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How to Stop Anxiety Spoiling Your Life

by Caroline Carr(more info)

listed in anxiety, originally published in issue 154 - January 2009

Anxiety is fine in small doses. In fact, we all need to be anxious and worried sometimes, because it helps us to really focus and do our best. For example, imagine you have an emergency to deal with. It need not be something really traumatic – maybe you're about to sit an exam, or go to a job interview, or make a presentation.  Suddenly you might feel really uncomfortable; your heart beats really fast, you sweat, tense up, feel sick or need to go to the toilet. Maybe your mouth goes dry and your mind goes blank for a few moments. That's fine – your body has recognized the urgency, and prepares you to deal with it as well as possible.

How not to worry - book cover
Specific chemicals are released into your bloodstream. These cause the symptoms that you feel, and you have a surge of energy that gets you through. You need that faster heartbeat and tenseness so that you are primed for action, and the sweating will stop you overheating. All this is known as 'the stress reponse', or 'the fight or flight mechanism' – a fantastic strategy that human beings have always had to enable them to survive. It kicks in as soon as you perceive a danger or a threat. Then when the event is over, everything subsides and your body returns to normal.

The trouble starts when you don't really have a specific 'emergency' to deal with, but your body thinks that you have. You might be really anxious and worried about something, for example, at work. You might feel threatened and vulnerable, but be powerless to do anything about it, as it's out of your control. As you keep returning to familiar worried and anxious thoughts about the situation, the stress builds and your body gets the message that you are threatened in some way, so it prepares you to deal with it. Those chemicals rush into your bloodstream, but you can't use them correctly because there isn't actually an emergency.  Your body is ready for action, but it simply doesn't act, so there is no release. But those chemicals are still floating around, and everything piles up so that you are in an ongoing state of tension. This is when anxiety can start to spoil your life.

The first thing you may be aware of are alarming physical symptoms. These can be all sorts of things and there's a huge range – from tenseness and stiffness, to feeling faint or numb,  breathless, nauseous, dizzy, palpitations, fidgety, unable to concentrate or sleep, exhausted. The list goes on and on. You may think you are really physically ill.

And then there are the mental and emotional symptoms such as feeling incredibly apprehensive (but not knowing why, or what of), fearful, extra-sensitive to all sorts of things, irritable, very low moods, racing thoughts which seem to go round and round uncontrollably in your mind, paranoid, feeling detached from everything and everyone around you, wanting to escape from a place or situation, crying, feeling lonely and isolated and a real fear that you may be 'going mad'.

If you get alarming symptoms, and they affect the way you live your life, visit your GP. Your symptoms may be caused by an illness or infection, or by medication you are taking, and your GP can test for these. If there are no underlying causes, then it is possible that your anxiety and stress has reached a point where you may be told that you have an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are complex to diagnose, so they are separated into various categories, the main ones being:

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which is persistent and excessive worry and anxiety over a range of different things. You might have no idea why, but you may feel on edge all the time. You might experience anxiety attacks where you feel that you want to escape or get away from a situation because it triggers your symptoms. This is probably the most common form of anxiety disorder.

Panic Attacks. These come out of the blue, for no apparent reason. You may think that you are having a heart attack or a stroke because your physical symptoms are so intense. And you are likely to be overwhelmed with fear in case you can't cope. Your symptoms are not dangerous though.

Agoraphobia.  This is where you fear places and situations in case you can't escape, and in case there might be no one to help you if you have a panic attack, or embarrass yourself in public.

Specific Phobias are when you have an inappropriately intense fear of something or somewhere, and are desperate to avoid whatever you have a phobia of. This in turn can lead to panic or anxiety attacks.

Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia) is a fear of specific social situations where you are worried what other people might think of you, for example, speaking in public.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an intense recurring anxiety, fear, flashbacks and horror, having experienced or witnessed an unusually traumatic event. Though the effects can in some cases last for years, the majority of people recover, and with good treatment and help, the symptoms go away.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterised by obsessive thoughts that cause you anxiety. In order to relieve this you may perform rituals or repetitive actions.

Often more than one type of anxiety disorder exists together. And of course a person can be depressed at the same time as well.  If you have an anxiety disorder, or if you think you might have, all you want in the entire world is to feel OK again.

The first thing is to realize that you are not 'odd'. Anyone can develop an anxiety disorder regardless of age or culture, and from my own research I would suggest that most people's lives are affected either directly or indirectly at some point.

Here's a three-step plan to help you to help yourself to stop anxiety spoiling your life:

  • Understand what is happening. Know that your symptoms have come about because your body is doing what it thinks it supposed to be doing – it has just got a bit mixed up.  Your nervous system is tired and overworked – nothing more sinister than that;
  • Accept what is happening. You know why your symptoms exist now, so that removes a lot of the fear and worry. Avoid trying to prevent them – if you fight them you feed them. Just let them run their course, because you know they will subside. When you understand and accept what is happening, you are halfway there;
  • Allow it to happen. Eventually your body will get the message that it doesn't need to keep you in a state of high alert, and your symptoms will go. It may take time, and they may surprise you sometimes – but they will go.

 If possible, catch your levels of stress and anxiety before they get to this stage. There are two absolutely key areas here:

Be aware of what you think.
Do you worry unnecessarily, and for too long about things? Are you always thinking "What if...?" Do you think about the potential threats and dangers, instead of the good things? If so, ask yourself: "How is my worrying about something or someone actually going to help or change the situation?" It won't. Worrying about something will only encourage you to worry more. So make yourself think of something different. Have a stock pile of positive thoughts that you can call on and put in the place of worrying, and think them so much that you begin to feel some relief. Distract  yourself somehow, really make yourself focus on something else – call  someone to talk to or laugh with. Or do some exercise.

Make an effort to relax.
A stressed body makes for a stressed mind, so take the time to relax properly. Practise a progressive relaxation technique, relaxing your body bit by bit from the tips of your toes to the top of your head. Sit or lie comfortably and take a few minutes to tense each part of your body and then relax it. Breathe slowly and deeply. Enjoy the luxury of that relaxed, heavy, calm state. With practice, a few minutes of deep relaxation can be as good as an hour of sleep. This does take a bit of practice – you might wriggle and twitch at first, and that's fine because your body has to get used to it. Eventually you'll be able to do this anywhere. It's also useful because it helps you to become familiar with where you carry tension in your body. And once you know this, you can release it.

Look after yourself generally. Eat good nutritious food, avoid too many stimulants, and maintain a balance in your life. Avoid putting too much pressure on yourself, or bowing to pressure from others. Have the strength to say "No" when  you have had enough. Set the intention to enjoy your life and have fun as much as you are able. And if you are over-worried and anxious, and if you know that you have an anxiety disorder right now, take strength from the fact that you are not alone. You will feel better in the fullness of time.

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About Caroline Carr

Caroline Carr is a hypnotherapist, life coach and author with a practice in Harley Street, London. She has over 20 years experience of helping people to feel better, make changes, and cope confidently in challenging situations. She is the author of several self help books on depression, anxiety, and the menopause, all published by White Ladder Press. She contributes frequently to the media, and is regularly asked for advice about depression, anxiety and confidence issues.

She also hosts a regular Questions and Answers slot in A Single Step, the magazine for the supporters of the Depression Alliance. Caroline may be contacted via caroline@carolinecarr.com  www.carolinecarr.com

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