If there’s one thing in life that I’m really good at, it’s worrying. I’d get a gold star for it. Anxiety runs in my family and I often wonder whether it’s in my genes or whether it’s learned behaviour. Whichever way you look at it though, I spend a lot of my time fretting about things. This is one of the reasons why I’m so interested in Eastern philosophy, holistic health and personal development.
Most people experience anxiety in some form or other, and in these uncertain times stress and worry are very much on the increase. But according to statistics, around one in 20 people are now thought to suffer from Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), where negative and anxious thoughts dominate daily life. Doctors dish out anti-depressants as a quick-fix for these problems but this doesn’t provide a long-term solution. Here are some techniques for tackling anxiety that I’ve found to be helpful, and I hope you find them helpful too.
If you are feeling anxious, a simple way to calm yourself down is through focusing on and regulating your breathing. When we feel nervous the in-breath becomes more dominant than the out-breath, so in order to restore a sense of calm we need to reverse this.
Focus on your breathing and try to breathe in for a count of five and breathe out for a count of five. Don’t worry about the speed at which you’re counting, just keep to a steady pace of five in and five out. Now start to extend the out-breath by holding the exhalation for an extra count of two. Don’t strain, just let the breath settle into a gentle rhythm. As your out-breath becomes longer your relaxation response will begin to take over. The only thing that will take you away from this are your thoughts and imagination. The more you practise this the more you will feel able to gain control of your anxiety.
Visualisation is a powerful tool for calming the mind and reducing feelings of anxiety and nerves. A simple visualisation exercise involves conjuring up in your mind an image of a ‘special place’, a place where you feel safe and free from fear. (I’ve used this very exercise during a harrowing visit to the dentist and I can tell you it got me through the ordeal.)
Start by closing your eyes and bring to your mind an image of a place where you feel safe and happy. It might be a tropical beach, a meadow, a forest, or even your bed. It’s entirely up to you – just use your imagination. Make the image vivid in your mind by thinking about what you can see, hear, feel and smell. Use your senses to guide you to a state of calmness. Stay in this calm place until you notice that your breathing is more regular and your mind is calmer. When you feel ready, open your eyes and breathe deeply in and out.
Mindfulness is a technique that originates from Buddhist meditation and it’s particularly effective in calming anxiety and focusing the mind. We spend so much of our time worrying about the future or agonising about the past that we forget to enjoy the present moment. This is where mindfulness comes in as it encourages us to focus on the present without allowing our minds to get caught up in unhelpful thought patterns. Here are a few ideas you might want to try:
Sit or lie somewhere comfortable and begin scanning through each part of your body, paying attention to all the physical sensations you feel. Start with your toes and move up your legs to your stomach, chest, shoulders, neck and head, gently easing away any tension you notice. Finish by taking a few long, deep breaths.
When you are getting ready in the morning, really pay attention to everything you are doing, instead of worrying about what’s coming ahead in the day. When you’re in the shower, focus on the sound of the water and feel the sensation of it washing over your body. Enjoy the feeling of getting clean. When you’re brushing your teeth, focus all your attention on the task. Do the same with getting dressed and making breakfast.
Each morning make sure you take five to 10 minutes to be quiet and meditate. Look out of the window, listen to the sounds you can hear and be aware of everything around you. Be aware of the stillness and enjoy the quietening of your mind.
Stabilising your blood sugar is an important factor in keeping anxiety at bay. Nervousness and a rapid heartbeat can often kick in when blood sugar levels become too low. The trick is to eat little and often, aiming for three meals and two snacks per day, and try to eat some protein with every meal. Good sources include fish, chicken, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu and eggs.
Refined and sugary foods and stimulants such as coffee initially cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels, quickly followed by a crash. So it’s best to steer clear of sugar, caffeine, alcohol and processed foods as these can all trigger panicky feelings. (If, like me, you love a good espresso and a glass of red, I feel your pain.) Swap refined (white) and sugary foods for brown, wholegrain alternatives such as brown rice, pasta and wholemeal bread and try swapping caffeinated drinks for fruit or herbal teas like calming camomile. You could also keep a diary of everything you eat and drink to see whether this is affecting your moods. One last tip is to try supplementing your diet with magnesium as this naturally relaxes the body and mind and a deficiency can cause anxiety and rapid heartbeat.
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
This is an interesting technique that is based on similar principles to acupuncture in that it addresses imbalances in the body’s energy flow. I must confess I felt a bit silly when I first tried it, but it did help to calm my nerves, which is why I’m sharing a shortened version of it here with you.
EFT works by gently tapping specific meridians or energy points whilst mentally and verbally tuning into the issue or problem (in this case, anxiety or nerves). The belief is that disturbances to the flow of energy are removed along with the emotional response and anxiety.
If you find yourself getting really anxious about something, try tapping gently five times on each of the following points with the forefinger and middle finger of one of your hands: between your eyebrows; under one of your eyes; under your arm (about two inches lower than your armpit); on the chest (just below the collarbone in the middle, you will find a spongy indentation). Lastly, tap on the outer side of the hand five times. You should begin to feel your breathing regulating.
Good luck and I hope these techniques help you in your anxiety. I’d love to hear any feedback you might have.
About the author: Liz Parry is a writer specialising in holistic health and wellbeing, personal development and spirituality.