There’s something about this time of year that encourages a rethink – of bad habits, fitness levels and cluttered rooms… You cut back on alcohol or sugar, join a gym or start running and prune your wardrobe and bookshelves – but why limit this burst of energy and re-evaluation to the traditional resolution areas? The way in which you deal with anxiety is probably just as much in need of reassessment.
When you are worried, it can be easy to fall into familiar but unhelpful thinking styles. Perhaps you intentionally avoid the source of your tension, or maybe you repeatedly tell yourself to stop being so irrational. How’s that working out for you? More than likely, the negative chatter and sleepless nights have slowly but surely ramped up. ‘When we try to block troubling emotions, it can be like blocking a wave. This doesn’t stop the wave or disperse its power. It sends it back temporarily, ensuring its return,’ explains Sophie Mort, a clinical psychologist.
It’s hard to rationalise your way out of these feelings because, when you are anxious, your frontal lobes – the part of the brain responsible for control and being in the moment – are not fully engaged. Your automatic pilot has control,’ adds Dr Mort. ‘That’s why it’s so hard to “snap out of it”, as people often suggest to others who are tense.’
While anxiety is a condition to which we are often genetically predisposed and have likely been suffering from for decades, the past two years won’t have helped. A study by the University of Queensland in Australia estimates that cases of anxiety have increased by 26 per cent globally during the pandemic, with women particularly prone to it due to the burden of caregiving responsibilities. Life may slowly be returning to some kind of normal, but that’s exactly when your nerves can take a hit, says Dr Mort.
‘In a stressful situation, it’s just about surviving. The brain is in fight-flight mode, battling for its life. It would be detrimental for it to allow those emotions in,’ she explains, ‘but when you’re emerging from that high stress, the reality of what you’ve been living through floods in and that’s when anxiety hits. I’m seeing it right now with so many people, not just in my clinic, but family, friends and myself.’
Trying to calm those jitters can take a counterintuitive approach. With this in mind, we turned to therapy and the latest science to bring you fresh insight into the calming techniques that truly work:
Postpone your worry. It started as a niggle – your boss questioned your recent absence – but soon it’s playing on a loop and pushing your insecurity buttons. ‘The negative internal chatterbox is a classic symptom of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), where a person worries uncontrollably and constantly. It’s incredibly draining,’ says Ivana Franekova, a psychotherapist and coach.
Rather than trying to ignore or deny the thought, she suggests a CBT technique where you delay it. ‘Setting a daily time specifically for worrying gives you more control over it. When an intrusive thought pops up, note it briefly on paper or voice memo, then save it for later.’ And when your ‘worry period’ arrives? ‘Sit in an area that you don’t habitually go, away from your desk or bedroom. Often people find worries have lessened or resolved themselves, but if not, take the set time – up to 20 minutes – to process them. Write down the thought, ask yourself if it is factual and can you make a plan to solve it. This practice takes perseverance and you need to set a similar worry time each day, but it’s very freeing.’
Take a chill swill. Dunking your face in icy water may be the last thing you feel like doing when anxiety hits, but it’s one of the fastest ways to ground yourself, says Dr Mort. ‘The sudden change in temperature and the contact between your nostrils and water activates the mammalian dive reflex. This ancient reflex is a survival strategy that does the opposite of fight-flight. When triggered, your breathing slows, your heart rate drops by 10-25 per cent, a deeply relaxing shift, and blood is sent back from the limbs to the heart, so muscle tension and shakiness drops. It stops a panic attack in its tracks.’ Fill a bowl with water and add ice (keep the water above 10ºC). Hold your breath and submerge your face for 20-60 seconds. Repeat if necessary.
Go for an ‘awe walk’. We all know the mood-boosting effects of exercise and nature, but a new study recommends we go one step further by 4 normally overlook, starlings overhead or towering skyscrapers, for example. While those in the latter group thought about seeing family, the awe group noticed leaves crunching underfoot. They also reported more positive moods that grew over the eight-week study, suggesting that awe increases with practice. ‘Shifting our energy and attention outward instead of inward can lead to significant improvements in wellbeing,’ say researchers.
‘Taking your thought to court helps you realise that thoughts are not facts,’ explains Franekova. ‘It encourages you to look for concrete proof of your intrusive thought, rather than simply going on assumptions.’ First identify the ‘hot thought’ that is causing you distress. Then, in your head or on paper, look for factual evidence to support your hot thought (he rarely compliments you; he’s always on his phone). Next, look for evidence against it (he treated you to dinner out last weekend). Finally, consider alternative thoughts, perhaps imagining what a friend would say about it (he’s been stressed at work; maybe you’ve also been distant). This kind of reasoned thinking helps you pause and challenge your anxiety.
Flunk your way through. Worriers have a tendency towards perfectionism, which can lead to procrastination, and yet more anxiety. A study by the University of Cambridge has an unlikely solution: give yourself permission to do something badly. The author of the study, Dr Olivia Remes, even gave a TED talk about it. ‘You could spend hours deciding how you should do something or what you should do, which can be time-consuming and stressful,’ says Dr Remes. ‘Instead, just start by doing it badly, without worrying about how it’s going to turn out. This will not only make it easier to begin, but you’ll find you’re completing tasks more quickly. More often than not, you’ll find that you’re not doing it that badly after all – and if you are, you can fine-tune it.’
Lean in to your anxious feeling. You need to buy food, but the last time you went to the supermarket, you had a panic attack, so you book a delivery. But avoidance is short-term coping behaviour that feeds anxiety. ‘When you avoid something, you are not teaching your brain that you can do it and survive,’ says Dr Mort. She recommends graded exposure, a technique of tolerating anxious feelings that works for social anxiety and panic attacks. ‘Imagine you are experiencing the scenario, whether it’s the supermarket or a difficult conversation. While thinking it through in detail, do breathing exercises (inhale through your nose for a count of four, exhale through your mouth for six). Watch your anxiety go up like a wave before crashing down, because what goes up must come down, including emotions.’
Amazingly, your brain doesn’t differentiate between real and imagined scenarios when triggering the stress response. ‘If you imagine something in detail, your brain will think you’ve done it before, so is better able to tolerate anxiety.’ You can increase your tolerance with gradual exposure in a process called habituation. ‘If you’re scared of the supermarket, sit outside in your car for five minutes, do your breathing exercise, then leave. Next, stand outside the door for five minutes, then leave. Next, go down the first aisle for five minutes, then leave. It’s about building up slowly, so your brain doesn’t activate the stress response so quickly.’
With thanks to our experts
Ivana Franekova is a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) therapist and anxiety coach.
Photographs: Getty Images