confidence to know you are so much more than your anxious feelings, thoughts, and sensations.