It can be hard to know what’s making you anxious. An important starting point is to give yourself the time to reflect on your stress and anxiety. Ignoring it, and pushing down those thoughts and feelings may be appealing in the short-term, but only increases anxiety’s power over you and your life in the long-run. Understanding your anxiety is the first step to overcoming it – it gives you the power to know your anxiety, experience the thoughts and feelings, and come to know how you can cope with them.
Pushing down those thoughts and feelings, although appealing in the short-term, only increases anxiety’s power over you.
Solving the puzzle
You might want to think about or write down situations where you’ve felt anxious. Try and think about what it was about that situation that made you anxious – Was it it was situation specific? at work or a social event? was there a thought that this event triggered?
We know the thought is really important – if you walk into a presentation thinking ‘I’ve got this; I’m prepared’ then you feel confident. If you walk in thinking ‘I’m terrible at this, I’m going to embarrass myself. I can’t do this’… your feelings will be very different. The related emotion might be stress, anxiety, panic. What do you do in response to the emotion? … Do you run away, escape, avoid? These are normal human responses. If you’re stuck in a vicious cycle of difficult thoughts and emotions, however, it might be about trying to re-train your brain, the same way you would train your body for a race. You might need to practise some skills to help your brain to shift its threat-focus, to learn that you can deal with the challenges that you might face.
Generally, it is understood that a range of factors contribute to our mental health. Our biology – our genetics and biochemical make-up – might contribute to how our body and mind respond to stress. Our psychology – our mood, personality and behaviours – and social circumstances – family and support network, socioeconomic factors, lifestyle etc – will also alter our mental wellbeing and resilience to cope with different things that happen. Depending on our life experiences, our brains might be trained to think slightly differently. You might have different beliefs about yourself (what are called ‘core beliefs’ or ‘schemas’) because of your previous family and peer relationships. Sometimes, things in our life now are affected by those things in our past and might affect how we think about ourselves, other people and the world around us. This is the basis of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, CBT, a commonly used psychological therapy which is the currently widely used approach to stress and anxiety in the NHS.
How can I manage stress and anxiety?
As discussed, understanding the situations you find difficult – the triggers of your anxiety – will be key to recognising and understanding your anxiety in the first instance. You might notice particular thought patterns that arise for you; there are so many!
- Blaming yourself for anything that goes wrong
- Mind-reading about what other people (negatively) think of you
- Disqualifying the positives and forgetting the good things you’ve done
- Catastrophisation about the worst possible outcome of a situation.
You might do all of these, sometimes. You might notice that there’s a particular pattern that comes up for you. Identifying this pattern is the another step in understanding your mind. You can then start the process of understanding the effect that these thoughts are having on your mood, and even challenging those negative thoughts. Catching these thoughts, and realising these thoughts are just thoughts, not facts. Just because your mind is telling you something, it doesn’t mean that it is true. If you’re really feeling anxious, this might be hard. You might want to write it down, share it with someone you trust, and spend some time talking about it and trying to challenge it.
Just because your mind is telling you something, it doesn’t mean that it is true.
Another common issue with anxiety is avoidance – we naturally try to avoid things that we find anxiety provoking. However, what we know is that avoiding the scary thing keeps the worry going – it actually maintains the problem! If we never face our fears, they get bigger and bigger, the worries get worse, and – importantly – we never get to show ourselves that we actually could cope with that situation better than we might have expected. So you may need to try to gradually expose yourself back into something that you’ve been avoiding and start to slowly build up your confidence again.
It’s also worth thinking about how you manage your physical responses. It sounds simple – but remember to breathe! It sounds obvious and maybe it’s a bit of a cliché, but slow, deep and mindful breathing really does help with the physiological symptoms of anxiety. These breathes will activate your soothing parasympathetic nervous system and reverse the fast, shallow breathing triggered by adrenaline. Effectively, this is your body’s way of putting on the brake and regulating your heart rate.
There are lot of other things that you might be able to think about that you can do in your everyday life without seeking professional help. Evidence suggests that when we are well-supported by a network we tend to be less stressed and more effective; so it’s incredibly important that you have someone to talk to about work as well as socially.
It’s also important that you try to give yourself time to de-stress. Again, it sounds so simple, but it’s so important to spend time with people you feel safe, happy and relaxed with. Don’t forget the vital importance of a good night’s sleep, eating well and keeping well-hydrated. Leave work early enough to do some exercise. When we’re busy we slip into bad habits, but when our body feels run-down, so does our mind, and vice versa. Make time to do your hobbies or something you find relaxing. These things might not change your situation, but they might change your perspective on it and your resilience around it. We will discuss resilience further in a later article.
When should I seek professional help?
If you feel your stress and anxiety is impacting you in your day-to-day and making it harder for you to do your job, engage in your hobbies, socialise or generally do the things that make you happy, then this is a good indication that it’s worth doing something more about it. This might be as simple as doing some self-help in the first instance, but it might be that you want to seek more professional help.
If you want or need more help then accessing professional support might be helpful to give a more in-depth exploration and management of your difficulties. Again, there is no shame in asking for help; you are as a worthy as anyone else. There are also more in-depth therapies on offer that focus more on depression, relationships or earlier life experiences, depending on what you are finding hard. In particular, if you do have thoughts around self-harm or suicide, then it is really important that you talk to someone and think about talking to a professional. You don’t need to cope with these thoughts and feelings on your own.
If you think you would benefit from professional support from the NHS, then the best place to start is to visit your GP. They can let you know about services in your local area. The first line of support might be from an Improving Access to Psychological Therapies, or IAPT, service. Some, but not all, workplaces might have access to workplace wellbeing and support.
Here are some links and websites that be useful to give information on understand mental health services and how to access them, self-help and suicidal thoughts and where to get help.