There is probably nobody on this planet who has never experienced anxiety in some shape or form. Anxiety, which is often a response to stress or fear, is normal. Even babies go through it and learn how to deal with it. But as much as it is a natural response, it can become overpowering and significantly affect our wellbeing (1). That’s when help is needed.
Severe anxiety does not have to be caused by big things. Often it is the small stuff that gets our minds spinning.
You might be facing a test at school, a medical appointment, you might feel stuck in a difficult situation with a friend – or like me right now, you are writing this article.
Where does the mind go in these situations? It finds ways to worry and spread doubt about your choices, which can completely paralyse you. For many of us anxiety comes with that inner voice feeding us doubt. It compares us to others, it shows us worst case scenarios in vivid detail and if that voice is loud enough, we might opt out of doing things we were initially excited about. Anxiety wins.
Although I have suffered from anxiety for many years (and still do), thanks to therapy and research I can genuinely say that anxiety does not define me anymore. I learned that the key is to recognise the signs early on and to have some straight-forward tools to manage it.
Here are some very simple things we can do to prevent our minds from spiralling. As always, mental health is a personal matter and only you know what works for you.
No two minds are ever the same.
The Power of Breath
The first method you can try when anxious thoughts are flooding your mind is to breathe consciously. The importance of the breath has been the centre of many cultures across the centuries but somehow our western world seems to have forgotten this a little. Yes, we all breathe in and out usually 20-30 times a minute when we are awake, but we don’t give it much thought. Initially, I was reluctant to believe it would have any real effect. I dismissed it as some yogi method at a time where I did not appreciate meditation or mindfulness. So, I’m totally with you if you feel sceptical. But there’s no harm in trying to focus on your breathing when thoughts get messy, right? You can do it wherever, whenever. Simply inhale deeply and consciously through the nose and exhale through the mouth. Counting from 1 to 4 or 5 helps the mind truly focus on breathing – and not on anxious thoughts. There are a vast range of breathing exercises out there, but this is the most basic one and I personally feel when my thoughts spiral, I need simple instructions (2).
The Power of Acceptance
This is more of a long-term goal because you need to practice this a little. I am still learning how to master the art of acceptance (7), but I am getting there and it does help. Unfortunately, like with most emotions, anxiety gets worse when you fight it. The more you tense up, the bigger its playground becomes. Actively accepting that you might be in an anxious state can already ease the feeling. In order to do so, remember ‘This too shall pass’. Anxiety is a temporary feeling and it will not last. When it’s most intense, it is hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel, but that does not mean there is no light. A trick I did about a year ago was to write a letter to my future (anxious) self while I was feeling very good: It was a sunny day and I sat down on the terrace with a cold drink, some nice music and began to reassure myself. It went a bit like this “Dear Mari, I know you are feeling very low right now. But I am here to remind you that you are strong. That you are beautiful. And that you have a lot to give to this world. Whatever it is you worry about right now, will resolve itself. It always has…” I then went on listing challenges I overcame in the past. I listed things I enjoyed. I asked my anxious self to get up, lift her arms high in the air and jump around. But above all I told her that she is enough and worthy – even whilst feeling anxious. This letter has become a lifeline for me. Numerous times I have pulled it up on my phone and read it over and over again, often with a torrent of tears running down my cheeks. There is something truly comforting in being told by a happy version of yourself that things will work out.
The Power of Social Media
The critical voice in our head might be hard to mute but it is you who decides what to feed it. We are influenced by a world of fake perfection. Despite knowing full well that social media posts are lying to us, our little mind still sees the same images and holds itself accountable to those ludicrous standards. Many therapists suggest that it’s beneficial to go off social media and I agree. But if you are like me, this is not a realistic approach. Instead, I consciously changed what I feed my mind on a daily basis. I have always had body confidence issues and seeing size zero models (or just my gorgeous high school friend pouting) on my feed every day made it worse. Watching how the whole world was seemingly doing super-well while I still struggled to achieve the most basic things, broke me one post at a time. I went through it with a fine-toothed comb and chose to actively feed my soul realistic images. From body positivity to celebs that don’t shy away from sharing their mental health issues accompanied by images that proof they are as human as you and I. Social media can, in fact, be empowering and comforting – it just depends where you look. Changing my daily image intake had a profound effect on my mind. I subconsciously started seeing things differently. I connected with other people suffering from anxiety who became my strongest support network. When it comes to social media the choice is yours. Make it a conscious one.
The Power of Exercise
This one is really not new but as a passionate gym-hater, I wish I would have understood it earlier. I am all about loving myself the way I am and not running to the gym to please society and its extremely flawed beauty standards. But it turns out real exercise is not about that. Moving your body and getting your heart rate going not only occupies the mind naturally, it also lowers all the body’s chemicals related to stress and anxiety. When we have a fight or flight response (3), we produce a range of stress hormones and our body prepares itself to take action. But facing a difficult situation at work or at school usually means the tornado of emotions takes place inside your mind. You do not get up and run a mile when you get a bad grade or a rejection for your dream job, although that would certainly help with releasing the stress hormones. We often hear people say that they run every day ‘to clear their head’ and that is exactly what exercise for mental strength is about.
The Power of Distraction
Neurologically our minds cannot fully focus on two things at once (4). Distracting yourself can significantly ease the intensity of anxiety (5). If you temporarily engage the mind in a different task it often takes the edge off. If you are in a busy environment, you can simply sit down and list everything you see around you. Focus on the objects in sight. Name them all, one by one. Another trick when anxiety hits is to stimulate your other senses. When I used to get panic attacks, I always carried a small piece of dark chocolate with me and when I felt the anxiety rising, I ate the chocolate and focussed on its creamy texture and sweet taste. It calmed me down – at least enough to get myself somewhere less hectic than in the middle of London’s Piccadilly Circus. Maybe the right thing for you isn’t chocolate but some wasabi peas but the idea is that a strong stimulation of your taste buds can cause the mind to temporarily focus on something other than your anxiety. Having the chocolate also gave me a feeling of being prepared for a panic attack which reduced the fear of it and hence the likelihood for it to happen.
There are many more techniques that can help ease an anxious mind. It might be worth making a list of them so when you find yourself trapped in your thoughts you can try them out. Sometimes a tiny adjustment to how we think does miracles.
As always, remember you are not alone. In 2017, the World Health Organization (6) estimated that 260 million people are living with anxiety disorder and bear in mind that is just the data for those being diagnosed. There is no need to suffer in silence and with many online platforms focusing on mental health, there are great ways to become part of a community that sincerely supports each other through it.