Feeling anxious? That’s because your brain is producing chemicals associated with fear. These can shake your ability to cope with things that you previously took in your stride.
Anxiety is a function of the human survival strategy - it is purely instinctive and it’s one of the things that stopped our ancestors getting eaten by a lion because our forebears learned that strange or unexpected noises in the night usually meant trouble.
Learning when it’s a good idea to retreat into the cave or avoid situations that are dangerous is a good idea. Most of us avoid getting involved in a fight or any other situation that threatens our safety.
In the modern world, it’s natural that some people may want to avoid even social situations like parties or meeting new people. Some of us experience apprehension when faced with important meetings at work, especially if we have to actually talk!
This is a perfectly natural reaction and if you feel like this, then you should take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. Most people are nervous about public speaking or meeting someone whom the rest of society regards as a VIP. So if this is you… then you are normal!
The real problem is that anxiety can undermine your confidence. If you have low confidence or self-esteem, your weaknesses and failures, most of which are imagined anyway, take on a disproportionate level. If things don't go well, you’re very likely blame your own personal failings, and this in turn means you're less likely to try again.
Here’s the good news… anxiety is easy to control once you know how.
Exercise, and I mean moderate aerobic exercise like a short brisk walk or dancing to music (Zumba is very good for this) works wonders, and in a very short time. A bit of exercise increases energy levels because it increases the amount of oxygen sent to the brain and this in turn increases confidence. Later on, it also helps you sleep. You could even join a cycling club or sports team! The important thing is that you do it regularly. Believe it or not, just 20 minutes of exercise three times a week can make all the difference.
Exercise produces feel-good endorphins that exert a noticeable effect on your mood. Make a mental note of how you felt before the exercise and how you feel after. Rate it on a scale of 1 to 10. The positive effects of regular exercise on mood are also accumulative, so you have to establish a regular pattern. Little and often is the best way. Studies have also shown that when you're physically fitter, you don't react so badly to stress.
Talking about your anxiety is also a good idea. Just talking to a friend about it helps to put things in perspective. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to feel isolated. Be open about what you're going through.
Getting counselling might help, but I believe with the right mental approach - easy enough to learn and get used to - getting rid of anxiety is relatively straightforward. It does take a modicum of self-discipline, but once you’ve done it a few times, it becomes second nature.
Which brings us to the next point, and one of my favourites - Mindfulness.
Mindfulness just means being aware of your thought processes, noticing your thoughts and the impact they have on your feelings and emotions. Mindfulness can get you out of the negative thinking habit that can ruin your good mood. Part of the success of mindfulness is the ability to meditate for a few moments. Again, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. It’s simply a matter of closing your eyes, relaxing, focusing your attention for just a few seconds and using a bit of imagination to push away the negative thoughts and replace them with more positive ones.
Take a few moments to relax every day. I understand that in the real world, this may be difficult, but a few minutes relaxation will keep stress levels in check. Again, this will make a big difference to your mood. Relaxation is enormously therapeutic in itself.
When you're depressed or anxious, it’s all too easy to spend an inordinate amount of time dwelling on and worrying about why you feel so down. This sort of thinking represents a downward spiral into further depression and anxiety.
So here’s a good exercise: make a list on a piece of paper of the things you are worried or anxious about. This will help you identify each problem and more important, make it easier to mentally lock them away. In this way, you need only spend a few minutes examining them and the rest of the day is now yours to concentrate on the things that really matter! In other words, don’t let your problems take ownership of you.
When we’re low we tend to focus on the negatives and overlook the positives. Try this brief exercise: think of the things that have gone well in the last few days and do this while you’re lying in bed before you go to sleep. Trust me - you will notice a change. It’s all about being realistic!
Write a list of things you've been putting off, rating them from easiest to hardest, then try to tackle them one at a time, starting with the easiest first.
Believe it or not, even small achievements will help rebuild confidence.
If you’re anxious or depressed, you may be one of those who thinks they can find solace in Alcohol. This never works!!! Alcohol may temporarily lift your mood or anxiety levels but in the long-term it is in reality one of the most common triggers for anxiety and depression. An occasional drink is OK, but you shouldn’t drink every day - instead you should take regular days off from alcohol.
There's a new buzzword in psychology at the moment: 'Prioritising positivity' is all about enjoying little hits of pleasure throughout the day, and a growing number of experts think it could be a solution to rising anxiety levels in society as a whole.
Put yourself first! You are entitled to make time in your day and enjoy a treat, a quiet cup of tea or a chat with a friend.
Or you could try watching a ‘feel-good’ clip on YouTube. A new study carried out at the University of Indiana found that watching ‘happy’ videos online boosted energy and positive emotions, whilst at the same time decreasing anxiety and irritability.
Eat sensibly. That doesn’t mean trying to survive on fish, salads and lentils! Here’s a little known fact – lettuce is about as nutritious as cardboard. That’s right – there is hardly any nutritional value in lettuce at all! However, your brain is acutely sensitive to what you eat and drink.
60% of the brain is made up of essential fatty acids so it's no surprise that countries where people eat the most fish - a good source of essential fatty acids - have the lowest rates of depression. Studies have also found a link between low levels of folic acid, a B vitamin that helps regulate the nervous system, and incidences of depression.
Finally, be realistic about you can achieve in one day - try to understand that a busy life is not necessarily a successful one. There is absolutely no need to feel guilty for not being able to keep up! Chill! You’re only here once! Having too much on can create a relentless washing-machine spin of thoughts, mental checklists and fears, which can impact on moods.
So there you are. I’m not saying that the above advice is a ‘cure-all’ for every anxious thought you may have - sometimes is only natural to worry - but more often than not one’s worries or anxieties are all in the mind - really. Hmmm… that sounds like a good title for a book…
Copyright Andrew Newton 2015. All rights reserved.