Tips for dealing with anxiety

“Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths.” ― Charles Haddon Spurgeon

A chance comment at the weekend sparked a long conversation on the causes of anxiety and how to cope with it. It is not often that you find yourself in the depths of a conversation about anxiety when you are getting your haircut, but that’s what happened to me. The person felt that they were anxious and had been feeling so for about a month. This had also affected their sleep pattern, work and home life.

So what is anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal response to stress or danger and is often called the ‘flight or fight’ response. This is the expression that is often used when animals are presented with a danger – do they fight or do they run away? The ‘flight or fight’ process involves adrenalin being quickly pumped through the body enabling it to cope with whatever catastrophe may come your way. There are problems that arise when this response is out of proportion to the actual danger of the situation, or indeed is generated when there is no actual danger present.

Physical symptoms can include:                         Psychological symptoms can include:
Butterflies in the stomach                                           Wanting to escape or run away
Racing heartbeat                                                            Inner tension and relaxation
Shortness of breath                                                         Feeling agitated most of the time
Chest tightness                                                                 A fear of losing control
Dry mouth                                                                          A feeling of detachment or loss

Is feeling anxious common?

Anxiety disorders are very common. In a Office for National Statistics survey 1 in 6 adults had experienced some form of ‘neurotic health problem’ in the previous week. More than 1 in 10 people are likely to have a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ at some stage in their life. The most recent Psychiatric Morbidity Survey indicates that there are some 3 million with an anxiety disorder. So it is common and more common than you think.

What causes anxiety?

My friend that I was speaking to, said that it seemed to come on after they had given up smoking. Within a couple of days, they had started to feel tremors all the time; a feeling of a racing heartbeat; fear of going to sleep and wanting to be outside. We did not discuss the details of what was the cause as there are many factors that can trigger an anxiety disorder – stress; physical factors; something that triggers a historical memory or even a biochemical imbalance. Knowing the origins of an anxiety disorder doesn’t help in dealing with the day to day problems that arise as a result of the disorder. My friend was not interested in what had caused it, as they could not identify the cause themselves, rather they wanted to know how to deal with it.

As we chatted, I shared that I, too, had felt anxious in the past and I had used the practice of mindfulness to help reduce my levels of anxiousness. A doctor had mentioned to my friend that mindfulness is recognised as an effective treatment method and they wanted to know more.

I shared some of the practices and approaches that I have used. A couple of really useful practices I describe below:

Breath counting

This technique is very easy and you can do it almost anywhere. It is generally better to do this with your eyes closed. On your next in-breath, count up to 6 as you breathe all the way in, and then on the out-breath, count up to 10 as you breathe all the way out. This technique has the effect of lengthening both the in-breath and the out-breath, slowing down your breathing. It also lengthens the out-breath more than the in-breath, forcing you to release more carbon dioxide, slowing your heart rate, calming you down and restoring emotional equilibrium.

Make sure you fit the numbers to your breath and not the other way around. If 6 and 10 don’t work for you, find another ratio that does, as long as the out-breath is at least two counts longer than the in-breath. If it’s too hard to continue breathing while counting, count for one full breath, then take one normal breath and count the next one.

Finger breathing

Finger breathing is another version of breath counting and does not rely on you closing your eyes. Hold one hand in front of you, palm facing towards you. With the index finger of your other hand, trace up the outside length of your thumb while you breath in, pausing at the top of your thumb and then trace it down the other side while you breathe out. That’s one breath. Trace up the side of the next finger while you breathe in, pause at the top, and then trace down the other side of that finger while you breathe out. That’s two breaths. Keep going, tracing along each finger as you count each breath. When you get the end of the last finger, come back up that finger and do it in reverse.

This practice gives you something visual to focus on and something kinaesthetic to do with your hands as well as focusing on counting and your breathing. It is very useful when there is a lot going around you and it is hard to just close your eyes and focus inwards. It’s also a very easy technique to teach teenagers and kids.

Why not give them a go and notice what happens.

I leave you with the following quote that made me smile.

“It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”  ― Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot

The monkey mind

“I am burdened with what the Buddhists call the ‘monkey mind’ — the thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl.” ― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

I don’t know about you, but my mind can be a jumble of disconnected thoughts on a daily; hourly or even minute by minute. If you consider that per day, we can have between 50,000-70,000 thoughts per day, this means between 35 and 48 thoughts per minute, your mind is a constant jumble of thoughts.

What is a thought?

A definition that I came across suggests that a “thought” is a “sporadic single-idea cognitive concept resulting from the act of thinking, or produced by spontaneous systems-level cognitive brain activations.”

What I tend to believe is that a thought is those individual images; movies or silent conversations that we have. I have a mixture of these. Not sure if this is normal or not, so I would be interested to hear what your thought process is.

However, one thing I do know is that apart from the normal random thoughts that occur during the day including – “Why is that driver pulling out on me”; “what’s for lunch?”; “what is next to do?”; there are those reoccurring self-doubt thoughts.

“Why did I do that?”; “Why did I say that?”; “Will anyone notice I made a mistake?”; “Why do I continue to make the same mistake”; “Is so-and-so happy? Have I upset them?”; “Will I lose my job?”; “What about my health?”  – those types of thoughts.

These are associated with an expression called “Monkey Mind”. I love the idea of your mind as a tree and that each thought is a branch, and you, or at least the attention of your mind, is like a monkey, swinging from thought-branch to thought-branch all day long.

These self doubt thoughts drive irrational fears, made real by our own constant attention. Left unchecked you can literally come to believe that these thoughts are real!

The result of the monkey mind of self doubt, results in mental as well as physical fatigue. We’ve all had days where it feels like we’ve achieved nothing and there’s a mountain to climb tomorrow. You feel exhausted and completely worn out.

So what is the answer?

The first step is awareness. Are you aware that you actually have self doubt thoughts and all they are is thoughts. Not real, but purely your own self consciousness? As an experiment, set aside a notepad and for a while, every time you have a self doubt thought either write it down, or even make a mark on the paper. You will be amazed how many you can get in a short period of time.

Secondly, find a way to quieten those thoughts. You will never get rid of them, but you can find ways to reduce their intensity. You can try meditation; mindfulness (which is what I practice); yoga; or some other form of contemplative pursuit. You can try exercise, as it is very difficult to have many thoughts when you are pounding the treadmill, cycling, swimming or doing something physically taxing.

You could try event try a technique called the A-B-C Technique. A lot of the time, the monkey mind is caused by your thoughts disagreeing with what’s going on around you. When the present moment situation doesn’t align with what your personal beliefs are, your monkey mind begins to spit and howl. The A-B-C technique can help you deal with the disparity between what your monkey mind thinks should be happening, and what is actually happening. Here’s how it works:

  • A is for “activating event”. That is, something happens.
  • B is for “beliefs”. Your monkey mind starts interpreting what’s happening based on your beliefs.
  • C is for “consequences”. As a consequence of the thoughts that you’re having about what just happened, you feel certain emotions.

The key to taming the monkey mind by applying the A-B-C technique is to question the beliefs that the your mind is relying on in order to reach the conclusions that you are having.

I leave you with the following quote.

“We have the choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real, and the hidden, inner person who seems to us to be nothing, but who can give himself eternally to the truth in whom he subsists.” ― Thomas Merton