With one in four of us suffering from a mental illness at any one time, the chances are fairly high that you have experienced or know someone who has experienced some form of anxiety.
Anxiety can be seen on a continuum. At one end of the continuum you have an anxious new Mother who worries about balancing her time between work and home and is having to cope on limited sleep with her new baby. At the other end of continuum is someone with full blown post traumatic stress as a result of being bullied and is suffering flash backs, trouble sleeping and constant feelings of worry, insecurity and fear.
In between these you have generalized anxiety, social anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder and possibly depression.
So what are the reasons behind the increase in the levels of anxiety in today’s society? One of the reasons may be a decrease in ‘social connectedness’. People tend to move more and change jobs, losing a sense of community, living alone and away from family and social support networks. Others are often fuelled by job insecurity as we move further away from the notion of a ‘job for life’. Then there are concerns about retirement, with the age of retirement steadily rising, but with no nest egg to retire on, having to rely on our own savings.
If that isn’t enough, turn on the TV or open the news paper and you will find very little portraying what is going well in the world. Instead our unconscious minds are absorbing all the bad news, putting us in a state of worry and angst about potential dangers and threats to come.
There are situations we face where it is natural to feel a little anxious. Getting on a plane for example for a 13 hour flight in a giant mental object of which you have no control over, is enough to naturally send most people into a mild state of anxiety. Yet what can you do to prevent this helpful initial warning from developing into on-going worry, rumination and anxiety?
1. Ask instead of interpreting or assuming
Misuse of the imagination is one of the biggest causes of rumination and worry. Trying to second guess what others are thinking, creating situations in our mind that have yet to emerge and focusing our attention on all the ‘what if’s’ causes the body to switch on the stress response. This stress response is part of the fight and flight syndrome where the body shuts down all the major organs not required during the fight or flight response. Adrenalin is pumped into the body, the thinking brain shuts down and high levels of cortisol are produced. The brain doesn’t know the difference between imagination or reality, so will trigger the flight and flight response regardless of whether you are in real or perceived danger.
Stop speculating and face the situation. More anxiety comes from creating scenarios in your mind. By facing up to the situation, the reality generally is far better than the one we have created.
You may for example be concerned about your job at work and may have heard rumours about re organisations and redundancies. Rather than worrying that your job role will be affected and letting your imagination run wild, go and talk to your manager. Explain what you have heard and how you feel. They may not be able to give you the full details, but will be able to put you in the picture. Information is power and when you have the information you can act on it.
Similarly, how many of us allow issues in our relationships to fester away, never discussing them, but spending vast amounts of time worrying about them? Either partner for example may worry how the other really feels and may start to interpret their own picture of what is happening in the relationship than actual reality. Again, asking the question “How do you feel about me?” may feel frightening, but which is worse, knowing or not knowing?
2. Address anxiety-provoking thoughts head on
Avoidance of problems exacerbates anxiety about them. By contrast, facing the problem head-on, enables you to take and action and pursue solutions.
A good way to begin to address your anxiety problems head-on is to list all thoughts that stir up anxious feelings. Once you’ve listed the thoughts, go back through the list and rate out of 100% which are causing your the most angst and why. Often the process of writing down our concerns can help to lower our initial anxiety about them.
For the ones that rate highest on the list, ask yourself the following questions;
- Can I do anything to control this?
- What information can I obtain about this problem that will help me to address it?
- How have I managed to cope with this problem so far and how have I prevented it from getting worse?
- What would an ideal solution to this problem be?
- How could help me solve this problem?
Our brains are hardwired to solve problems, but when we are anxious our thinking brain shuts down, preventing us from thinking about our problems rationally. By approaching our problems methodically in this way we can objectively and calmly look at the current picture and begin to generate solutions.
3. Focus on the present
There is little that we can do to control the future, we are only every truly in control of the now. Focusing on the future and all the “What if……” scenarios can invite anxiety.
This is not to suggest you can’t look to your future and create goals of what you want, what you are aiming for and having a general plan of how to get there.
Feelings of anxiety can be seen as our internal guidance system signalling that there is a potential problem ahead. But by living in the now and confronting our problems head on helps to cut anxiety to the quick.
If you are experiencing regular flash backs, find yourself overwhelmed, have trouble sleeping, are unable to relax and calm down the mind, have panic attacks or find you are obsessing over thoughts or activities, then it is advised you seek professional help. One to three sessions of hypnotherapy with a solution focused psychotherapist can clear post traumatic stress, generalized anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder and teach you specific preventative techniques for dealing with stress and anxiety.