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The ‘A’ Word: Understanding Anxiety and Learning to Cope

Uncovering the difference between anxious thoughts and anxiety disorders – and what can help shut your brain up.

Written by Casey Milano

Anxiety is a hated word in my brain. Not because I’m sick of hearing it (which, yes, I am) but because I’m not even sure I believe it. I believe that we experience times of stress and difficult times throughout our lives, but I don’t believe that anxiety is a mental illness (there is anxiety disorder, but I’ll get into that later). Before the hate mail begins, let me start by saying that I know what a mental illness is; from experiencing depression as a young child as well as self-harm and eating disorders, mental issues have been a part of my life for too many years to count. Now recovered, the world of what is and what isn’t a mental illness seems to have gone crazy (no pun intended).  

2017 was anxiety’s year. It made it onto almost every magazine cover and everyone’s conversation; it was the main complaint behind employee’s sickness and spiralled into an epidemic. But is anxiety all that it seems?

We all know life has its many problems, but it seems the everyday issues we face are turned into something they’re not, making them seem bigger and a lot worse than they are and, in turn, making anxiety seem like the plausible answer. But as Jim and Marylin of anxietycentre say, “our life experience is based on what we say to ourselves about the people, experiences, and things we encounter as we live. It’s the stories we tell ourselves about our life experience that become our reality. If we are going to tell ourselves frightening stories about all the dangerous ‘what ifs’ in life, our life experience will be one of danger, fear, and anxiety.”

So is it possible that we ourselves make our own symptoms worse? If what we think becomes our reality, then surely over-thinking possibilities in relation to stressful events can make anxiety a part of our life that doesn’t really exist. Still with me? Then think about this – the pressure to ‘have it all’ also plays a huge role in our daily lives. How many times have we worked overtime, or said yes to social events, when actually it’s best for our wellness not to? I don’t know about you, but many times I’ve felt the need to commit to things I don’t want to just to keep up appearances, being the woman that other people expect me to be or think I am.

If we’re not constantly stressed, then is there something wrong with us? Are we not working hard enough? Not striving to reach our goals? Failing as the modern women or man?

Before I continue, it is important to know the difference between normal feelings of anxiety and an actual anxiety disorder that requires medical attention. When faced with potentially harmful or worrying triggers, feelings of anxiety are not only normal, but necessary for survival.

That nervous feeling before an important life event or during a difficult situation is a natural echo of the original ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction. But now humans no longer run from larger animals (Saturday nights don’t count); imminent danger is a less pressing concern. Anxiety is now mainly caused by work, money, family life, health, and other crucial issues that demand a person’s attention without requiring the ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction. Needless to say, anxiety disorder is very different. This is a chronic disorder involving excessive, long-lasting anxiety and worries about nonspecific life events, objects and situations. People with anxiety disorder are not always able to identify the cause of their anxiety.

So now we know the difference between the two, it’ll be easier to understand which feelings of anxiety are more real than others. I myself had to do a lot of research into dealing with overwhelming thoughts. I’m not the best with taking my own advice in terms of mental wellness, but with my own experiences of dealing with mental health issues, perhaps some of my own tips will differ from the ‘norm.’

Top tips for getting rid of anxious thoughts

  • Turn off your TV, social media… basically anything that lets you disappear. I know at the most stressful times we want to just get away, but sometimes you must just feel it. Lay down on your couch or bed and just stop. You don’t need to do breathing exercises (I hate them too) if you don’t want to, but switching off from the unreal world can help you build a better real one.
  • Cut out the toxins – not just the ones in your diet (although that helps too) but the people who actually cause your stress. I know you can’t do that with some people, but when it comes to the people you choose to spend time with – if they cause you stress more than they bring you happiness then why are they in your life?
  • Take a walk. Yes, it really does help. Taking a walk with your own thoughts (and perhaps your favourite music and headphones) reminds you that there is a world out there. Sometimes our thoughts can make us feel alone, that nobody understands, but believe me you’re not alone.
  • Exercise. Ok, love it or hate it (I live between the two), exercise is known as one of the greatest stress and anxiety relievers. Your body loves to move and literally stretch its muscles out, but it doesn’t have to be a cardio class – it can be anything you enjoy – my personal favourite is ballet (one day I’ll stand on my toes!)
  • Treat yo’self! I am the biggest supporter of self-love and treating yourself accordingly. It’s not selfish, it’s not a waste of time and it’s a necessity for your mental health and for reducing anxiety.
  • Make a cuppa. Be it chamomile, chai, green, or your plain old British classic, your mother was right: tea does make it better. My tip? Take some time to have a cuppa before checking social media, email or any other technology-related task in the morning – wake yourself up the right way – your phone is still going to be there afterwards.
  • Write it out. My biggest reliever has always been writing, whether it’s songs, poems or a diary, words are our biggest tool (cheesy but true) and writing them in any way you like is going to help. It gets everything out and really gives you the chance to see how you truly feel. Tip: reading it back will resonate that and help you realise what’s bothering you.
  • Eat a diet you’re happy with. Dietitians will hate this, but eating what you want and when you want is good for you. In the words of Maire Barone (don’t tell me you haven’t watched Everybody Loves Raymond!?), “what can be healthier for you than the food you love?” Obviously I don’t mean to go out and eat chocolate day in, day out (although that is allowed), but don’t deprive yourself of food you want simply because the latest diet or health trend tells you to. Yes, eat your fruit and veg, get your vitamins and drink two litres of water a day, but also eat carbs, eat sugar… ultimately, eat what you love and what your body desires.
  • Don’t blame yourself. We all make mistakes and we all have regrets that we wish we could right, but bashing yourself will not help. Life is tough sometimes and occasionally the coping mechanisms we choose aren’t the healthiest. But what good is letting the anxiety and stress rule your life? Don’t feed off it and it can’t do the same the you. Trust me, letting go of blaming yourself is life-changing.
  • Do what you need to do. This might sound a bit contradictory given the tips above, but ultimately once you have acknowledged the anxiety and realise it’s just a feeling, like all others, and that you don’t have to live with it, you will know what feels good for you, what feels right and what doesn’t. Changes won’t happen overnight but things will become easier day by day.

I’m now off for a walk, headphones in. “Sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away…” – hey, if imagination can cause anxiety…


Header image via HealthyPlace

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