How to Alleviate Anxiety - A Practical Guide
By Jane Dawson
In my last article, I described how excessive anxiety (as opposed to stress) can be seemingly irrational, having no obvious source. It is a mental and physical disquiet or nervousness that can be exhausting and debilitating. Most of us suffer from anxiety from time to time. In fact it is as common and as distressing as depression, and can feel more acute. Excessive anxiety interferes with coping and functioning and at its extreme can cause disorders such as OCD, delusional thinking, panic attacks and social anxiety.
As most of us suffer from excessive anxiety from time to time, it’s helpful to be aware of day-to-day steps we can take to moderate it. In this article I outline practical ways of reducing anxiety. Sometimes they are obvious, but unfortunately we can tend to forget the obvious, particularly when we feel overwhelmed, so I think that all the factors are worth considering.
The good news is that there are a lot of simple things we can do that can help to reduce anxiety. As one would expect, a healthy lifestyle helps enormously, and there are direct physiological reasons why exercise, good food, and rest (ideally combined with talking therapy) will improve our emotional wellbeing. Long term stress, if left unchecked, can compromise our immune system and our health so it’s important to consider the following steps that can really help to prevent it from taking us over.
If we suffer from anxiety, possibly the most significant factor that will help is exercise. When we get stressed or anxious, our bodies produce adrenaline and other chemicals such as cortisol. Our blood sugar rises to give us energy and endorphins are released to reduce potential pain. Originally, when we lived a more primitive existence these “stress” hormones were essential to help us react to danger. They were activated in our bodies to ready and enable us to fight or flee (the “fight or flight” response) and were then used up by our bodies naturally, for example, in wrestling with a rival, running from a lion etc .
Nowadays, with our more sedentary lifestyle, we are unlikely to use up these stress hormones when they are triggered and they may stay swimming around in our system, causing us to feel restless and agitated and often eventually stored as unnecessary body fat. So it is really helpful to burn off these chemicals through movement and exercise, e.g. brisk walking, running, going to the gym etc, leaving us more relaxed and refreshed.
Rest and Relaxation
As well as burning off excess chemicals in our system, we need to rest and recover. Sleep is essential to allow us to relax and replenish our minds and bodies. We can also employ various strategies to help us to calm our system down.
First of all, it helps to reduce our intake of alcohol, recreational drugs, excess sugar, nicotine and caffeine – all significant triggers for anxiety, that may heighten or exacerbate it and make it more difficult for us to rest. They may also affect our sleep patterns and the quality of sleep we get.
On a positive note, mindfulness and meditation is also a great way of training the mind to calm, detach and separate ourselves from worries, allowing us to focus in a more simple way and enter a more relaxed state. You don’t even need to enrol for a course nowadays with apps such as ‘Headspace’ providing a low cost, convenient and easy to use mindfulness training. Other relaxation techniques, such as massage, yoga, guided imagery, and tai chi can be helpful. Moreover, ACT and CBT therapy can help provide skills and exercises to help understand and control stress.
Practical hobbies such as art, woodwork, sewing and knitting, cooking and crafts, singing or playing an instrument can also help us to move into a calmer, more meditative state, where we can feel more able to concentrate and relax. Also household pets can provide a calming, grounding and affectionate presence in our lives.
Another important aspect that is obvious, but often overlooked, is our diet. We may pay lip service to how mind and body are linked, but we rarely realise quite how much the food and drink we consume can help or hinder our mental state. For example, low blood sugar potentially adds to mental as well as physical struggles. But what about the actual nutrition we consume? To paraphrase Nicola Terry (‘Therapy Today’ February 2014): awareness of our mind and body’s response to our dietary lifestyle, enables us to develop a better degree of control over our emotional wellbeing. As she says, typical traps that we all fall into include ‘skipped meals and getting by on sugar fixes and caffeine, or simply not drinking enough water’. In doing so, we are setting ourselves up for additional physiological strain, impairing our emotional resilience and making us feel less able to cope. It helps to commit time to preparing and eating healthier food at regular intervals as this also promotes and enhances the feeling that we have control over our lives.
Counselling and Psychotherapy
While these lifestyle factors and practical strategies can help us to build up better coping skills to help us relax, it may be important to consider tackling anxiety at its source. Talking therapy can help us notice our anxiety patterns, understand when and why we are sensitive and prone to anxiety, to recognisethe triggers, and provide insight into our underlying feelings - the root cause of our anxiety.
Most of us will have experienced significant, traumatic events at some time in our lives, and these will affect how we regulate our emotions, react to anxiety and experience, and respond to further distress and challenges. Therapy helps to give us the tools and insight to understand and process the deep rooted feelings that anxiety masks and therefore helps to alleviate the symptoms. Moreover, with emotional support, we can gain the courage, resolve and self esteem to develop new strategies and make required changes to our lives and lifestyles, thereby alleviating our anxiety for the long term.
If you have read this article and would like to make an appointment with our psychotherapist in Islington, Jane Dawson please call Islington's Angel Wellbeing Clinic on 020 7288 2999 or click below and send us an email.