For many people life seems filled with more and more challenges. We are all being called to step up, to be more, to heal ourselves, to heal our relationships and to help the world, yet all of this increases the pressures we’re already feeling from modern day life. This is causing many people a lot of anxiety, as they worry about money, purpose, intimacy, spirituality, and environmental issues.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety can be a normal reaction to stress, but for some people anxiety can become excessive. It is natural to feel anxious, uneasy or nervous when faced with uncertainty. The problems start when anxiety begins to become a baseline and sets into the nervous system.
In the world today, there are unprecedented rates of anxiety and depression. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, where 40 million adults are said to be affected. Anxiety can take the form of phobias, social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive behaviour, panic attacks, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or the so called Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Many people with chronic illnesses also suffer from major anxiety.
Some signs and symptoms of Anxiety
It is helpful to know exactly what to look out for as the symptoms of anxiety conditions can be subtle and develop over time. There are psychological, physical and behavioural symptoms of anxiety.
Psychological symptoms of anxiety include: excessive fear and worry, as well as catastrophizing, the inability to relax and switch off, and excessive/obsessive thinking. Physical symptoms may include panic attacks, hot and cold flushes, racing heart, or palpitations, feeling wound up, tense, edgy, physical tension, quick breathing, tight chest and restlessness. Behavioural symptoms could be the avoidance of situations as they make you anxious, and this may have a big impact on your life, work and social interactions.
Here are some wonderful tips from Renee Jain, Psychologist and Life Coach with a Masters in Positive Psychology, for supporting friends and family who are suffering from anxiety.
1. Stop Reassuring Yourself and Others
You worry, your friends and family worry. You know there is nothing to worry about, so you say, “Trust me. There’s nothing to worry about.” Done and done, right? We all wish it were that simple. Why does your reassurance fall on deaf ears? It’s actually not the ears causing the issue.
An anxious person desperately wants to listen to you, but the brain won’t let it happen. During periods of anxiety, there is a rapid dump of chemicals and mental transitions executed in your body for survival. One by-product is that the prefrontal cortex — or more logical part of the brain — gets put on hold while the more automated emotional brain takes over. In other words, it is really hard for someone to think clearly, use logic or even remember how to complete basic tasks. What should you do instead of trying to rationalise the worry away? Renee Jain has created the FEEL method:
• Freeze — pause and take some deep breaths. Deep breathing can help reverse the nervous system response.
• Empathise — anxiety is scary. Your friend or family member wants to know that you get it.
• Evaluate — once you or someone you care about is calm, it’s time to figure out possible solutions.
• Let Go – let go of your guilt and possible feeling of responsibility.
2. Highlight Why Worrying is Good
Remember, anxiety is tough enough without someone believing something is wrong with me. Many people even develop anxiety about having anxiety. Teach yourself and your family that worrying does, in fact, have a purpose.
When our ancestors were hunting and gathering food there was danger in the environment, and being worried helped them avoid attacks from the sabre-toothed cat lurking in the bush. In modern times, we don’t have a need to run from predators, but we are left with an evolutionary imprint that protects us. Worry is a protection mechanism. Worry rings an alarm in our system and helps us survive danger. Understanding that worry is perfectly normal, can help protect us, and knowing that everyone experiences it from time to time, normalises it. Sometimes our system sets off false alarms, but this type of worry (anxiety) can be put in check with some simple techniques.
3. Bring Your Worry to Life
As you probably know, ignoring anxiety doesn’t help. But bringing worry to life and talking about it like a real person can. It can be useful to get creative and to create a worry character. Personifying worry or creating a character has multiple benefits. It can help demystify this scary physical response experienced by people. It can reactivate the logical brain, and is a great tool.
4. Becoming a Thought Detective
Remember, worry is the brain’s way of protecting us from danger. To make sure we’re really paying attention, the mind often exaggerates the object of the worry (e.g., mistaking a stick for a snake). The best remedy for distorted thinking is not positive thinking; it’s accurate thinking. Try a method Renee Jain calls the 3Cs:
• Catch your thoughts: Imagine every thought you have floats above your head in a bubble.
• Collect evidence: Next, collect evidence to support or negate this thought. Don’t make judgments about what to worry about based only on feelings. Feelings are not facts.
• Challenge your thoughts: The best (and most entertaining) way to do this is to have a debate within yourself.
5. Allow Worry
Letting your friend or family member worry openly, in limited doses, can be helpful. It supports the release of fear and anxiety from their body and gives them an outlet. Listening to their worries, without getting swamped by them, helps them to gain perspective and feel calmer. Create a daily ritual called “Worry Time” that lasts 10 to 15 minutes. During this ritual encourage someone suffering from anxiety to release all their worries in writing. During worry time there are no rules on what constitutes a valid worry — anything goes. When the time is up, stop writing and say good-bye to the worries for the day.
6. Go from What If to What Is
Interestingly, if we spend too much time in the past we get depressed, and if we spend too much time mentally in the future, we become anxious. The good old ‘What If’ questions can cause high anxiety when someone worries over things that may never eventuate. It’s important to come back to the present. Practices of present moment awareness and mindfulness are helpful with this. Breath is the key to mindfulness, as is focus. Focussing your full attention on one thing while slowing down, especially by breathing, is key, as its the racy mind and nervous system that exacerbates and expands anxiety. Even finding one thing each day to be supremely mindful about, such as brushing your teeth with real awareness, will start to filter into other areas.
7. Stop Avoiding Everything that Causes Anxiety
If your partner or family members are wanting to avoid social events, dogs, work, planes or basically any situation that causes anxiety, do you enable them and help them to do so? Usually we do, yet in the long run, it makes the anxiety worse.
So what’s the alternative? Renee has a method she calls laddering. People who are able to manage their worry, break it down into manageable chunks. Laddering uses this chunking concept and gradual exposure to reach a goal. By creating mini goals along the way, each step is broken down and becomes easy, so the person can move onto the next step and gradually achieve their outcome, with support.
8. Work Through a Checklist
What do trained pilots do when they face an emergency? They refer to their emergency checklists. Even with years of training, every pilot works through a checklist. This is because it can be hard to think clearly when there is danger.
It can be helpful to create a checklist for someone suffering anxiety, so they have a step-by-step method to calm down. These tools the checklist provides can be very empowering and help someone who is spiralling into anxiety, to ground themselves and ease the panic that feeling out of control can bring..
Watching someone you love suffer from anxiety can be painful, frustrating, and confusing. You may even feel that you are to blame for your partner or friend’s anxiety. Yet, research shows that anxiety is often the result of multiple factors (i.e., genes, brain physiology, temperament, environmental factors, past traumatic events, etc.). It’s important to keep in mind that you didn’t cause the anxiety and that you can help your family member overcome it. By staying centred, loving and showing self love, compassion and steadiness, you provide solid support for a person who is falling prey to the irrational fears derailing their peace of mind.
Yogic breathing techniques and Yoga Nidra are powerful for both those suffering from anxiety and those supporting someone with chronic or mild anxiety. A key to healing anxiety is both releasing the trauma held in the body, and helping the nervous system to recalibrate and become a resource for the person. Physiologically once the fight or flight adrenal response to anxiety is muffled, then the resources of a calm, balanced steady nervous system can take hold and the anxious person can begin to rebuild, creating strong physical resources to support the anxious mind and tumultuous emotions. A spiritual practice of meditation, with a focus on movement sourced in breath, helps support recovery from the grip of anxiety.