The world can seem like a scary place at the very best of times, and when you’re someone who suffers from anxiety it’s amplified. Global warming, money problems, wondering if your friends who you have known for years are only pretending to like you. It’s tough. Feeling anxious or nervous about certain situations is perfectly normal, but when it starts to infringe on you leading a normal life it can become a problem.
I have always had an anxious disposition that has stuck with me from my primary school days even into my mid-twenties. From panic attacks about school projects to cancelling party plans because I was too nervous to go, anxiety has been a lurking presence in my life as far as I can remember. It caused me to miss out on fun things like nights out and sleepovers, and important things like job interviews I was too scared to attend. Imagined worst-case scenarios would play in my head before I went to sleep – car crashes, failing all my exams, being alone forever. It has been quite a time and continues to be something I have to deal with in some aspect every day.
The plus-side of this (yes, there is one) is that I’ve learned a lot from my own experiences with anxiety, from just living life and getting some golden professional advice. Here are a few tried-and-true tips and methods that have helped me in different ways.
So, what causes anxiety?
It’s sadly not as simple as one factor being the root cause for your anxious feelings. Causes can range from your upbringing or your genetic make up, to money problems and other related mental health issues like depression. A big change in your life like starting a new school or your parents splitting up can also trigger feelings of anxiety. If you have an anxiety disorder, you might feel feelings of fear about nothing in particular on a near-constant basis. There’s also a link between anxiety disorders and OCD – people often develop compulsive routines to cope with intrusive thoughts that can trigger them.
Take a breather
It might make you feel a bit silly at first but breathing exercises can be a life-saver when you start to feel panic setting in, especially if you’re in a public place. Regulating your breathing, and taking in deep breaths can help calm you down. To start off, inhale through your nose for four seconds, exhaling for four also out of your nose. It helps me to put my hand on my chest, feeling my lungs fill with air. There are a lot of different exercises to try if this one doesn’t quite work.
Being in nature has a really calming effect. A 2015 study at Stanford University showed that a walk in nature near greenery or water can significantly reduce anxious thoughts. This phenomenon is called ‘soft fascination’, and being in nature can allow us to work through our worries while the trees and flowers provide gentle stimulation. Even a ten-minute stroll will go a long way.
Write a worry list
Designate 20 minutes of your day to sitting with paper and a pen, and write about every single worrying thought that comes into your head during that time – but only during that time. No worry is too small or insignificant during worry time. After the 20 minutes of scribbling, read through the list and rip it up. This helps me feel like I have gained some control over my own thoughts, and it can be really helpful.
Whether you like to draw, write stories or make origami swans, doing something creative will help you concentrate on what you’re doing in the present. It’s also a good way to blow off steam and express your feelings of worry.
Talk to your younger self
A lot of the time when we feel anxious we end up getting angry and frustrated with ourselves. Why can’t I be normal? Why am I like this? I find it useful to deal with it as if I was talking to my childhood self. I immediately become more understanding and less impatient with myself and my feelings. You could also imagine your friend is talking to you about their worries. Would you dismiss them? Be a friend to yourself.
A lot of articles about self-care are basically lists of stuff you can buy yourself to cheer yourself up. While bath bombs and chocolate are great, money can be the root of anxiety for a lot of people so it’s not always possible to treat yourself. Other forms of self-care like messaging a friend, taking a shower and eating good, nourishing meals are as important and won’t cost you a thing.
When to seek professional help
Of course there are times when you are too anxious to leave your room, let alone go for a walk or draw a picture. When your anxiety is paralysing you, a discussion with a counsellor or therapist can be really beneficial. You might feel nervous before the appointment and want to bail, but taking that first step is really brave. Some people feel that talk therapy is enough for them, while others will do better with a combination of counselling and medication.
How to be a good friend to someone with anxiety
Let them know they can talk to you without fear of judgement. If you feel like their worries are irrational, don’t dismiss them. They most likely know that they are, but the feelings of worries are totally real and overwhelming. If they tell you they might have a panic attack, remove them from the stressful situation and stay with them as they work through their feelings.
Sending them a voice message when they feel low is also a really easy and reassuring thing to do. It’s also handy to know if they have any triggers, and any routines or tips that help to calm them down when things get bad. Always ask first, and never assume. Just listen and that will be appreciated more than you ever know.