Anxiety. Love it. Hate it. But need it.
Think about it: anxiety is designed to warn you that something significant COULD be about to happen. It might not - anxiety kicks in when things are uncertain - but it is a definite risk.
Your brain uses anxiety to grab your attention and focus it as fast as possible on the thing that might matter. So the first thing it does is flood your body with hormones and make things feel uncomfortable. That stops you in your tracks and makes you wonder ‘what is going on?’
The same changes set you up in case you need to DO SOMETHING - maybe leg it as fast as you can, or fight a bear or something. Or just actually study for that maths test. You know the kind of thing. So they use the complex system called your fight or flight response, ramping it up and getting you ready to react if you need to.
Then, anxiety gets your brain buzzing. Because it needs you to figure out what is going on - and whether you really DO need to do something.
But sometimes - most of the time actually - it is a false alarm. You see the most important thing to remember about anxiety is that it tells you things MIGHT happen. Not that they ARE going to happen.
Think about the smoke alarm in your house. When it goes off, is there always a fire? Or is it usually more to do with toast? Or like in our house today when someone accidentally left the pasta pan on the heat (ok, I admit it, that was me). Often what we need to do to manage anxiety is the emotional equivalent of the smoke alarm dance - you know that one, right? To reset it and stop a false alarm.
You cannot avoid anxiety ...
There’s another interesting thing about anxiety. you see, your brain triggers it if the thing that is risked is something that matters to you. Something you love or care about or really want to happen or not happen. What that means though is that anything you do that really matters is likely to trigger some anxiety. Because that’s the way it works - your brain will remind you it matters. So taking a test or exam, a first date, job interview, going on holiday …
So learning how to manage anxiety is a really key skill. Because the better you get at it the more you can do - the more of the amazing person you really are can be released. And the more fun you can have!
So how do you do it?
1 - Check out your thinking
The first thing to do is be aware that your thinking can affect your anxiety - either making it feel better, or by fanning that little spark up into a bigger flame. In fact some patterns of thinking - negative spirals, or things we might believe about ourselves or the world - can be a bit like having a head full of finding - so when there’s a little spark of anxiety it sets fire to a great big bonfire.
In fact that often happens with anxiety - the first little spark isn’t the problem - its the flames that catch from it that cause us the issues, and can smoulder in the background and feel like they never truly go away.
So some approaches to anxiety help you to change the way you think so that you can hold anxiety better and stay calm even when your smoke alarm is going off. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a good example of this.
But you can help yourself in those moments just buy practicing something simple to say to yourself to remind yourself it is ok - try ‘this is just a smoke alarm.’ or positive thoughts like ‘I can handle this’ or ‘this feels bad but its just an anxiety spark.’
2 - Dampen down that response!
The second thing that helps in moments of anxiety is dropping the level on that fight or flight response. Because it feels horrid, so makes most people feel … well, anxious! And if you’re not careful that becomes a cycle - you feel rough so it makes you anxious, so you feel rougher … and round and round it goes.
The trick to dealing with anxiety is to remember - it feels horrid because it is designed to be hard to ignore - but actually it isn’t as bad as it feels. You’ll be ok. The TRICK is to hold your nerve and calm it down … you might find it helps to grab a few minutes somewhere quiet and calm, or just out of the situation if you can. Fresh air often helps. Or get someone to distract you by talking about something totally random to distract you.
Or ultimately, the best way to do that is to sort your breathing. Breathing well helps drop your level on that system - its complicated, but trust me, it works. So taking nice deep slow breaths really helps. You don’t need a paper bag or anything (people used to think breathing into a paper bag was important but actually just breathing slower and calmer works). You can check out more about how to do breathing exercises here.
Remember whatever you do it is easier if you start before the anxiety gets too strong. Its a lot harder to calm yourself down if you are on the edge of totally losing it. So try not to wait till it’s a crisis before you do whatever you need to do to get things back under control.
3 - Decide what (if anything) you need to DO
So thinking things through is the last step. And weirdly, you often can’t do that when your anxiety is in full flare, because when it is, it shuts down your thinking brain. It’s a kind of emergency measure in case this is a ‘act now think later’ situation. So you have to drop your level from freak out to think it out.
And once you do you can start to think things through. And sometimes you know what? You’ve got this! All you need to do is remind your brain of that. Every time it triggers that anxiety spike. Yeah, it can be a bit of a nuisance, but you can do it.
Or maybe there is something you need to change. Sometimes we are so busy being anxious we forget that. Sometimes it is good to sit down and think things through. But the most important thing is to remember - you can be in charge. You don’t have to let anxiety tell you what to do.