The pandemic has added extra stress to all our lives, and for those with anxiety disorders the last year has been particularly gruelling. Here, we suggest some effective measures to help you navigate these difficult days
CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful
Brain fog, restlessness, feeling constantly on edge -and that pit of dread in your stomach – with one-in-four of us in the UK experiencing a mental health problem of some kind each year, you may be familiar with these symptoms of anxiety. In fact, one-in-six people report experiencing a common mental health problem, like anxiety and depression, in any given week; generalised anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias and eating disorders are other anxiety or related disorders that many people live with on a daily basis.
These are difficult enough to manage normally, but the pandemic has added another layer of stress which has exacerbated the anxiety disorders that some are struggling with, and triggered a relapse in others. Therapy is often the long-term solution to manage and overcome anxiety, but what about day-to-day? Here are some tips for managing anxiety in the moment.
Putting your mind to something that will require your concentration can distract your brain from blaring out such loud warning signals; the more focus that goes into doing something else, the less brain power goes towards making you feel anxious. It won’t be easy, as your brain will want to bring your attention back to the threat it thinks is at hand, but keep trying to move your focus back to your chosen activity.
I find that activities that require the body to be engaged as well as the mind – such as puzzles, a walk with a friend, gardening, painting or playing an interactive game on a console or ‘phone – are the most effective. Hands-on examples can work especially well, because moving can help with anxious energy, and having your hands busy, as well as your mind, can work as further distraction.
Changing the emotion
Doing things that evoke different emotions to the ones we are experiencing can help change negative feelings. We often listen to angry music when we feel that emotion, but this can sometimes reinforce the anger rather than release it. So, instead of spending time reinforcing anxiety – for example, someone with health anxiety may spend time researching symptoms of illness – spend time doing things that evoke positive emotions, such as watching a comedy show, chatting to a friend about something good that happened to you recently, or reading a book that gets you entirely lost in that world.
Change your environment
Shaking up what’s around you can bring you out of the environment that you associate with anxiety, and help change the way you feel. You could try going to an imaginary safe place in your head – with or without the aid of a meditative app or video – going to a place in your house where you feel most safe, for example, under a blanket on the sofa, taking yourself for a brief, calm walk, going to a friend’s house (restrictions permitting), or inviting a friend to yours to keep you company.
Relax your body
Tensing up is a natural reaction to anxiety and stress which signals to your body that you are in danger – but the more we tense up, the more the anxiety is reinforced. It might be easier said than done, but try to relax. Let your shoulders drop. Lean back into a sofa, or lie down on the bed. Unclench your muscles one at a time, starting with your jaw and tongue, to your shoulders, and then moving down the rest of your body; this signals to your brain that you are not in danger and, therefore, can decrease anxiety.
Eat regular meals
During a particularly bad period of anxiety I often forgot to eat because the feeling was so overwhelming that it was repressing my hunger cues; what I did notice was that when I would eventually eat, my anxiety lessened somewhat. Being hungry is just another red flag for your body that something bad is happening, heightening discomfort and anxiety. You may feel like you’re not hungry, but you need to ensure you are eating enough, and regularly. A nourished body is a more comfortable one. It’s also advisable to avoid caffeine and alcohol as these can aggravate anxiety.
When we feel anxious, our body is primed for fight or flight, and releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline; this can cause elevated blood pressure, a racing heart, and sweating. Exercise can help us burn off the negative energy that, in our more primitive days, would have been used either fleeing, or fighting, a threat. You could take a brisk walk, put on your running shoes and hit the tarmac, or jump around to an aerobics video or your favourite music in your living room.
Anxiety is hard to beat, but we must try to understand that we cannot control everything, or plan for every eventuality. Remember that you don’t have to suffer alone, and it’s important to reach out when you need help.