I hear this word used a lot in the mental health and well-being community. I hear it from friends and family members. I hear about it lots in my line of work. It seems to be on the rise in our schools, our work places, especially post covid. It appears to be the most common mental illness in adults. But what exactly is this thing called anxiety, and how can we learn to live with it?
The Dictionary defines anxiety as:
- a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.
- strong desire or concern to do something or for something to happen.
It might be worth taking a moment here, and seeing what you think anxiety means to you. Anxiety is an emotion characterized by many different feelings. What feelings does anxiety evoke in you? What physical sensations do you feel? What emotions come up?
There are many different feelings related to anxiety; including a rapid heartbeat, flushing, sweating, gastrointestinal issues, feeling on edge, mind racing and excessive fear and worry.
I believe all of us will have experienced some form of anxiety at some point in our lives; it’s a natural thing to feel. Say you are going for an interview – you feel nervous and perhaps it’s making you feel anxious about what you need to say, and how you need to act. You are sitting an exam – you start to feel anxious about your future if you fail this exam. You are entering a new group or meeting, full of people you don’t know – perhaps you are starting to feel anxious about how you will come across, and what you will say. The one thing that stands out to me when I think about all of this, is how every day anxiety (not a disorder) seems to live in the place when we are thinking about our future, and not our present moment.
I would like to state at this point, I’m not a medical doctor, and whilst I am a mental Health First Aider, I’m not able to diagnose an anxiety disorder. These views are all my own, unless I state otherwise. I am also aware of how crippling anxiety can be for some people. I am not talking here about recognized anxiety disorders, but more about the everyday anxiety that a lot of us live with.
So, lets go back to being in the present moment; take someone in a sporting capacity, or in the arts. I would assume there are many that feel nervous at the start of their performances, perhaps leaning into some form of anxiety. But at that exact moment when they are running, or dancing or swimming, I would imagine they are fully in that present moment, enjoying what they are doing and working hard to be the best they can be. The minute they start to think about ‘what could happen’, or ‘what could go wrong’ anxiety has a chance of taking hold, popping them straight into the future, going straight into the ‘what if’s’ and then maybe not performing as well, fear and overthinking taking a hold.
In the past, anxiety has felt to me, like something not sitting quite right, at odds with myself, definitely a feeling of incompleteness. I felt anxiety like this the day my mother died and my father was taken to hospital a few hours afterwards. He died 8 weeks later, but I felt an almost insurmountable sense of anxiety during those 8 weeks. Of course other major feelings were there like grief, but I recognized the anxiety straightaway, it was all to do with feelings about what was going to happen, how was I going to feel, how would I cope with everything, what could I do to help my Dad whilst going through my own grief, it was all there, the uncertainty of an unknown future.
It was at this point I actually remembered my meditation training, and my years studying practical philosophy. In order to get through these weeks I had to be able to live as much as I could in the present moment, not an easy task given all that was going on, but it reminded me of how anxious thoughts can have such a crippling effect on us. Fortunately I have learnt to control most anxious thoughts by pulling myself back into the present, and with years of self-help and learning. I also recognise it for what it is, a reaction to something that I am feeling, and if I can deal with those thoughts I generally find for me, there’s no anxiety attached to it anymore.
In the Mental Health First Aid England manual, it talks about protective and risk factors for mental health stating “another way of what looking at influences a person’s mental health is to consider the balance between protective factors and risk factors. When the balance between them tips, problems develop.”
Protective factors include life skills such as self-belief, confidence, coping skills, values and beliefs, physical activity, diet and rest, to name a few. Risk factors include poverty, discrimination, illness and disability, lack of support, alcohol, poor parenting, stress and trauma.
Medical professionals commonly use the Goldberg Anxiety Scale as part of a wider assessment when patients present themselves with severe anxiety. Most people will have some of the symptom’s on the scale, but the higher the score the more that person will experience disruption in their life because of it. As a Mental health First Aider I would advise anyone suffering with anxiety that they are struggling with, to contact their GP as soon as possible.
There are some ways you can self-help, which include regular exercise and adequate rest and ensuring good nutrition. Talking about it with others will help, any kind of talking therapy or just with friends and family, and again I will go back to mindfulness and mediation playing a huge part in helping.
Mindfulness and meditation calms the mind down. When we are in a state of distress, fear, anxiety etc we are generally in our sympathetic nervous state. This state is typically our flight and flight state, which is now also known to include freeze and fawn. The sympathetic system controls these responses thus preparing the body to fight, flight, freeze or fawn. We need to get back into our parasympathetic nervous system, this is a network of nerves that relaxes the body after stress or perceived danger, and mediation and deep breathing are a brilliant way to do this.
I can highly recommend a great book on anxiety. Its’s written by Sarah Wilson, and its called ‘First, we make the beast beautiful.’ As I write this I am only 60 pages in but I am already blown away by it.
On Page 44 Sarah writes “Anxiety is a disconnection with this Something else. As I say, the doctors and scientists can call it all kinds of things, but I believe it all comes down to this disconnect. As German psychiatrist Karl Jaspers wrote, anxiety is a feeling that you’ve not finished something…that one has to look for something or …come into the clear about something.”
On Page 33 Sarah writes “ rather than feeling I have a hopeless, helpless affliction, I can see I just need to find a way to feel held. To feel that everything fits. That everything is going to be okay”
I see this in my coaching space, a client feeling listened to non-judgmentally almost feels held, it’s a safe space to talk whilst feeling vulnerable. Talking out loud and going through your feelings, after some time, eventually will come healing.
If you would like a coaching session with me, please do get in touch. I can also teach you the Art of Meditation as I was taught; being in the now, the present moment and connecting deeply. I can’t promise to cure your anxiety of course, but I can certainly help with holding a safe space for you to explore your feelings and thoughts, and we can move forwards with more confidence and clarity, and should you wish, some meditation practice.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Wishing you every peace and happiness.