How to Deal with Anxiety
From Stephanie Hughes, Psychotherapist, Counsellor and Personal Development Coach:
When I sat down to write this article, I found myself reflecting back over my life, thinking about the times when I have felt anxious.
For me, they have nearly all been related to my working life: I started out as a concert pianist, worried about getting all the right notes in the right place, and by Impostor Syndrome (“Am I really good enough to be doing this recital?” “Am I a fraud?”). Later, as a BBC presenter, more anxious thoughts arose, like “Will the technology be OK on this broadcast?” or “Will my studio interview guests respond well?"
Anxiety During the Pandemic
Anxiety (and its close cousin – stress) doesn’t only manifest itself through thoughts, it also has an impact on the physical sensations and heightened emotions felt while in an anxious state. No matter where those thoughts/feelings/physical sensations come from, they can have a deep impact. And when it gets out of control, anxiety can quickly become as disabling as any chronic illness. With Covid-19 still wreaking havoc across the globe, it’s clear that many people have been experiencing higher anxiety levels than ever before. The mental health charity, Mind is reporting an alarming increase in the rates of those experiencing effects on their mental health due to the lock-downs.
We are worrying more about our loved ones, those who care for us; whether we will have enough money to pay the bills, or enough food to eat. What’s more, there’s the loneliness of isolation - wondering when we’ll next see loved-ones face-to-face, have a conversation together, share a joke or a story together, or worrying about what would happen if we got sick or had a fall and no-one knew.
These are real concerns and fears, more understandable than ever in these strange times. It’s human to feel anxious – after all, it’s a natural survival mechanism, helping us to pay closer attention to things, to stop taking unnecessary risks.
When operating normally the internal mechanism that drives our anxiety is simply doing its job, trying to keep us safe. The problem comes when anxiety goes into overdrive and ends up ruling our lives like some dreadful tyrant. But we all have tools within ourselves to take back control – anxiety is not something that is all-powerful; it can be managed when you know how.
Understanding Anxiety Better
The more we understand anxiety, the more it helps. Having more knowledge helps to take away those moments when we feel anxiety is getting the upper hand. When I left piano-playing and broadcasting behind 15 years ago, I moved into the world of communication skills coaching and also became a qualified psychotherapist. My brain eagerly ‘hoovered-up’ all the psychological information I was receiving in the seminars and lectures, and, as I’m sitting here at my desk, I’m looking at bookcases stuffed with books on psychology and the brain. Not that we all have to go off and become neuroscientists!
I’ve seen the gentlest of explanations of what’s going on in our heads make a huge difference to my clients - when their shoulders start to lower, their breathing starts to calm and relief spreads across their faces when they say “So I’m not going mad!”.
One of the most accessible books I’ve read on coping with anxiety is How to Master Anxiety by Joe Griffin & Ivan Tyrell. They have an excellent description on what’s happening inside the brain. Sometimes when we’re stressed reading a book feels too much of a burden, but there are Podcasts too, as well as a whole host of other resource materials.
Many charities (e.g. The Mental Health Foundation) have whole sections dealing with the increasing loneliness that some people are experiencing with Covid-19 restrictions.
The more we do something practical or different in stressful situations, the more it helps. We breathe in and out all the time without thinking about it, but we can use our breath even more consciously to help calm our thoughts and feelings.
Some people call it ‘ratio breathing’ or ‘7/11 breathing’ -essentially counting to a certain number when breathing in and then when breathing out. I like to use 5/8 - breathing in 2-3-4-5¸and breathing out 2-3-4-5-6-7-8.
The key is making the number of counts on the way out longer than the counts in! This is because our out-breath stimulates our relaxation response. And the very act of having to count in sequence often helps to get our rational brain back into gear when our emotional brain is wobbling around all over the place.
I have had very anxious clients with whom I’ve sat for five to ten minutes simply counting their breathing alongside them until I can see the emotional arousal beginning to subside.
Understandably, some people get irritated by counting. With one client, I got them to look at a row of trees in the garden on the in-breath and a row of pot plants on the out-breath as a distraction. You can get creative with this!
Even breathing in and out deeply without trying to make the outbreath longer than the inbreath can be helpful. The important thing is to try and incorporate a deeper, more conscious way of breathing into your daily routine, so that you can easily access the technique if you start feeling those symptoms of anxiety.
Create a Safe Place
Make relaxation more pleasant and rewarding by creating an enjoyable and safe place. By that I mean closing your eyes and floating away to some pleasant imaginary place or a real place you love to go to. My clients often choose to imagine themselves walking on a beach, in the mountains, by a stream, in their garden, with their grandchildren, or on a bike ride. The key thing is to concentrate on making the occasion as real as it can be - really try to see the colours of the scene (the greens, the blues, the yellows), hear the sounds (the water, the rustling leaves) and feel the textures (the sun on your face, the breeze in your hair).
It’s an ancient technique which is often very effective in turning-off busy, anxious thoughts. It can be hard to do at first, but persevere. Being able to call to mind your own ‘safe place’ when you start becoming overwhelmed with feelings is a fantastic tool to have in the mental ‘kit bag’. Just as you can’t contract and relax a muscle at the same time, you can’t be anxious when you’re in a relaxed state.
Keep the Mind Active
When the first lockdown happened in March, I set myself different tasks (within the confines of my house) to ensure I was doing different things:
- I tried different recipes (and swapped recipes with friends and family)
- Rang friends I hadn’t spoken to for ages (and had been meaning to for an embarrassingly long time!)
- Ordered seeds and grew herbs on my windowsill
- Got passionate about the Golden Era in Hollywood and started reading film stars’ biographies
- Painted a room
- Enjoyed delving into my family tree
- Learned about online video conferencing platforms for my job.
I know of others who did everything from redesigning parts of their house to learning how to make soap! The point is that the brain loves being stretched. When we are successfully undertaking new challenges and learning new things it’s like opening up a window of fresh air on the brain.
I think we all know this – but here’s a reminder that exercise is one of the most powerful anti-anxiety techniques. Right now, social-distancing and self-isolation makes it more difficult, but not impossible – you don’t have to have special equipment or huge amounts of space.
Experts suggest that even a moderate level of exercise is helpful for anxiety. Take regular breaks from where you’re sitting continuously, make stairs your new best friend (if you have them), take your four-legged friends for longer walks (and your two-legged friends!)
Helping Anxiety in Others
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that doing good is also good for our mental health. So, if you’re able to, now could be an opportunity to help someone else who might be feeling anxious or lonely. It’s not always easy to work out how best to help somebody with anxiety, especially when they’re going through a hard time. But trying to find out what helps them most is perhaps the best place to start.
I remember several years ago going back home to visit my parents and insisting we should do a, b and c, and change x, y and z to help their situation. But that was my perspective, and not theirs. A lot of what I was suggesting wasn’t the right course of action. I almost had to ‘rediscover’ my parents, with lots of conversations and cups of tea (and, wow, my mother could drink gallons of tea!), to understand the best way forward.
In the middle of a bad anxiety spell, it can often be impossible for your family member or friend to remember a time when they were not feeling anxious! When this happens, be a beacon of hope by strengthening them with the knowledge that things never stay the same - what a powerful conversation to have! A gentle reminder that the bad feelings will eventually go away can work wonders and can help them anticipate a better time.
We live in a world where things seem to be getting faster and faster (from time-saving gadgets and techniques to the speed at which we speak!). Many of us (whether we have anxiety or not) feel bad when not being as ‘productive’ as we feel we could be.
I have a career that has taken me all over the world (up until the pandemic, that is!), organising programmes, taking phone calls, meeting deadlines and delivering results. Anxiety-sufferers often feel burdened to get over anxiety attacks as quickly as possible. But there is no time frame with anxiety, so when you’re helping others encourage them to take their time.
Giving people the space they need to pause and get back to their normal equilibrium is important. I remember visiting a friend in hospital who was feeling not only very poorly, but also incredibly anxious. He didn’t want conversation, though - he just needed some time, knowing someone was there. So I simply relaxed and read the newspaper until he felt able to speak. Assuring people that they have all the time in the world to recover and you will be there for them when they are ready means a lot to people in a world where anxiety is often dismissed.
No-one starts off life wanting to be inward-looking, miserable and afraid. No-one ends up in anxiety’s grip intentionally. But life can take all sorts of twists and turns that leave us in circumstances we never envisioned.I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t faced problems, burdens or sadness at some point in their lives.
There’s an ancient proverb that often comes to my mind when I think of life’s challenges - “You can’t keep birds of sadness flying over your head, but you can keep them from building nests in your head.” Whatever your circumstances, it’s good to know that something can be done – anxiety doesn’t need to rule your life.
You can take back control!
- Stephanie Hughes
Stephanie Hughes was a presenter with the BBC for 18 years, communicating her insights and passions from the most intimate radio programmes to flag-waving international broadcasts. Her numerous high profile shows included the First and Last Nights of the BBC Proms, BBC Young Musician of the Year and Songs of Praise, while her BBC Radio programmes covered most of the day, from breakfast time ‘On Air’ to evening broadcasts and news reading.
She brought her extensive experience to the world of corporate communications in 2005. Her clients range from Heads of Finance & Development to senior management in corporate finance, legal, engineering and architect/property firms.
Stephanie also has specialist coaching skills to help people who get anxious or nervous about presenting in public, or who might be dealing with particularly stressful work situations.
For more information, visit stephaniehughes.co.uk