How do you cope with anxiety? This is a great question, and one I am sure many of us have asked at various points in our life. Anxiety is no easy thing to overcome, and the triggers and questions it raises in our lives can be difficult to disentangle. Ranging from the existential to irrational, anxiety can cause problems for many of us.
Is anxiety normal?
Firstly, anxiety is not always a bad thing. Popular culture and the proliferation of ideas about living your best life (I’m still not exactly sure what that is) have led us to believe that anxiety is a bad thing. Anxiety actually has a very important role, especially historically, in warning us about dangerous things.
From an evolutionary viewpoint, anxiety is a normal emotion, and one that leads us towards adaptation and survival. When I think about anxiety, though, I try to distinguish between anxiety in everyday life and clinical levels of anxiety. This can be an important way to think about how you might cope with anxiety.
What is clinical anxiety?
To put it simply, this is excessive anxiety. The kind of anxiety that is perhaps considered irrational and even signifiant enough to cause issues in your ability to carry out tasks and live your daily life.
Clinical anxiety commonly persists for 6 or more months. It is quite different from fear or worry that is often transient. There is some flexibility with my definition, though, especially in children as is the case with separation issues.
Clinical anxiety often looks like an overestimation of danger followed by a fear/avoid response to cope with it. In my experience, unless there is a specific negative event, I often notice that it develops in childhood. Anxiety usually persists if untreated. While it may wax and wane in severity, stress is often a precipitating factor of clinical levels.
So what can you do? How can you cope with anxiety? There are plenty of immediate strategies, however anxiety is often considered a long-game condition. This means that investing the time to make small modifications in your life can make a world of difference.
1. Identify your triggers
Identifying triggers is a really important part of combating anxiety and are often overlooked. Triggers can range from the things we do to the people we spend our time with. Long-term stress is also worth considering (such as financial pressure or relationship issues) as this can drive anxiety more generally.
Some examples of triggers may be: Alcohol, social situations, caffeine, returning to work, not getting enough sleep, trauma, some medications, chronic pain, or travelling – to name a few.
When you can identify a trigger, perhaps try to avoid it initially, while you try to work out how to respond to it. Avoidance in the short-term can be OK. However, in the long-run, it is usually unhelpful. Sometimes it can be about identifying a trigger and finding ways to tolerate the feelings associated with it. Another can be about finding an alternative way of viewing the situation. Try to actively challenge yourself in triggering situations.
If you can put a list of triggers together, you are in a better position to be prepared for the responses that your body may make. Knowledge is often powerful in these situations.
2. Think about your thoughts
Oftentimes we are caught up in the emotion anxiety and the fear/avoid response that follows. This can lead us to forget/ignore the mental process involved, and actually perpetuate the condition, if not make it worse!
Being aware of your thinking is not as simple as it sounds, especially when you are anxious. Taking the time to pause and reflect on the sentences that are running through your mind is an important step. This is also a step that gives you a great amount of control.
Try asking yourself the following:
1. What thoughts, memories and images went through my mind?
2. What were you saying to yourself?
3. What did the situation mean to you?
4. What did the situation say about you?
These kinds of questions can help to create a wedge between the situation you are in and the anxious reaction that your body has produced. If these sound at all irrational, your next step is to try and challenge these with some alternative mental statements or images. Oftentimes we may find that we are imagining the worst-case scenario; or thinking about a situation as helpless/hopeless when it may not be.
3. Have a daily routine
The benefits of having a daily routine should not be underestimated and anxiety can make it difficult to concentrate. Regular sleep/wake times are really very important, as well as eating meals at regular times. Maintaining some structure to your day is a sure way to improve your sense of control and agency – an essential part of feeling calm.
4. Maintain physical exercise
A healthy body can go a long way to creating a healthy mind. The benefits of exercise are long-proven and can help a variety of conditions including depression and anxiety. I usually recommend 45mins of moderate intensity exercise (think of a brisk walk to get your heart-rate above 100BPM) at least 5-times a week.
5. Keep social
As with most mental illness, barring agoraphobia and some traumas, social activity is an important way to keep us grounded and in-tune with reality. Talking with friends is also a great way to problem solve any issues that you may be having.
Need more help?
If you feel that you need to speak with someone about your anxiety, please get in touch with our team here.