"People tend to think that happiness is a stroke of luck, something that will descend like fine weather if you are fortunate. But happiness is the result of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly." Elizabeth Gilbert
New Zealand may appear to be the land of beaches and tranquility, but our rates of problematic anxiety are 1 in 4 - with the impact on family, work, health and wellbeing incredibly hard to calculate. But what is anxiety? And what are some simple and effective steps you can learn to reduce the consequences and break free from the cycle? Here I've outlined four simple steps you can take to reduce anxiety in your life.
Break Through The Cycle
Anxiety is one reaction to keep us away from danger, protect us from harm and get us ready for action or in-action. When our body is alerted to danger it automatically gears into an adrenaline response which includes:
Racing heart, tight chest, constricted throat ,difficulty breathing
Digestive problems, butterflies or nausea
Difficulty thinking or concentrating. Dizziness fatigue
Building worst case scenario’s, replaying worries and fears.
Coldness/Numbness or tingling in legs, head and hands
Urge to escape or freeze
Observe and Describe
You have a list of things to do that grows daily - Family life is stressful or you are overworked and just can't see an end. Sound familiar? Each one of us has stress and issues in life, but too much of it can lead to excessive worry, dread, loss of sleep, upset stomach, or difficulty breathing. Anxiety, although uncomfortable and at times scary, does pass and paradoxically observing and describing the experience, symptoms and reactions reduces the anxiety. For example, "Ok I'm feeling tense in my chest and my breathing is shallow, I'm noticing that I'm just anxious right now".
Break The Anxiety Chain
Noticing the anxiety is one step in breaking the chain reaction, but next is learning to self soothe and reduce the effects with 2 proven tips:
Right now, stop and do a short body check: Are your shoulders tensed or is your breathing shallow? Often the first sign of anxiety is that our breathing becomes erratic, shallow or nonexistent as our body prepares for fight/flight/freeze. By focusing on our breathing, we stop this automatic physical reaction and the increased oxygen tells our body to relax.
One of the major problems people experience alongside the physical sensations is "panic talk". The brain goes into 'worry mode' and seems to create a never-ending loop of terrible scenarios and awful consequences, which in turn create more anxiety. By identifying our unhelpful thinking and self-talk we can challenge them or try alternatives.
Some of the common thinking loops and alternatives are:
Catastrophizing - the worst possible things will happen
Fortune telling - believing we know exactly how terrible the outcome will be
Black and white - either good or bad, right or wrong with no options
Alternatives to these thought patterns can include:
What are some different ways of looking at this?
What would xyz say or do in this situation?
Are there some actual things I can do differently now?
Is this thinking hindering or helping?
Self Care and Wellbeing
We are more than just our thoughts and feelings, our bodies are complex and we can often be more stressed or become more anxious if our general wellbeing is poor. Sometimes we only need to make small changes to our diet, sleep and exercise regime to gain significant benefits and reduced anxiety.
Nearly everyone feels a little crabby after a rough night's sleep. Disrupted sleep is common in many emotional disorders and it's difficult to know which started first -- stress or poor sleep. Try setting a sleep routine with the first step TURN OFF THE COMPUTER/PHONE/TV. Studies have shown that using a device before bed has negative effects on one’s sleep quality. Try reading, a bath or shower and warm non-caffeine/alcohol drink. Stick to a regular bed time. Listen to soothing music or download sleep applications, sound tracks or learn to meditate.
Why is diet important to reduce stress? Cortisol is the “stress hormone” and is produced in higher levels during times of stress. This increased level of cortisol may make people crave foods with high levels of salt, sugar and fat. However, eating these foods (or not eating at all) can actually increase our stress levels. It becomes a vicious cycle. Also, we seek quick fixes such as alcohol or other substances and become caught in a cycle of short term fixes and longer-term anxiety.
By reducing caffeine,alcohol, excess sugars and increasing unprocessed more plant based foods has a dramatic positive impact on our stress hormones and chemical balance.
Most of us know that exercise is good for our physical health. For the past few decades, research has suggested that exercise is even more effective than medication and helps our body reduce the impact and occurrence of anxiety. This can range from a walk, yoga to more strenuous exercise but the important thing is to MOVE and be consistent. It's better to do 20 minutes low level 4 times a week than one intense 2-hour session.