How to manage your anxiety
Along with depression, anxiety-related problems are the most common form of psychological difficulty. These problems range from mild to severe and include everything from a tendency to worry too much to potentially crippling problems such as severe health anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder, which can completely dominate someone’s life.
Whatever form of anxiety you struggle with, the first thing to realise is that anxiety is both normal and necessary. Anxiety is an ‘arousal emotion’ which serves as a sort of alarm bell to warn us that something is wrong and we need to take action. It is linked to the fight-or-flight response, a vital but primitive self-protection strategy that served humans well when we were surrounded by hungry predators, but is less well-adapted to the complex demands of 21st-century life.
All anxiety-related problems involve some kind of misfiring of this ancient part of our brains and are all linked to two things: overestimating threats and underestimating our capacity to deal with them. Let me give you an example – if someone has a phobia about dogs, they are likely to perceive all dogs as threatening, perhaps vicious and dangerous. This is clearly an overestimation of the threat presented by the vast majority of (friendly, tail-wagging) dogs. The dog-phobic person is also underestimating their ability to deal with the occasional dog who actually is aggressive, by crossing the street or asking the dog's owner to control them.
One of the other problems with anxiety is that it’s not just a psychological or emotional response – it causes all sorts of changes in our bodies, too. If you think about the fight-or-flight response, which is designed to help us either fight or flee from life-or-death threats, this makes perfect sense. Our heart rate speeds up and breathing gets faster, oxygenating the blood being pumped to all our major muscles (by the way, this explains the racing heartbeat and the feeling of breathlessness often linked to panic attacks, and the blushing that may worry people with social anxiety).
Breathing in this way also makes you feel dizzy and light-headed, while all the adrenaline pumped into your bloodstream to give you a burst of energy makes you feel hyper, edgy and even more anxious. So one of the simplest ways to help yourself feel less anxious is to work directly with the body. Use this breathing technique to calm yourself down; avoid caffeine (which stimulates adrenaline production); go for a walk or do more vigorous exercise to burn off that adrenaline; have a relaxing bath, do some yoga or meditate to help yourself relax.
The other way to free yourself from anxiety is to tackle the anxiety-provoking thoughts and beliefs that are the root cause of your problem. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is proven to be the most effective way to tackle all anxiety-related problems, from social anxiety to phobias and obsessive compulsive disorder. There is also a wealth of free material on my website to help you tackle your own problems, so do try to find something that works for you. Whether you visit a cognitive therapist like myself, or choose to deal with the problem on your own, please remember that life doesn't have to be such a struggle - with a little effort and determination you do have the power to free yourself from anxiety.
All material copyright © Dan Roberts 2014