Earlier this year we shared a blog about anxiety by counsellor Sally Gorton, which proved really popular. Given that anxious feelings are part of many people’s lives we’re republishing Sally’s advice together with some great self-help tips to improve well-being and to help you and your partner develop a better understanding and give support, if desired.
Is it ok to be anxious?
Anxiety is a normal part of life. The amygdala (a part of our brain) flags up any possible threats from which we need to defend ourselves. Much earlier in civilisation, these were mainly physical threats, defended against by fighting, running or hiding. In our complex world today, many of the situations that feel threatening to us are psychological ones, and situations that cannot be solved by these means.
If our anxiety is unresolved the amygdala is kept on high alert, bringing to our notice anything that could possibly be threatening. It’s like the fire alarm going off, just because you’re grilling some bacon! It’s easy to find ourselves in a continuing state of anxiety, though we don’t always pay attention to the signals our body is giving us.
How can I tell if I’m experiencing anxiety?
Anxiety can manifest itself in various ways: loss of sleep, under-eating or over-eating, loss of concentration, difficulty in making decisions, irritability and anger outbursts, problems with breathing, muscle pain, palpitations and digestive problems. Longer term unresolved anxiety does not only lead to potential physical problems but can also lead to depression.
It can be tempting to try to avoid feelings of anxiety, but our body carries it, and our behaviours express it. Our brain tries to resolve the situation by trawling through the past to find other situations where we experienced the same emotions to try to make sense of the present. The result is that we end up going down a spiral of negativity and making our anxiety worse. We tend to live in the problems of yesterday or fears of tomorrow.
What can I do about it?
Society can try to have us believe that we should cope all the time. It can be difficult in workplaces and sometimes families to admit to feeling anxious. It can even be difficult to admit it to ourselves. But we will all be anxious sometimes about somethings. We can’t avoid it, even though we would like to.
Having an attitude of kindness towards ourselves and accepting the normality of anxiety helps us to approach our own anxiety. Research has shown that when we approach and accept the reality of how things actually are, and accept the reality of our feelings with kindness and self-compassion, changes in the brain occur and we begin to loosen the grip of negativity. We can accept our feelings and thoughts, test them against objective reality and think more creatively.
Self-help tips to reduce anxiety and improve well-being
There are several things we can do to help manage anxiety:
1. Do some kind of regular exercise, particularly aerobic exercise (e.g. jogging, swimming, dancing and cycling), which help reduce stress and tension, and encourages the brain to release ‘happy’ hormones such as serotonin, which stabilises mood, and endorphins, which relieve pain.
2. Spending time outside in green spaces such as a local park will improve your mood and help you feel more relaxed. Research has shown that just two hours a week will help you feel happier and healthier. Combine this time with exercise and you’ll benefit even more!
3. Learn to relax. Find ways that help you to wind down. Getting away from screens is often helpful because they stimulate the brain, so switch off devices an hour before bedtime. Try reading a book or magazine (the paper kind), doing creative projects or cooking/baking. Techniques such as Mindfulness and exercise such as Pilates and Yoga can help you to relax too.
4. Reduce alcohol and avoid smoking. Many people believe that smoking helps them relax, and that alcohol helps them to wind down at the end of the day, but they actually increase anxiety.
5. Cut down or cut out caffeine. The caffeine in tea, coffee and many fizzy drinks stimulates the nervous system, lasting for many hours, which is why we enjoy the buzz. But caffeine also has unpleasant side effects for many people, including anxiety. Try cutting down on caffeine, perhaps drink your last coffee at lunchtime, or cut it out completely and replace drinks with decaffeinated versions.
6. Get a good night’s sleep. This might feel like a frustrating suggestion if you’re struggling to sleep because of anxious thoughts, but sleep and anxiety are known to affect each other: poor sleep causes feelings of anxiety, and anxiety disrupts sleep! The thing is you need to tackle both. A few things you can do to help you get a good nights’ sleep is to develop a ‘sleep routine’, which will include switching off screens and going to bed at a regular time; and having a warm bath.
Try incorporating any changes to your daily routine slowly, and if you’re suffering with anxiety or chronic sleep problems do see your doctor
How you can talk with your partner to help reduce anxiety
As couples, we can create a culture of normalising and dealing with anxieties by using the tips below:
- Individually, take time to notice how your body feels, your thoughts and your emotions.
- Agree to an attitude of kindness towards your own and your partner’s feelings.
- As a couple ask each other questions, such as…
- When have you felt most anxious/least anxious this week?
- How did anxiety affect you?
- What did you find most relaxing / least relaxing about today?
4. Develop a habit of listening without’fixing’ each other, but asking what support, if any, would be helpful.
Toucan Together’s Communication Module helps you talk about what’s going on inside, including your feelings in helpful ways to develop a deeper understanding and closer connection as a couple. Get started now for free.