How to Control Anxiety - An Expert's Guide
What Is anxiety?
Normal anxiety is the kind of fear that one may feel before a job interview, an exam, or going on a first date. Physically, it is a nervousness set off by a rush of adrenaline in the body, which causes a nervous system response called the flight-or-fight syndrome.
Evolutionarily speaking, the fight-or-flight syndrome has been a necessary mechanism in survival. When faced with a perceived threat, the adrenaline coursing through the body prepares the person to either face and fight the dangerous situation, or to run away from it. Blood rushes away from the less vital organs, such as the brain and stomach, to the organs that are more crucial for fight-or-flight—the heart and lungs. That is the reason behind the intense physical sensations one might experience when suffering a panic attack.
In today’s society, it is much less likely that one would encounter situations that would necessitate the flight-or-flight syndrome than we would, say, in caveman days when physical threats would have been constant. However, as the fight-or-flight response is still a necessary part of human survival, it has never been phased out. Therefore, it more often occurs in situations where the threats are less tangible.
For example, a threat to a person’s psychological safety (i.e., potential embarrassment, being judged by others, loss of a loved one) is a more common reason for anxiety symptoms than fear of actual bodily harm (though this still remains a cause for anxiety for many people). Psychologically speaking, anxiety can be explained by the following equation:
Ways to Avoid Anxiety & Manage Anxiety Symptoms
There are a few simple behavioural things you can do to reduce anxiety:
- Reduce caffeine intake. Caffeine is a stimulant which in high doses causes symptoms similar to anxiety symptoms – such as increased heart rate and palpitations. Even low doses can cause insomnia and sleeplessness, another side effect of anxiety. Sources of caffeine include coffee (espresso being the highest in caffeine), black tea, cola drinks and chocolate.
- Get regular exercise. Physical exercise is one of nature’s antidotes to stress. A long, brisk walk or going swimming are relaxing ways to unwind and release bodily tension.
- Reduce alcohol intake. Although alcohol is a depressant which may temporarily relieve anxiety symptoms, hangovers reduce a person’s resiliency and make them more receptive and prone to anxiety symptoms.
- Avoid narcotic drugs. Stimulant drugs such as amphetamines and cocaine are notorious for causing anxiety and panic, as are hallucinogens such as marijuana, LSD and Psilocybin mushrooms. Other culture-specific uses of substances, such chewing Khat or Betel Nut have also been associated with triggering anxiety.
- Sleep and rest. Insomnia can be a big problem in times of high stress and anxiety. See the next section for ways to cope with sleep problems.
- Get organised. If part of the reason you are feeling anxious is due to multiple responsibilities, getting organised can go a long way to reducing the stress that you feel because of them. If need be, enlist the help of a professional organiser or assistant.
- Reduce your work load. If you have a lot on your plate - be it at work, home or in your extra-curricular activities, try to cut down on what you are doing. Or if that is not possible – ask for help. Being overworked or over-busy in your personal life is a key stress-trigger that not only gives you too much to worry about, but causes you to become run-ragged and therefore lessens your resilience to the effects of stress.
- Spend at least 15 minutes a day on relaxation activities. Yoga, meditation, guided imagery, deep-breathing and progressive-muscle relaxation training are fantastic ways to reduce anxiety and stress. Alternative medicine such as acupuncture and reiki can also help stress.
- Eat well. Eating healthy and avoiding too much junk food keeps the body and its defences strong and able to cope with demands of everyday stresses.
- Have fun whenever you can. Laughing causes the body to release endorphins, a natural antidote to pain which causes a sense of well-being.
Tips for Better Sleep
- Stick to a routine. Make sure that you do the same thing every night, and that the activities you do before bed (and the hour up to it) are relaxing, such as having a bath, reading a book, or listening to music. Avoid high-intensity exercise or eating large amounts before bed.
- If you don’t fall asleep within half an hour, get up and do something else for a bit. Anyone who has ever suffered from insomnia will know that the harder you try to fall asleep, the less likely it is you will be able to do so. Trying to fall asleep is near impossible. Do something else, like read or listen to soft music, and wait to drop off naturally.
- Don’t become dependent on sleep medication, prescription or over-the-counter. These can become habit forming and if you rely on them too much, you won’t be able to sleep without them and will need increasing doses to achieve the desired effect.
- Some people find that warm milk before bed in a natural sedative to help them fall asleep.
- Don’t worry about how much sleep you get. Obsessing over how many hours you get a night will only give you something else to worry about. The truth is, most people can function on very little sleep; simply lying in bed and resting can be enough to recharge your batteries for the next day. Besides, most people actually get a lot more sleep than they perceive that they have.
How to Do Deep Breathing for Relaxation
Psychological Tips for Managing Anxiety
- Try and let it go. It sounds rather cliché, but if you give up the need to control your situation, sometimes the anxiety will dissipate on its own. Often, the ‘fear of the fear itself’ is enough to keep it going. But if you’re not afraid feel to anxious, you’ve already overcome at least part of the problem.
- Set aside a worry period and stick to it. Worry periods are specific times that you set aside during the day, usually around half an hour to an hour, to think about the issues that are worrying you or causing you anxiety. Then, when thoughts about the worry pop up at others times, you banish them from your mind until it is time again for your next worry period. This may sound like an unusual tactic to make a point of worrying, but the reason for it is simple. If you are worrying, trying to simply stop is not going to happen. On a subconscious level, your mind feels that by worrying about a problem, it is doing something to resolve it. In reality though, constant worrying does nothing and is counterproductive. An ‘organised’ worry period during the day can fruitful whilst also limiting the damaging effects of worry.
- Write out your worries or the issues that are causing your anxiety. Make a list of what is within your control and what is out of your control (i.e. worrying that it may rain on your wedding day!). For the issues that are within your control, jot down steps that you can take to address them and, if possible, ameliorate the anxiety - and then act on them!
- Make a list of your strengths, coping skills, and resources – including other people who could help you with your difficulties. Talk to other people for an objective perspective about the issue that is causing you anxiety. However, beware not to rely too much on reassurance-seeking for anxiety relief – its benefits are usually only temporary and can exhaust other people if you do it too much!
- Ask yourself ‘what’s the worst that could happen’ and what is the actual likelihood of it happening? Often, as described in the anxiety equation earlier, people appraise the anxiety-causing stimulus as being much worse than it actually is. Be careful not to catastrophise, a phenomena by which people who are worrying assume that the very worst thing that could happen is likely to happen, without any evidence to base it on. This usually involves a bit of mind-reading (assuming you know what other people think and what they will do) and fortune-telling (presuming that you know what is going to happen before it does) too!
Example of Catastrophising
When Anxiety Spirals Out of Control…
We’ve talked about anxiety, worry and stress as normal part of the range of human emotions. However, there are times when anxiety can become so intense and so debilitating that professional help is needed. Anxiety disorders are mental health problems whose roots are based in anxiety and worrying. Examples include:
- Panic Disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder
- Specific Phobias
- Social Phobia/Anxiety
If your anxiety symptoms become so severe that they interfere with your daily functioning - either by causing you to do things you normally wouldn’t or by stopping you from doing things you would like to be able to do – then it is time seek help from your physician, a psychiatric professional or a counsellor.