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Anxiety is something that everyone endures throughout life. It can a frightening, uncomfortable experience. However, it is important to understand that to feel anxiety is perfectly normal and that it is almost always a transient, temporary feeling that can be tackled in many ways. Given time, the ways in which you can approach anxiety will become clearer to you and you will know fully what helps you overcome it the best. It is also important to understand what causes anxiety. Having a greater understanding of what anxiety is will contribute significantly to your knowing how to approach it and banish it.
In some ways anxiety is also necessary. This is why we look left and right when we cross the road, it is what motivates you to revise for your exams or to prepare for a job interview or social engagement. After all, if we never tackled things that we found challenging, that we were uncertain that we could succeed at, we would stop learning and moving on in life. Knowing how to control anxiety and knowing when it is unfounded is essential.
Anxiety is a vicious circle, as anyone terrified of talking in public, or going to a big party, knows. If you feel shaky and nervous, you worry that people will notice. This raises your anxiety, making the shaking worse, and increasing your feelings of worry. Often it is fear of becoming anxious that sets off the next anxiety attack.
Often the initial thing you are worried about is a reasonable thing to experience anxiety over. If you’re worried you might fail an exam, then that is a normal thing to worry about, as it might have a consequence. As the vicious anxiety cycle spirals downwards though, your initial worry is lost in the second and third and fourth spin of the anxiety cycle. You spend more energy worrying about the fact that you’re worrying, which makes it more likely you won’t do as well in the exam, which increases your anxiety.
Sometimes our responses to anxiety can be effective in the short term, but not so much in the long term. If you defer an exam due to anxiety, your anxiety is only alleviated until you have to do it again. If you leave a party due to feeling anxious around others, the next party you are invited to will trigger apprehension of the same thing happening … which will ultimately encourage just that. Total avoidance of any situation that makes you anxious is not really the right course of action to take in that case. So what can we do to alleviate our fear of anxious-making situations and the vicious circle of avoidance?
The answer lies in:
· Understanding our own anxiety patterns
· Learning to control the physical and emotional signs of anxiety
· Dealing with unhelpful thoughts and behaviour
· Facing our fears so we learn to manage them
Because all four parts of anxiety– physical, emotional, thinking and behaviour - work together (that vicious circle again), improving one area will help with the others too.
How do I alleviate my anxiety?
Firstly, it is worth remembering that, as you begin to ‘battle’ anxiety, the following paradoxes may occur:
You may create more anxiety if you become too concerned to control or relieve all the symptoms. You may worry about your worrying and how you are not able to stop it. It takes time and hard work to manage your anxious moments.
You may find you maintain your anxiety because you believe it is wrong not to worry, and so you feel insecure if you relax. This is particularly true of exams where people can feel something is wrong if they are not hyped-up. If you have always been very stressed leading up to exams, it is likely that you have learnt to associate the very-stressed you with success in exams. This can be a hard connection to break.
Beginning the battle with anxiety will never be easy, but understanding that it will get better, if you commit to it, should serve as motivation to persevere. It will help if you let friends and family members know what you’re feeling. If they understand how you feel and respond in certain situations, then they will know how to react if you start behaving in a certain way. They might encourage you to persevere. After a time, anxiety will begin to decrease.
This reduction in anxiety happens because our bodies are built that way. Anxiety cannot go on getting worse and worse. It reaches a maximum level and then it begins to decline.
The first time the person remains in the situation that triggers anxiety their anxiety levels may go up and stay up for a time. This persistence usually results in gradual reduction in anxiety. The first time, the reduction may be slow, the second time, less slow. Each subsequent attempt to stay in the situation that triggers anxiety results in the anxiety becoming less and less. The end result of this exposure is that the original anxiety-provoking situation no longer triggers high anxiety. Encouraging people to stay in their anxiety-provoking situation is a standard and effective treatment technique.
An alternative method is the gradual exposure to whatever triggers anxiety. A person with a fear of spiders would start by talking about spiders, their personal anxiety reactions to them and their current anxiety response just talking about spiders. Initially the conversation would be superficial and short, so that only a bearable amount of anxiety is created and then resolved. As the level of anxiety decreased, more detail and greater depth of experience with real and imagined spiders would be carried out, again raising anxiety to a bearable level and then resolved it and so on until harder tasks such as observing spiders in their natural habitat can be carried out without anxiety. Relaxation and breathing exercises are often practised with each step.
Physically escaping from anxiety
As you know, when you become anxious, your body responds in particular ways. It is worth noticing how your body reacts to stress, as this can help you to recognise when things are becoming difficult for you.
As anxiety wheels itself around as a vicious cycle, the strategy here is to break that cycle with a physical escape. This might not stop the anxiety cycle from resuming, but it does give you a chance to regroup and prepare yourself for the anxiety-provoking event.
Exercise as part of your daily routine is going to help you manage your anxieties. Exercise such as walking, swimming, playing a sport, going to the gym, or yoga can help relax the body and mind. Exercise needs concentration, and this can take your mind off your fear and anxiety.
Find the right exercise for you and you'll feel both energised and relaxed. As a general rule, yoga and Tai Chi are excellent for re-installing calm by focusing on breathing and centring the mind. But any physical exercise will reduce stress by using up adrenalin and other hormones that the body produces under stress, as well as relaxing the muscles. NUI Galway’s Lotus Society offers classes throughout the week for a very reasonable price and is an excellent facility for complete beginners to yoga or those at a more advanced level. https://www.facebook.com/LotusSoc?fref=ts
Breathing exercises can be very helpful in making us feel more relaxed. Did you know that when our breathing rate increases during the stress response, that this triggers physiological changes in our bodies? Our bodies actually need a balance between carbon dioxide and oxygen and when we begin to breathe quickly we take in more oxygen than we need and this upsets the balance, triggering a number of chemical changes producing symptoms such as dizziness, light-headedness and confusion. This can lead to feelings of anxiety and even panic in response to stressful situations and so breathing exercises are designed to help you slow down your breathing and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
1) This one is an easy unobtrusive way to calm your body. It can also help prevent panic.
Sit in a comfy chair and relax as much as you can. Take a slow normal breath (not a deep breath) and think "1" to yourself. As you breathe out, think, "relax". Breathe in again and think "2". Breathe out and think, "relax". Keep doing this up to 10. When you reach 10, reverse and start back down to 1. Try to put all else out of your mind. Try to see the numbers and the word 'relax' in your mind's eye.
2) Learn to breathe from the diaphragm
Place one hand on your chest and the other over your belly button. As you breathe in, the hand on your stomach should be pushed out while the hand on your chest should not move. As you breathe out, your stomach should pull in. Your chest should not move.
To help, breathe in through your nose, purse your lips and breathe out slowly through your mouth. If you are a chest breather, you may find this hard at first. If you can't get the hang of this, lie on your back on the floor and practise. You will find this easier.
Put these two together and do them twice a day. Once you get good at them, do them when you are at work, sitting on the bus, watching TV etc. The aim is to be able to do this no matter where you are. No-one will notice you doing them.
3) 1 relax to 10 relax
Take a breath in and think "1"
Breathe out and think "relax"
Take a breath in and think "2"
Breathe out and think "relax"
Repeat up to 10 and then back down to 1
Think only about your breathing and on the number and "relax" in the mind’s eye
Use slow normal breathing (10-12 breaths per minute). Breathe in through your nose. Purse your lips and breathe out slowly through your mouth
Use the diaphragm - as you breathe in, your stomach should push out while your chest should not move
As you breathe out, your stomach should pull in. Your chest should not move when you breathe out.
Practise twice a day in different places.
Mindfulness is also a popular way in which people practice relaxation and alleviate anxiety. Mindfulness is a skill in learning to focus, or be mindful of what is happening from moment to moment with a non-judging attitude. Once we learn how to do this, we can begin to deal with many of the causes of everyday stress such as anxiety provoking thoughts about the past or future and any other stressful phenomena such as time pressure, frustration, disappointment and distraction.
Surrounding yourself with those that you trust is an excellent way to overcome anxiety. When you are stressed and angry, or scared and worried, it is wonderful to have people you can express those feelings to, people who will understand where you’re coming from and who hopefully feel that they could be the same way around you. If anxiety is stopping you from feeling comfortable around people other than those you are closest to, it may be of benefit to you to ask them to introduce you to new people. If you are introduced to new people in smaller situations with less social pressure, then your anxiety will be less likely to act up, and soon friendships should start developing. Before you know it, the amount of people you know and even potentially trust and feel comfortable around will be increasing. Ultimately, overcoming anxiety is a gradual, if arduous, process. But if you surround yourself with good people who understand you, and if you give yourself the chance to understand yourself, then anxiety will soon become something you do not have to worry about.