Mental health is a topic that is being pushed even further up the national agenda lately, with the destabilising effects of the global pandemic pushing more and more people into conditions like anxiety and chronic stress. The simple fact is we’ve all been under prolonged pressure for most of this year, and with no real end in sight, it’s very natural to be worried for the future. When you develop anxiety, it’s a debilitating condition to live with. It can feel as if it’s taking over and sucking all the enjoyment out of everyday activities. And once these neural pathways are made, it’s incredibly difficult to retrain your thoughts and create a new, more positive pattern. Thankfully, there are quite a few simple and effective ways to manage your anxiety and get enough of a handle on it that it doesn’t control your life.
What Is Anxiety, Exactly?
Of course everyone experiences worries and stressful moments in their lives. This feeling of being anxious is a natural response to particularly challenging situations, like sitting an examination or going through a redundancy. This response is your body going into ‘fight or flight’ mode, which was useful for our ancestors when dealing with immediate mortal danger, such as a wild animal. Unfortunately, this response is fairly often misplaced in modern times. Most often the perceived threats we are dealing with are more complex and insidious. So when the brain releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, they aren’t fulfilling their intended function of gearing us up for combat or running away from a predator. Instead they flood our body causing symptoms such as a racing heart, shakes and cold sweats. These feelings of fear may not subside when a threat feels ongoing.
Learn Some Breathing Techniques
Studies have shown that controlled breathing techniques can be highly effective in calming the physical symptoms of anxiety and stemming the flow of stress hormones. The right breathing patterns will calm our nervous systems, and also have a beneficial effect on our lymph and immune systems too. It acts as an all-natural tranquilizer, and it’s so simple to learn. Start by slowly breathing in through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath to a count of seven. And then slowly breathe out through your mouth while counting to eight. Repeat this cycle four times and you’ll feel the calming effects start to kick in. It works by rebalancing the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your bloodstream, which gives your brain the signal that it’s okay to relax. This practice can be especially helpful first thing in the morning if you wake up with tension, or last thing at night if you’re struggling to relax.
Try A Gratitude Journal
There is a lot of evidence to show that prolonged bouts of anxiety can lead to depression, which makes getting it under control even more vital. This is generally because anxiety and stress cause us to focus on the negative aspects of a situation. One tactic is to interrupt your anxious thoughts with gratitude for the things that you do have. Some people find that keeping a gratitude journal is a helpful thing to do, as it causes you to refocus your thoughts on the positive things in your life. It doesn’t matter how big or small the thing you’re grateful for is – the trick is just to think about it and realise how much there is to celebrate in your life. Anything from the sun shining, to speaking to a close friend, to the love of a family member or a pet can be a reason to remember what we have and change your mindset. Learning to see the good in life is a skill, and you can get better at it with practice.
Schedule In Some Daily Exercise
It’s a fact that physical activity makes us not only healthier, but happier, as it releases endorphins in the brain. There are many studies out there demonstrating that a daily burst of activity is as powerful as any anxiety medication – and the only side effects are likely to also be positive. It doesn’t have to be difficult or onerous. Even 20 minutes of movement will give you a boost. You can start by power walking around the neighbourhood, or you could even download the Couch to 5k app to work your way up to a run. Going outside to exercise is doubly beneficial, because it gives you a hit of Vitamin D from the sunlight exposure, which helps your immune system and mood, plus helps to keep the body’s Circadian Rhythm in the right pattern. Or you could try a spot of at-home yoga with a simple routine, or live stream a HIIT workout. YouTube and Instagram are full of free workouts to try, so it’s simply a matter of trying out a few and seeing what you like to do. Many therapists now recommend exercise to their patients as it really can have a positive effect in a short amount of time. Even if you feel you don’t have much time, a seven minute home workout can really help your body – and the effects are definitely worth getting up seven minutes earlier for!
Wind Down With Mindfulness
One of the worst things about living with anxiety and stress is that they tend to interrupt your sleep patterns. Many sufferers find it hard to relax and drift off to sleep at night, or can find themselves waking up during the night. This then develops into a negative cycle of sleeplessness. When we aren’t fully rested, we are less focused, more irritable, have a lower mood and struggle to think rationally, so this makes our feelings of anxiety worse. Sleep is such an important foundation of our daily lives. One thing that can really help with this issue is mindfulness – the simple practice of learning to switch off the constant negative chatter and to focus only on the immediate sensations around us. There are lots of mindfulness apps and podcasts that can guide you through this process, and many find it very helpful as a pre-bedtime routine to help them wind down and relax. Again, it’s a technique that gets stronger the more that you practise it. Some people find Hypnotherapy for anxiety to be useful as well. This can support you by helping to reprogram your thoughts while you’re in a more susceptible frame of mind, so that your brain finds it easier to ‘accept’ a new thought rather than dwelling on it’s usual negatives.
Try Some Aromatherapy
Essential oils can have a positive impact on our state of mind, so it can be well worth giving them a try as part of your anxiety-combatting rituals. Scent activates the most primitive region of our brains – the limbic system, which is the part of the brain linked to memories and emotions and it also helps you to stay in the moment by recalling your senses. There are lots of oils to try. Ylang Ylang has an effect on the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering your heart rate and breathing. Try an aromatherapy rollerball to run over your wrists when you feel yourself getting tense, or dabbing some essential oil onto a tissue. You can also get electronic aromatherapy diffusers that scent the room. Lavender is also well known for its calming effect and often helps with sleep as well. Try adding a few drops of lavender oil to a deep bath or trying out a lavender pillow spray at night. There are also uplifting and energising oils to try, such as bergamot, geranium or peppermint.
Avoid News And Social Media First Thing
Many of us start off our day by reaching immediately for our smartphones or switching the TV or radio on to hear the news. For those suffering from anxiety, this simply isn’t a good idea. Both of these media can be quite negative spaces when you’re struggling to control your emotions. Jumping straight into a pile of notifications or the social media comparison trap before you’ve had a chance to start your morning properly isn’t helpful. Try and make it a habit to keep your phone in another room overnight. Instead, build a morning routine that is supportive for yourself – try some deep breathing, or repeating a few positive statements to yourself instead. Or stick on a playlist of your favourite tunes. Deal with the news when you feel stronger in yourself and you’ve already started your day off in a great way.
What works to control your anxiety will be different from what works for another person. Like any condition, there are good days and bad days as well. While developing your personal calming rituals won’t stop you ever having a bad day, it will work to give you that little bit of distance you need to get a handle on things and stop the stress taking over. Find what works for you and practise it every day – and you should be able to get into a better frame of mind, especially when combined with the right support in the form of therapies or medications.