Many people ask me how they can reduce their anxiety or stress. With many people losing their jobs or feeling worried about the future this is understandable. Often it can feel as if anxiety is intensifying. Well the best way to explain it is to discuss the anxiety cycle. You can see the picture below -
It starts with triggers at the top and moves in a clockwise direction to the next step of the cycle with is our ‘thoughts’ these thoughts lead to the next step ‘which is the symptoms of anxiety or stress’ then to coping methods, after that there is a feeling of being overwhelmed before we are then exposed to the trigger again and so the cycle continues and becomes much more intense each time. I’m here to tell you today that it can be broken and symptoms can ease.
Let me explain it in a story for you based on the current pandemic. Mary watches the news, and on the news it tells her the death rate due to the virus has risen. Mary’s brain allows this information to be retained and her thoughts and emotions surrounding what she has just heard lead her to start to catastrophize and worry about the worst case scenarios, this is the brain’s survival instinct that then puts us into a feeling of fear, anxiety and stress. Mary decides to use a coping method that she was taught by a friend and uses breathing techniques to try to be calmer. Mary is temporarily calmer although becomes overwhelmed as she feels shame that she has to use the techniques at all. Then her partner comes home from work and says that 4 people have just been diagnosed in the school he works, this is now the trigger again and the whole thing starts again. Now in this story Mary uses a healthy coping method. Be mindful, many people will use coping methods that involve alcohol or recreational drugs which create a higher sense of being overwhelmed once the short lived relaxed state has ended from their effects. So, Mary’s choice is much more successful. I’ll talk about these a little later.
So how do we break the cycle?
We can only focus on what we can control so if we look at the cycle the two main areas we can focus on are our ‘thoughts’ and the ‘coping methods’.
So these are the two key areas that I am going to talk to you about today. As an online counsellor and coach, I know these areas well and can give you some top tips on how to reduce and manage your anxiety and stress.
Let’s talk about our ‘thoughts’ first -
The first thing to discuss is the law of attraction. What we think and communicate about we will attract. Let’s take social media as an example, in this modern age there is digital marketing and all sorts of algorithms. So whatever you click on, spend time or share is going to attract more of that to your social media feed. So have a clean up of all the things you have recently been liking sharing or posting regarding the pandemic. When you purposely choose more positive things to like and share then you are likely to see more of this instead of the negative fearful messages.
This brings me on to media and news channel, newspapers. Also our minds cannot take in every piece of information available to us. Therefore our brain has an attention filter, it will only let through the most dramatic news. So be mindful of the information you are consuming, where it is coming from and how frequently. I would suggest only watching the news a maximum of once per day, if you can reduce that to once every few days then even better.
I can highly recommend a book called, Factfulness by Hans Rosling. This book has helped me with my own anxiety as it helps to rationalise and gives great advice about world news.
Factfulness he describes is “The stress-reducing habit of only carrying opinions for which you have STRONG supporting facts” let’s think about that for a moment, the challenge here is that if someone you know tells you something, for example your mate Dave tells you that the army are being deployed to the streets tomorrow. You think to yourself well I know Dave and I trust him so I will believe him and tell another 5 people the information even though we don’t know if it’s true. What I am suggesting is that you check where you are receiving your information, if it's from FAKEBOOK or hearsay then go to official government websites to require accurate information. There is so much out there that is untrue.
Next I’d like to talk about Fear- this is a reaction. There is a good quote that is “The man that fears the wild animal on the way to work has everything else in the back of his mind” many of us are blessed enough to live in a world where we don’t have to worry about basic survival. We have running water, an indoor toilet, electricity, heat and clothes. If you have all these things plus 1 mode of transport even if it is a bike puts you wealthier than the majority of the population of the world. That’s something to be very grateful for.
Which brings me on to the next point on our thoughts which is gratitude. Aesop said “Gratitude turns what we have into enough” take a pen and paper now and write down three things that you are grateful for………. You might say health, friends, family for those that are in crisis it might be more difficult to do this so in high stress look for an object and list 3 things you are grateful for about that object. Do this gratitude exercise every day in the morning and see how life will REALLY start to change. This exercise has been tested and showed a reduction of 35% in symptoms of anxiety and depression for as long as it was repeated. That is definitely worth it.
They say that happiness comes from something to do, something to love and something to look forward to. Manifest what you want in the future. To do this take a pen and paper again and write a letter to yourself from the summer. It will sound something like this, dear Melissa, today was a great day, you went down to the beach paddle boarding and it was hot enough that you didn't need the wet suit. There was not a cloud in the sky. After a few hours you went home. Stephen cut the grass and you got ready for a BBQ with friend and family that you invited round. And so on……
Write this letter today and read it everyday. I promise it will put a smile on your face. Have a think about what your favourite part of the summer is….. Or even Christmas if that’s your favourite time of year.
The next part to the anxiety cycle we said we were going to discuss was coping methods. Now as I said earlier, here we are talking about healthy coping methods. Let me go through them with you.
1) Helping Others
When I have been scared out of my wits on a plane suffering with a phobia of flying, if I see someone else that is worried or stressed and I help them, my own anxiety has always reduced. So help others. It doesn't have to cost anything. We can all check on our neighbours. Pick up the phone to someone or even help them with work / shopping etc. It will make you feel a lot better. It’s why so many people have signed up to volunteer. It makes you feel great, valued and fulfilled in life.
30mins per day of something which raises your heart rate will keep your heart healthy although it has also been proved to lower stress and improve depression. If you’re not sure what to do there are so many videos on Youtube just find one you like and can follow easily.
3) Feel The Love
Tom Bunn conducted research on the SES social engagement system, and suggests that when we are extremely stressed with high levels of cortisol, then cognitive behaviour techniques may not be as effective as they previously were. So then if we release an amount of oxytocin, which is the love hormone, it then inhibits the release of cortisol, the stress hormone and therefore makes us feel calmer. So how can you release oxytocin? Well there’s the old favourite, have sex, I’m not suggesting with any tom dick or harry, especially in the current pandemic. Make sure it is your partner, safe and consensual. I understand this may also be the last thing you want to do so there are other ways too. If you are alone, like I was scared on a plane for example you can read racy romance novels. You could also make a photo album , or digital photo album of your favourite person and look at it frequently. Mine was a collection of pics of my husband and the dog. If you want yours to be Tom Hardy go for it! Also tell people you love them more, tell them why too and ask them to do the same.
4) Connect With Others.
This can be done by whats app, facetime or you can set up a video conferencing call on zoom or skype where multiple people can attend. For example tomorrow we have an online birthday party for my sister via zoom. Everyone logs in, has a drink and a chat with each other. There is no reason not to. Your anxiety may make you feel like you don’t want to be around others although you will feel much after it. If it is too overwhelming then there are many other tips.
If you are in crisis or suffering a lot then please remember that talking is the best remedy. Samaritans are available on 116 123 please call them. They are highly trained. Also you can reach out to me. Via the website modernmindgroup.co.uk as a trained counsellor I do offer online counselling sessions which can be done from the comfort of your own home.
Get out the paint, pencil to paper, write, draw make videos, whatever your passion is. It will distract the mind and is a great mindfulness technique.
If you play games such as candy crush then you will also feel better. Games believe it or not as giving you what psychologists call, ‘positive strokes’ so when you win then it will make you feel good. I definitely don’t advocate gambling as this is addictive but free games and games that you can play even as a family will help to entertain and give you this positive feeling.
My go to artist when I am very stressed is Stevie Wonder. My mum used to play Stevie to me when I was a child and it used to help me go to sleep. What is your go to track or artist, that reminds you of a happy calm time? If you don’t know, have a think about it and then save it in a playlist for you to listen to. Music is food for the soul.
A proven technique to lower stress and panic. Diaphragmatic breathing can lower your heart rate and relax you. Breath in deeply for a count of 4 then breathe out slowly over a count of 7. Find a quiet spot and repeat this at least 10 times for the desired effect.
8) Learn something new, or read
It helps build neural pathways in our brain and will give you something else to focus on. Whether it is keyboard, singing, drawing, learning another language or taking up a college course. There has never been a better time to do it.
3 books I recommend for self development are:
Grit the power of passion and perseverance - by Angela Duckworth
Blink - by Malcolm Gladwell and
Factfulness by Hans Rosling
Let me know what you think after you read them.
To summarise I have given you many tips to manage your anxiety and stress. The more of them you use the more effective it will be although I’m not here to overwhelm you so what I highly recommend you do is choose 3 that you haven't used before and put them in to use straight away.
Remember fear is a reaction courage is a decision so by choosing these three points to take action on already shows the courage you have to make it through this.