Do you worry excessively? Expect the worst? Avoid social situations for fear of embarrassing yourself?
Anxiety disorders plague more than 200,000 New Zealanders, with rates highest among women aged 25 to 54. The latest Health Loss in New Zealand study rates anxiety and depressive disorders as the leading cause of health issues in Kiwi women.
Levels of anxiety vary. Some sufferers have a debilitating disorder, but many others have issues with anxiety that cause distress. Happily, people who suffer from anxiety can learn to manage their symptoms by using physical, behavioural and cognitive strategies.
Kiwi clinical psychologist and writer Dr Alice Boyes, whose past work has involved treating people with anxiety, has just released The Anxiety Toolkit, a practical guide to dealing with the issue. She suggests it’s the very anxious tendencies associated with the disorder that can prevent those with the condition accessing help. “Since anxious people are prone to negative expectations they often jump to the conclusion that the tools and strategies which work for other people won’t work for them.”
And she says because anxiety-prone people don’t like to act until they’re certain of success, they can stay stuck in ‘pause mode’ waiting for feelings of confidence to arrive, not realising that feeling comes from action.
“By building a toolkit of anxiety strategies that work for their lifestyle, anxiety sufferers can feel calmer,” says Dr Boyes. “Self-experiment until you find the tools that are most effective for you. Over time a personalised toolkit of anxiety skills will help you sustain emotional balance and sail through stressful situations.”
Dr Alice Boyes has outlined some effective strategies for taking action on anxiety.
Synchronise your breathing
Your thoughts, emotions and physiology are connected, so physical strategies can be used to calm both your mind and body. A simple way to do this is to regulate your heart rate and breathing. Try using a downloadable app called Stress Doctor (Azumio, $6.50 on iTunes). The biofeedback app scores points for each in-sync breath. Use it for a five-minute session daily and see how many points you achieve in that time.
Take up yoga
People with anxiety often only pay attention to their physical sensations when they scan the body for signs of anxiety, discomfort or tension. Yoga is great for anxiety sufferers because it teaches a calm awareness of the body. There are plenty of yoga options that can be practised without going to a class. If you work in an office, find yoga moves online that can be practised in just a couple of minutes at your desk. For a deeply healing version, search for ‘restorative yoga’ or ‘yin yoga’ on YouTube. Yoga for Pain Relief by Dr Kelly McGonigal is also a great resource for both physical and emotional pain, and the book includes simple poses that don’t involve jumping around. Even putting your hand on your heart and breathing can reduce anxiety-related over-stimulation.
One of the best ways to shift anxiety is to take action on whatever you’ve been avoiding. This can be as simple as making a phone call or sending an email to get the ball rolling. You don’t always have to complete a task to reduce your anxiety; usually just making a start will relieve your stress.
Plan for the worst
Although it may sound counter-intuitive, thinking about how you’ll cope if a fear eventuates can be beneficial for worriers. For instance, if your fear is losing your job, ask yourself how you’d cope both practically and emotionally if you were fired – what types of financial and emotional support could you access? Is there temporary work you could do while you looked for a new job? This strategy works by making you confront your worry, which anxiety-prone people are usually reluctant to do.
You can pair the above strategy with a three-question technique that’s part of standard Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Ask yourself: ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’, ‘What’s the best that could happen?’ and ‘What’s the most likely/realistic scenario?’ For example, if you’re considering asking for a pay rise, the best case scenario may be your boss giving you a bigger pay bump than expected; the worst case scenario being refused the raise with your boss angry you asked; and the most realistic scenario receiving a small raise.
If you’re excessively self-critical it is important to replace that tendency with something more useful: self-compassion, a crucial tool for feeling calmer. Let’s say you’ve had a conversation you feel you handled badly and you’re ruminating about what you wish you’d said instead. Try recognising that social faux pas and the ensuing regret are part of the universal human experience, and are mistakes we all make. You can then be gentle with yourself about the emotions you’re experiencing.
Self-criticism induces avoidance and strips away self-confidence. With the injection of self-compassion, many people find it easier to take appropriate action to remedy situations. Research has also shown that verbally labelling your emotions has a calming effect. Saying ‘I’m feeling embarrassed’ may help you move on more quickly.
Pick your time
The best time to start implementing these strategies is when you are feeling relatively calm.
Practise them daily for 30 days. You’ll need this initial practice period to gain comfort and familiarity with the strategies and work out any kinks or uncertainty you feel about using them. Once you’ve built up your skills, you’ll be able to use these tools in an anxiety-pinch or on a regular basis, depending on your needs and preferences.
Also, keep in mind there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to anxiety. You’ll need to experiment with what works best for you. If you’re finding it difficult to implement self-help tips, think you may have an anxiety disorder, or want some extra guidance to understand what’s going on for you, then seeing a clinical psychologist for one-on-one help is likely to be your best option.
When building anxiety skills it’s important to tolerate the process of figuring out what helps you. Sometimes it can take a while to become skilled at coping with your anxiety, but once you know how the anxious mind works, you can understand it and avoid common traps.
Signs of anxiety:
- Assuming disasters will happen if you don’t meet impossibly high standards. This occurs in anxious perfectionists – people who, if they do achieve those standards and still don’t feel relaxed, set higher, more demanding goals.
- Personalising situations. This involves assuming an ambiguous event is related to something you’ve done. For example, when a person doesn’t reply immediately to your email you assume it’s because the person is annoyed with you, instead of thinking about other possibilities.
- Constantly looking out for signs of social rejection. For those who are socially anxious this will also involve ignoring signs of social acceptance or support.
- Expecting the worst. This can mean an unexpected phone call has your heart pounding because you’ve jumped to the conclusion it is bad news.
- Overthinking and worrying about things that could happen. You may also ruminate about things that happened in the past (such as mentally replaying an awkward social interaction over and over). People assume thinking over a subject is going to help them problem-solve, but when done excessively it typically makes people feel less clear about what actions they should take.
Words: Dr Alice Boyes and Nicola Russell
Photography by getty images.