What Is Anxiety?
Although distressing at times, anxiety serves a useful purpose in keeping us alert to danger. When we think we have encountered a dangerous situation, we will automatically respond in a way to protect ourselves. The perceived danger can be either external (e.g. standing at a podium giving a presentation) or internal (e.g. thinking about how you are perceived by other people). Therefore, whether faced with an imminent threat or an imaginary threat, anxiety can be generated. As a result, the body responds by either preparing to fight the situation, flee from it (flight), or stay still (freeze).
The body prepares itself by activating the autonomic nervous system and producing bodily changes such as increased heart rate and blood flow, dilation of pupils, increased breathing rate, and the increased supply of energy. When the threatening situation seems to have ended or enough time has passed, the body brings itself back to normal functioning by activating the parasympathetic system, which relaxes the body.
Possible Coping Strategies
Below is a list of possible coping strategies for anxiety. The list offers some options for attempting to manage anxiety. Each person can have their own individual experience of anxiety, therefore, a coping strategy that works for one person might not work for another person. Please try out some of the coping strategies for anxiety mentioned below, and see which ones work or don’t work for you.
For people experiencing mild anxiety some of these strategies might be enough on their own to help with anxiety. However, for people experiencing persistent, or long term anxiety, the evidence base recommends attending therapy sessions. Therapy sessions can be helpful in understanding the underlying causes of anxiety, and recognition of repeated detrimental patterns and behaviours.
Enhanced physical sensations such as increased heart rate, hot and cold flushes, excessive sweating and intrusive thoughts, can compromise your ability to respond the way that you would like to in an anxiety provoking situation. Relaxation techniques including deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery can help to reduce anxiety and make it easier for you to choose behaviours that are healthy for you.
Unhelpful thinking styles such as “all or nothing thinking”, “catastrophinsing”, “disqualifying the positive” and “mind reading” can exacerbate our anxiety. Therefore, challenging our thoughts can help us to change our perspective and manage anxiety. To help you to challenge your thoughts, you can try asking a person close to you, such as a friend or family member, about their perspective regarding your intrusive thoughts. They are likely to see your intrusive thought from a different and more fair perspective.
Another helpful strategy to challenging your thoughts is to think about what you would advise a friend to do if they told you they were struggling with a similar intrusive thought(s) to the one you are experiencing (e.g. "I will never make friends at University"). It is likely you will be able to recognise a little easier than if you just thought from your own perspective, that the intrusive thoughts are not as certain as they first seemed. You might be able to recognise some potential challenges to the intrsusive thoughts (e.g. "You have made friends before, so it is likely you will be able to make friends again").
Schedule Worry Time
Scheduling worry time is another effective coping strategy for anxiety. When feeling anxious intrusive thoughts can feel as though they occupy your mind for the entire day. This intrusion can detract from your daily activities and functioning. Therefore, setting a minimum of 15-30 minutes a day or a couple of times a week, to think about the thoughts causing you anxiety, can limit your intrusive thoughts to that specific time period. Spending time writing down these thoughts can also help you to better understand them.
Problem-solving can be a useful way to cope with anxiety. When encountered with an anxiety-provoking situation try to first identify the problem and verbalise it. After this, try to think about several solutions for the problem you are dealing with and attempt to choose the most appropriate solution for the situation. After trying this out, evaluate the effectiveness of this solution. This approach might also help you to learn which coping strategies work and don’t work in particular situations, such as at school, home, or when in town.
Be in the Present Moment
Anxiety is often due to worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. This makes it difficult to focus on where we are in the present moment and analyse what is happening. Mindfulness helps us to be an objective observer of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. With mindfuless practice,it might be possible to accept when anxiety is present, and allow it to pass without it contributing to additional distress. Mindfulness exercises that can be practiced at home. A popular mindfulness exercise is “leaves on a stream”, that can be found on YouTube.
Anxiety might be maintained through the use of maladaptive coping strategies, such as avoidance. An example of avoidance is to refuse to give a presentation because you are worried that you will not be able to function or perform in the way that you want when presenting, due to internal or external pressures. Exposing yourself to situations that cause mild anxiety can help challenge the intrusive thoughts and allow you to learn adaptive coping strategies. When dealing with moderate to severe anxiety, it can be useful to seek the assistance of a therapist who will help to support and manage your gradual exposure to anxiety provoking situations.
Anxiety is a natural response that can be useful in keeping us safe and alert. However, when anxiety feels like it is overwhelming and affecting your functioning on a daily basis, anxiety can be detrimental to both your physical and mental health. The above coping strategies might be a good starting point for attempting to manage anxiety, but if anxiety continues to feel overwhelming then please seek additional support from a therapist.
For more information about attending therapy sessions for anxiety, please contact Belfast Psychology Services at firstname.lastname@example.org.