We all feel anxious or uptight at times, however for some people that feeling is almost constant, without an obvious cause. Anxiety can cause sweating, nausea, difficulty breathing, pounding heart, and many other physical and emotional symptoms. People who feel anxious may fear they are physically ill or are going mad. Although anxiety is unpleasant, fortunately it can be treated.
Chronic anxiety can make life unpleasant and cause major disruption to daily activities. People may consult their doctor and be reassured that there is nothing physically wrong with them, and be told that they “have to live with it,” without any suggestions about how to control anxiety.
Exercise is possibly the single most effective strategy for managing anxiety. Exercise is the only thing that will burn off the stress chemicals that build up with anxiety. Exercising each morning, for at least 20 minutes (and preferably longer), has the best results.
Slowing breathing is the best ‘emergency’ remedy, and also an effective strategy for preventing anxiety. When we are anxious we breathe rapidly from the top part of our lungs only. Taking a couple of deep breaths, using our diaphragm so that our lower lungs fill with air then empty, and then breathing slowly, helps reverse the anxiety. Slower breathing sends a message to our brain to stop the production of stress chemicals.
Keeping self-talk positive is also important. We all ‘talk ourselves through’ situations everyday – just listen to your internal commentary when you drop something. Name-calling or generalisations increase negative feelings, which feeds anxiety. Reminding ourselves of the things we ‘should’ do also increases anxiety. To reduce anxiety, cut out ‘shoulds’, keep focus on the present rather than the past or future, and be optimistic in the things you say to yourself.
It is important not to expect to feel bad in certain situations. By predicting that we will feel anxious every time we go into a shopping centre, for example, we almost guarantee that our body will react by producing the stress chemicals that create symptoms of anxiety whenever we go near a shopping centre. It is not helpful to avoid all situations in which we have felt anxious before, as avoidance increases our sense of fear and anxiety.
If you can identify specific fears, examine how realistic your fears are. Most of the things we fear are far less likely than many unpleasant things we don’t think of – for example, people fear flying, but are more likely to be injured in a car accident. Reminding yourself of statistics can sometimes help deflate fears. More importantly though, being anxious about a situation doesn’t decrease the chances of it occurring and, in some cases, can increase its likelihood (such as when we fear spilling something on our new clothes – thinking of the risk makes us aware of actions we usually do automatically, thereby making us more clumsy!)
Relaxing or meditating everyday is recommended for general good health. Sometimes people who are anxious find that sitting to relax increases their anxiety. In these cases, exercise-based relaxation, such as tai-chi, yoga or similar, can be helpful.
Medication may be prescribed to control anxiety. Drugs specifically targeted towards controlling anxiety may lower anxiety sufficiently for other strategies to be useful. However using other drugs or over-indulgence in alcohol will not help, and can actually make the anxiety worse.
Cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT), which is provided by psychologists and professional counsellors, works at correcting non-helpful patterns of thinking and behaving. If anxiety is a long-term problem, or does not respond to simple behavioural changes, CBT is the best way to overcome the problem and prevent anxiety becoming a permanent part of life.