Trying to block the anxiety out when it’s coming at you doesn’t work, says psychologist Eric Lyleson. Instead, you need to work with it, even though that’s the last thing you want to do.
“It’s the opposite of blocking it out that really works,” he says. “Face the original feeling, notice what happens when you just allow that feeling to be there. When you open up to it more you naturally relax a little bit and become more friendly with that fearful feeling. In a way it’s like learning to be a better parent to yourself. The best thing to say to yourself is ‘It’s okay to be scared, I am not afraid to be scared, everybody gets scared’,” Lyleson suggests.
It’s also helpful to identify untrue or damaging self-talk. “With anxiety, your mind is normally lying or exaggerating what might happen,” says Lyleson. “A good intervention is to treat your mind like TV. You don’t believe everything you hear on TV, do you? When you’ve got some guy shouting at you that you need a carpet, that you must come down and buy a carpet this weekend, do you really jump into the car and go and buy a carpet? Not likely.”
The simple act of breathing correctly can help prevent and manage anxiety, says breathing specialist Tess Graham, director of BreatheAbility.
“One of the most damaging myths out there is that the more air you breathe, the better; that we should all be deep breathing. But that’s the complete opposite of what we should be doing. That’s the way you set off an anxiety or panic attack and it’s one of the main reasons there is so much anxiety out there.
“We should be only breathing five litres of air per minute – around 10 breaths. The average person today is breathing 12 litres per minute.”
Aim to breathe gently through the nose, says Graham.
“First of all, become aware of your breathing,” she says. “Understand that anxiety is related to an over-breathing habit. You might notice that you’re sighing, yawning, or gulping air when you’re talking or mouth breathing.
“Number two is to try to breathe more gently and the best way to do that is to breathe through the nose whenever comfortable. This in itself is so calming.
“The third is to sit more upright. When people slouch, they are actually folding over their solar plexus-diaphragm area and that makes them more likely to breathe faster, with the upper chest. These three things can transform the way you feel.”
Cognitive behavioural therapy offers many strategies for working with behaviour and emotions. One useful practice involves planning how you’re going to behave before an event.
“Occasions such as weddings, examinations or holidays tend to be fixed and we can suddenly find them almost upon us,” says Dr Helen Kennerley, therapist and author of Overcoming Anxiety. “Whatever the situation, being faced with an immediate problem can trigger panic and then it becomes even more difficult to plan how to cope.”
So get a pen and paper out, define the problem, list several solutions (including panic if you must, but make sure you cross it out), evaluate the pros and cons of the solutions and choose one. Then construct a plan of how you’re going to put that into action.
“Be specific about the task ahead and try not to confuse several tasks,” says Dr Kennerley. “Where possible, distinguish the different aspects of your problem and separate it into a collection of more manageable tasks, then make a plan for each.”
After the event, review the outcome.
“If your solution works and is sufficient, congratulate yourself and remember this successful experience for the future,” says Dr Kennerley. “But whatever conclusion you reach, remember that you did not fail. Expect some disappointments, but commend yourself for having tried. Learn as much as you can from the experience and go back to your solution list and select the next one.”
4. Natural medicine
The nutraceutical that has been studied most in terms of anxiety is South Pacific medicinal plant kava, says Dr Jerome Sarris, a specialist in integrative and complementary medicine at the University of Melbourne.
“There have been several clinical studies conducted, the majority positive and certainly the last two clinical trials we’ve conducted using kava root extract in tablet form have shown that it’s quite effective in treating anxiety,” he says.
“It has an effect by relaxing the muscles and has an anxiety-reducing effect mentally, via the brain’s GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) pathway. But it’s different to benzodiazepines or alcohol in that it doesn’t have a cognitive-impairing effect.” Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed tranquilisers.
Several herbs also get a look-in, including the humble chamomile.
“There is some evidence for passionflower, skullcap and ginkgo biloba,” says Dr Sarris. “A study of chamomile on general anxiety disorder showed that it could be effective in some instances. It used a standardised form of chamomile in capsule form, but you can get the same effect from tea, you just need to use a few teabags and put them in a teapot so the volatile oils don’t escape.”
Taking a regular magnesium supplement may also be of benefit, but only if your levels are low.
“Magnesium has a critical neurochemical role to do with nervous system function and is important for relaxation of the muscles,” says Dr Sarris.
It’s well known that physical activity boosts your mood and can even relieve pain, with the release of all those feel-good endorphins. But where do you find the time to exercise when part of anxiety is feeling like you’re under the pump? Perhaps you could ponder that question during a run.
“The role of exercise in helping people adapt to stress is particularly important given that stress plays a key role in both the development and the continuation of depression and anxiety disorders,” says Dr Michael Otto, psychologist and author of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety.”
“Choosing not to exercise because you are feeling down is like choosing not to take an aspirin because you have a headache. The aspirin is for times when you have a headache, and exercise is most effective when you are feeling down.”
Also, unlike exercising for physical results, the mental benefits are immediate.
“If you can just get yourself started on an exercise session, you can feel very differently within a half hour,” says Dr Otto.
Meditation is the natural enemy of anxiety. Instead of playing into the hands of anxiety as the brain likes to do, meditation provides you with much-needed perspective, says Dr Edmund J Bourne, author of Natural Relief for Anxiety.
“Meditation allows you to expand your awareness to the point where it’s larger than your fearful thoughts or emotional reactions,” he says. “As soon as your awareness is larger than your fear, you are no longer swept up by the fear but are able to stand outside of it.”
Contrary to popular opinion, developing a regular meditation practice needn’t be hard work, says Lyleson.
“Bring your attention out of your thoughts, away from the TV set of your mind and come back into your body and then into something neutral, like your breath coming and going, or feeling your feet on the ground, or just looking around and seeing what’s in the room,” he says.
“We start to see that the mind is actually not the stuff that’s in the mind but the space in which thoughts come and go. Traditionally, we talk about peace of mind. That’s always there. You already have peace of mind, the rest is just content.”
Photo credit: Thinkstock; Author: David Goding
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