“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:
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 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