Being an over thinker, and always preoccupied with the future, I also struggled with mild anxiety. I was always trying to predict the future, and avoid negative outcomes. I lived in a constant state of anxiety and fear.
What exactly is anxiety?
Anxiety is that dreading feeling. The pounding heartbeat, and the knots in your stomach. It can be that endless worry, or the shaky-sweaty palms that you feel. 😞
Mild levels of anxiety can be quite common to experience before an exam or a performance of some sort, as we place so much importance on the event. It can even help us perform better during these situations, and subsides once the situation has passed. However, anxiety can become quite a problem if you experience mild to severe levels of anxiety on a daily basis. It can begin to interfere with our daily functioning. Our ability to enjoy and live our lives to the fullest becomes greatly reduced.
Some of us experience severe anxiety in the form of anxiety disorders such as generalised anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, social anxiety or specific phobias. Anxiety disorders have also been identified as one of the most prevalent mental illnesses affecting the population (Joyce & Herbison, 2015).
Anxiety has a negative impact on the body. When we are anxious, our fight or flight system is activated. Our body releases the hormone adrenalin and the stress hormone cortisol. Our body then goes into a state of arousal, in most cases falsely preparing us in case of a dangerous situation. Our hearts begin to work faster and harder, we start sweating, and digestion is slowed or completely stopped so that our bodies can focus on the ‘identified threat’ in front of us (Wong et al, 2008).
So imagine what’s happening to our bodies if we are constantly feeling anxious? Our hearts are having to work harder than usual, and we feel nauseous as our bodies are unable to digest food properly. There are some studies which have linked anxiety and stress to increased risk of heart diseases and gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS, making it more important to reduce our anxiety levels (Anxiety ‘doubles the risk of death from heart disease, 2013; Hechtman, 2010).
How to manage anxiety.
Taking a holistic approach is the best way to manage anxiety, based on my personal experiences, as well as working with those suffering from anxiety. This involves changing maladaptive thought patterns, maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle. It also involves finding out what works best for you, as everyone is different. Also remember that changing old thought patterns and making lifestyle changes towards reducing anxiety may take time, however it is possible. Here are a few strategies to reduce anxiety.
Research yourself. Find the root cause of your anxiety. When are you anxious the most? For example, social phobia or performing in front of people could mean fear of being negatively judged, or fear or fear of the unknown. When you feel ready, look at ways of challenging your fears. It could be done through a lot of self-help books as well as professional help through psychologists.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT is a very effective and popular treatment for anxiety. It focuses on using strategies to challenge negative thoughts, and identify any old negative thought patterns contributing to the anxiety. This can be done with a therapist/ psychologist.
Reiki. There is currently new research on reducing anxiety with Reiki. While the research is relatively new, it’s worth keeping an open mind in finding treatments. Reiki is a form of complementary and spiritual practice. Generally it’s not effective as a sole treatment, however can be effective in combination with other treatments. It involves using special hand placements to manipulate subtle energy centres in the body, to remove energy blocks and to promote healing (Joyce & Herbison, 2015).
Mindfulness. Most times anxiety is caused when we let our minds take over. We become too focused on negative outcomes in the future, and our bodies become tricked into thinking there is an immediate danger or threat. When you find yourself getting anxious, focus on the present moment. Feel the different sensations in your body. Every time you find your mind wandering to anxious thoughts, bring your attention back to your body. Initially it may feel difficult, although it gets easier each time and is very effective. Mindfulness is also a form of meditation.
Medications. There are also medications out there to manage anxiety. Each medication also has its side effects. Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications, although if taken very frequently they have a risk leading to dependence and addiction. There are also more natural herbal medications to reduce anxiety such as Kava tablets, St John’s wort and rescue remedy.
Breathing techniques. When we are anxious, we tend to take fast, shallow breaths. This in turn results in less oxygen going to our body, and the heart then beats faster to increase the oxygen supply to our body, adding to the cycle of feeling anxious. By consciously slowing down and taking deeper breathes, it can help to slow the down the heart rate.
Meditation. Meditation has positive effects on the brain. It brings us into a state of relaxation and promotes a sense of calmness. It also distracts us from anxious thoughts. There are plenty of meditation classes, as well as mediation videos on the internet which can be accessed e.g. YouTube.
Diet. Cutting stimulants like caffeine can help, as stimulants can increase anxiety related symptoms such as a pounding heartbeat, and shaky hands. Avoiding nicotine and alcohol can also help, while these may reduce anxiety for a very short period, excessive use or dependence can cause withdrawal symptoms including palpitations and anxiety (Sarris et al, 2012).
Anxiety ‘doubles the risk of death from heart disease’. (2013). GP: General Practitioner, 18.
Hechtman, L. (2010). Health Debate: Does Managing Stress Help Treat IBS? Sunday Telegraph. Online version.
Joyce, J. & Herbison, G. P. (2015). Reiki for Depression and Anxiety. The Cochrane Library, issue 4, online version.
Sarris, J., Moylan,S., Camfield,D. A., Pase, M. P, Mischoulon, D., Berk, Jacka, F. N., & Schweitzer, I. (2012). Complementary medicine, exercise, meditation, diet, and lifestyle modification for anxiety disorders: a review of current evidence.Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Online version.
Wong, D. L., Tai, T. C., Wong-Faull, D. C., Claycomb, R. & Kvetnansky (2008). Adrenergic responses to stress. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1148. Online version.