How to cope with anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most common reasons people attend psychotherapy. That’s hardly surprising, seeing as it can really wreak havoc in people’s lives.  From sleepless nights to missing out on social events, anxiety has a sneaky way of really affecting your quality of life. What strategies can you use to cope with anxiety?

What IS anxiety? understanding the demon

Let’s begin by understanding what anxiety actually is. The NHS defines anxiety as “a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe”. Depending on the severity, it often comes with physical symptoms like heart palpitations, sweat or even irritable bowel syndrome. That uncomfortable feeling can occur in social situations, in specific scenarios or seemingly “out of the blue”. As you can see, this is a highly individual matter and a very broad topic.

Anxiety is not always a bad thing! To some extent, we all need it. When you’re anxious, your nervous system goes into a “danger mode”. Assuming the threat is real, this can be extremely useful because it alerts you to danger. This, in turn, mobilises the body and mind to steer focus away from other things and tackle the threat (e.g. escape). The problem begins when your nervous system senses a threat where it doesn’t realistically exist… What do you do then?

What to do when you’re anxious

Some cases can be severe, and I would always recommend seeing a qualified psychotherapist if you’re struggling with anxiety. But luckily, there are several things you can do at home or on the go to help you cope with these overwhelming feelings. Here are some strategies to try:

breathing for anxiety

Try effective breathing exercises that realistically calm the nervous system down. By breathing in a specific way, you can let your body know that there is no realistic threat. The so-called 4-7-8 technique seems to be very effective. Breathe in through the nose on the count of four, hold your breath for seven seconds and breathe out through your mouth on the count of eight.

GROUNDING IN THE MOMENT

Grounding exercises (techniques that anchor you in the present moment) can let your nervous system know that there is no real danger in the “here and now”. Here’s a brief exercise I like to use. Sit comfortably and look around the room. Find three objects you can see around you and focus on describing them in as much detail as possible. Focus on the objects’ shape, colour, function, texture… Then focus on two things you can hear in your surroundings and describe these in as much detail to yourself. Next you can try to focus on what you can smell in the room. If you have some food around you, bite into something (ideally with a very intense taste) and focus on feeling that in your mouth. These little things should help you keep your thoughts in the present moment.

phone applications

Alternatively, to the grounding technique I mention above, try mindfulness applications on your phone. Applications such as Calm provide you with brief meditations, grounding and breathing exercises. You can select the “anxiety” option in the app to get more targeted content.

yoga poses for anxiety

Try mindful movement like yoga. Again, this works through calming your nervous system down and breathing is a big part of it. You can find YouTube videos targeting anxiety specifically, so no need to buy a whole class. My personal favourite is Yoga with Adriene – click here for a playlist with Adriene’s videos to help soothe anxiety and stress.

Lifestyle factors

Certain lifestyle factors can also contribute to your anxiety. By modifying these, you can (at least to some extent) lower your anxiety. These changes won’t work for everyone, but it’s worth to keep them in mind perhaps as potential causes or escalators of your feelings of unease.

Nutritional deficiencies and anxiety

Certain nutritional deficiencies can increase anxiety (as well as depression!). One of the most well-studied links between mental health and nutrition comes down to vitamin D3. Multiple research highlights that D3 deficiencies result in symptoms of anxiety, especially during the fall and winter months when we get less sunlight (at least here in Europe!). Using supplements might help your anxiety, particularly if you don’t go out much in the sun.

Another vitamin that is known for its cognitive boosting abilities is B12. Similarly, B12 deficiencies can definitely impact your mental health, including symptoms of anxiety. Again, this is a deficiency to watch out for because it’s very common!

Many other deficiencies could contribute to this problem. If this is something that concerns you, you can always check your specific vitamin levels with blood tests, adjusting supplements as needed.

 SLEEP

One of the physical symptoms we see in anxiety is shorter, shallow sleep. Sleeping patterns and anxiety can often be somewhat of a “chicken and egg” scenario, where it’s impossible to tell which came first. Trying to get a proper amount of high quality sleep, however, could help. If you’re having trouble sleeping, avoid using a laptop or phone an hour before bed and try not to work or read in bed. When we use the bed as a workspace (or even a reading space!) our brain can learn to associate this space with thinking rather than sleeping. 

hobbies

Having something to take your mind off daily work or life stress is a great way to ease at least some anxiety. Try taking up a hobby that fits your personality like a form of exercise, drawing or an instrument.

caffeine

Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others. Many people find it useful to cut down on caffeine when they’re struggling with anxiety. For one, if you have too much caffeine (or consume it too late in the day), it can mess with your sleep and get you stuck in that poor-sleep-high-anxiety loop. You also have to remember that caffeine is a stimulant and if your nervous system is already overreactive, it doesn’t exactly help.

How can therapy help with anxiety?

The coping strategies mentioned here are great, but they mostly focus on the surface, that crisis moment. Dealing with your anxiety on a deeper level comes down to thinking of and analysing the root cause of your overwhelming feelings. Psychotherapy can help you understand and manage your feelings better, but it can also show you any unhelpful thinking or behavioural patterns you might have (contributing to the overall unease).

Talking through the things that lie at the bottom of your anxiety can have more long term effects. Most of all, however, therapy provides a safe space to say anything and everything you would like to discuss. And as Maya Angelou once said: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” 

To schedule a therapy session in central London or on Skype, visit my contact page.