Anxiety is defined as a state of worry or unease, and is one of the most common mental health problems worldwide.
Nearly everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life, and according to the NHS, around 5% of the UK population suffer from GAD, (Generalised Anxiety Disorder), a condition which causes persistent feelings of anxiety which rarely go away even after the particular situations that were causing stress are resolved.
Like many psychological terms, anxiety is a bucket term that can encompass a range of experiences and symptoms, affecting both body and mind.
For some people the anxiety may be focused on a specific event or situation which is causing them to worry. In this case it is common to get caught in a cycle of rumination, as your brain imagines all the ways that something could go wrong, and all the possible negative experiences that you could have as a result.
For other people, anxiety may be experienced as a vague sense of dread. Those suffering with this form of anxiety may not even be aware of what is causing them to feel this way, which in itself can be unsettling.
In addition to its cognitive and emotional manifestations, anxiety can also cause a wide array of physical symptoms, which for some people can be even more intrusive than the psychological effects.
Some of the physical effects of anxiety include:
CBT is a practical, pragmatic form of therapy that aims to help people deal with a wide variety of mental health problems by helping them to recognise recognise the relationships between negative thoughts and thinking patterns and the emotions that follow, and to break unhealthy cycles.
In CBT the patient is encouraged to question their own thoughts and beliefs, which can help them to identify the irrational and unhelpful thoughts that can trigger feelings of anxiety.
Many studies have shown the efficacy of CBT in reducing anxiety, and it can also be effective for people with depression and other mental health disorders.
One of the key advantages of CBT is that it focuses on finding practical techniques, and encourages the patient to “be their own therapist”. As a result many of the strategies can be learned and practised independently.
The human brain does an incredible job of making sense of the world around us, but it is also subject to many biases, and there can often be a disconnect between our perception and reality.
The irrational thoughts and beliefs that arise as a result of this can often be a powerful driver of anxiety. For example, when worrying about an upcoming event that is causing us anxiety we may experience thoughts such as:
Of course when we look at these thoughts objectively they are most likely not true, or at least great exaggerations of the truth. This is called catastrophising, and is a common habit, especially among those prone to anxiety.
When we step back and look at are thoughts from a neutral perspective we can gain a clearer understanding of how our thought patterns are leading to anxiety, and this gives us an opportunity to replace it with healthier and more accurate thinking, which can result in lower levels of anxiety.
It is our natural instinct to shrink away from things that cause us anxiety or other unpleasant emotions, but this instinct can be counter-productive.
Using the exposure technique, you will gradually and repeatedly be exposed to the situation or object that cause you anxiety, until eventually your brain becomes acclimatised and your anxiety is reduced.
The idea with exposure therapy is to start off at a level that is only mildly uncomfortable for you, and under the guidance of your therapist you will gradually increase the intensity. This process can take some time, and it is important to reach a certain level of acclimatisation before moving onto the next step for the method to be truly effective.
When people are feeling anxious or panicked, their breathing often becomes shallow and fast. This in turn can cause physical and psychological discomfort, creating a negative cycle.
There are a variety of different breathing techniques that can be used to help combat this, and it is often worth experimenting with several to see which works best for you.
At their core, most breathing exercises aim to slow down your breathing, which will trigger the “calming” parasympathetic nervous system to kick in.
The most simple way to do this is by breathing starting with a long slow breath out through your nose to empty your lungs, before breathing in slowly, also through your nose, and letting your belly expand. The exact length of your breath isn’t important, but aim to breathe slowly and smoothly, with a slight pause between breaths and an out-breath that in slightly longer than your in-breath.
In addition their are a variety of more specific techniques which can be helpful, including:
Anxiety often causes physical tension, and often the best way to deal with that is to practise some physical relaxation techniques. There are many different options, but we’ve picked our top 3.
1. Progressive muscle relaxation
Lay on your back, and as you breather in, clench or squeeze the muscles in a particular body part, then relax them as you breath out. You can either start at your head and work down, or with your feet and work up
Stretching is arguably the oldest relaxation technique. It is an effective method of relieving the tension that builds up in your muscles, and is generally a healthy activity when done with proper technique.
While not the most fancy or novel technique out there, sometimes the most simple solutions can be the most effective. Taking a walk loosens the body, and the repetitive motion is conducive to mindfulness. In addition the fresh air and change of scenery can provide welcome respite.
Visualisation is a powerful tool that has many therapeutic applications, and is also used by many top athletes to help them perform at their best.
For anxiety visualisation can be especially effective as it enables you to calm your mind by putting yourself into a peaceful situation.
One of the best ways to practise this is by creating your own “safe space”, an imaginary place that is beautiful and peaceful, and exactly to your taste.
Add as much detail to this fantasy paradise as possible, and regularly spend time imagining you are there, taking pleasure in all 5 senses. This can distract you from your worries and put you in a more positive frame of mind.
Anxiety is a normal emotion that affects us all from time to time, but if you are suffering from severe or persistent anxiety you may wish to speak to a Doctor or mental health professional.
There are many treatment options available, including various kinds of therapy, as well as medications.
Here at Orius Medical our team of trained therapists provide free mental health support to people around the world.
Click here to book an appointment with one of our specialists.