Anxiety is a common problem and is increasing not only in Australia but worldwide. Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. On average, 1 in 4 people (1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men) will experience anxiety (ABS, 2008). In reality, the rate may be far more than 25% as some of us keep our troubles to ourselves and try to hide behind the happy mask.
But the good news is: You are not going crazy even if your brain is telling you otherwise! The sore throat may in fact not be cancer and your headache may not be a brain tumour even if your great Aunt died of it last year.
Are you feeling:
A range of physical sensations in your body? Muscle tension, headaches, fast heart rate, a racing mind, feeling breathless, sweating or trembling? Do you feel like running away from life??
Catastrophic and negative thinking, wondering if your world is going to end?
Emotional fear and dread about now and the future?
If this is you, the good news is, you are not alone and you can beat it, even if it feels like you can’t. Everything passes. The brain tumour you thought you had disappeared the next day after a good night’s sleep. The lump in your throat wasn’t cancer after all once the last assignment had been handed in or the final deadline had been met.
So how might we start to take control of our anxiety now that we have accepted that it exists? Accepting anxiety isn’t as easy as it sounds! We don’t like it, we don’t want it and we just want to be rid of it. But anxiety is stubborn, we need to have a plan to work with. Anxiety is cunning, it can sneak back into our lives when we are least expecting it. So, we need to be creative.
Firstly, get anxiety out of your head and put it on the table. The critical fearful voice has been bullying us for a very long time, it’s time to get to know it.
Let me introduce you to Fergus, my very own handmade fearful friend. He is black and white because he only has black and white thinking. His head is going round in circles (literally). His eyes are almost popping out of his head, and his teeth are chattering. It may be hard to believe but I am very fond of Fergus actually. He has helped me out on a number of occasions! He has even befriended a couple of my clients at Live Well.
So what might anxiety look like for you? Try to draw it, or find a good approximate in a magazine. Although this might seem silly or childish, this is a successful technique for separating us from our problem, or “externalising the problem”. Now that it is outside of our head, we can get a different perspective on it, we have created a distance between ourselves and our anxiety. This is a wonderful start. I bet you didn’t think it could be this easy! Already we don’t have to feel so dominated or bullied by it, we can look at it differently.
Secondly, let’s try a simple breathing technique.
Put some nice relaxing music on, maybe light a candle, or use some aromatherapy with lavender or your favourite natural scent. It is sometimes easier to start your first breathing exercise lying down. If you need inspiration, look at the way babies breathe before the stress of modern day living gets to them! Their little tummies will gently rise and fall, they are the experts at relaxed natural breathing!
Now try slow and deep breathing using your abdominal muscles. I call it fat tummy breathing. We females seem to be always conscious of not having a fat gut, and get into a bad habit of actually holding it in and restricting natural breathing as a result! So suspend that negative self judgement in advance and practice the slow breathing that calms us down. It’s free, needs no wifi and is always effective!
Now, the third thing for this week is to start a gratitude diary. Seemingly Oprah Winfrey uses this tool! Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough are two psychologists who have done extensive research on gratitude. They proved in their study Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life , that after only10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude felt better about their lives and were more optimistic. As a bonus, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to the doctors than those who dwelt on irritating and aggravating experiences. This highlights the amazing benefits of keeping a gratitude diary which only requires a change of focus and does not require excessive use of daily time or financial outlay.
Even the prestigious universities in the US are embracing it, including Yale, Harvard, UC - Berkley and Columbia University. Here in Australia, the Resilience Project recognises the mental health benefits of gratitude in schools and in the corporate world. Everyone benefits, it’s a real win win game!
So here is a simple suggestion to get started. Dr Martin Seligman , the founder of positive psychology, proved with his colleagues that even a week of doing this improved our wellbeing (Seligman, 2005).
Just write down three things that went well for you each day and their causes. That’s it, what could be simpler?!
I remember asking a child many years ago what she was grateful for, and her answer is still with me. “I am grateful for my hands, because I can help people with them”. Children can be our best teachers.
What do we think is happening at a neurological/brain level?
These simple interventions starts to re-programme the brain, creating a new pathway of neurone firing, steering away from the well beaten track of negative and anxious thinking. These simple but profound 5 minute exercises can make a significant change in the neuronal pathways we use. Tune in next time for more anxiety beating ideas from Dr. Orla Teahan at Live Well.
Dr Olra Teahan is an Integrative GP. She combines the best of conventional Western Medicine and evidence-based complementary medicine with the aim of utilising the most appropriate treatment to meet your individual health needs. She has a special interest in helping with mental health issues including anxiety and depression.
R. A Emmons & M. E. McCullough (2003) Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Copyright 2003 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 2003, Vol. 84, No. 2, 377–389, available at: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/ pdfs/GratitudePDFs/6Emmons-BlessingsBurdens.pdf.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421