How to Manage Anxiety Symptoms

We have all experienced anxiety at times. Our brain has evolved to protect us, and anxiety is the fight-flight response (parasympathetic nervous system) which is triggered when our brain thinks we are in danger. This response causes a rush of hormones - adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol – to course through your body. This in turn increases the glucose levels in your muscles (so you can run fast), increases your breathing and heart rate to send oxygen quickly around your body, and tenses your muscles ready for action. Our temperature increases and we may get sweaty palms (the sweat gives more grip if you have to climb or throw weapons). Digestion is affected.


When we are in danger, the subconscious takes over from the rational thinking part of the brain. After all, it is better to get quickly away from something that might be dangerous, and ask questions about it later; rather than waste time trying to figure out what to do. This can result in finding it hard to think straight, cause ‘brain-fog’, and can affect our short-term memory.


This is all very useful if we are suddenly attacked by a bear, or threatened by an avalanche. It is not so helpful when we are nervous about exams, or feeling shy about going to a party. Like the smoke alarm in our kitchen, we need to know when the house is on fire, but we don’t need to raise the alarm when we’re toasting bread. In those sorts of situations, we need to be able to tell our anxiety that it is not required, because there is no actual danger.

The fight / flight response is effective, but not sophisticated. It is unable to recognise nuances and will signal danger until the threat has gone. However, there are methods we can use to inform the brain that there is no danger and so reduce anxiety. Our brain works on a feedback loop. When it senses danger, it sends messages to the body to make physical changes. However, it also picks up on those physical changes to interpret that there is danger. This means we can send signals back to the brain to let it know that we and our environment are safe.

There are several ways we can do this:

Breathing

If we slow our breathing right down, this helps calm the parasympathetic nervous system and sends a message to the brain that there is no danger. Three simple breathing exercises to try are:


4- Square Breathing.

Breathe in for a count of 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4, hold for 4. Repeat.


Longer out-breath

Breathe in to a count of 5. Breathe out slowly though your mouth for a count of 7. Repeat 3 or 4 times.


Hold your breath

For a long as you can, 2-3 times.


Relax

Be aware of all the muscles that have tensed up and consciously relax them. Are your shoulders up around your ears? Drop them down. Are your hands clenched? Open them and face them palm up. Is your jaw clenched tight? Relax it and wiggle it a bit. Stick your tongue out! Keep doing this every time you notice yourself tensing.

Cool down

Take off a layer of clothing, open a window or stand outside. Splash cold water on your face or run your wrists under cold water

Act normal

If you continue to act as normal, the anxiety will ‘get bored’ and disappear. If you are in the supermarket, keep shopping calmly. Talk to your colleagues, send another email.


Eat something / chew gum. This will confuse your brain, as we don’t stop to eat if we are in danger.


Smile! You cannot be in danger and be happy at the same time.


Posture

Notice how you are standing or sitting. Are you hunched up? Head down? Arms wrapped around you? Try standing straighter, hold your head up and relax your arms by your side. You are not looking to stand rigidly to attention like a soldier, but to have a relaxed, confident upright posture. If it helps, think about the most confident person you know and copy how they stand or walk.


Distraction

Engage your rational brain by: counting objects around you (e.g how many blue things can you see, how many right angles are there in the room?); reciting the alphabet backwards; counting backwards from 100 in 3’s


Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about being very aware of where you are in the present moment. Notice how the ground feels beneath your feet, how your bottom feels on your chair. Notice the air temperature. Touch an object nearby, notice if it is warm, cold, hard soft etc.

Name three things you can see, three things you can hear, three things you can smell.

Describe to yourself how you are feeling, for example, “my heart is beating fast; my breathing has changed; I feel hot and sweaty”.


Reassurance

Tell yourself you are safe, everything is ok, you can handle this. Remind yourself that this is anxiety. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to a friend or a child who was scared.


Exercise

Get rid of the nervous energy by jumping up and down, or shaking yourself hard.



Some of these techniques will work better for you than others; choose that ones that you find the most useful. You might have to do them several times to reduce your anxiety. Maybe it will work for a short time, then the anxiety comes back. Keep doing it, and slowly the anxiety will reduce and happen less often.


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