Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash
Imagine someone at work asks if you’d like to come to a dinner party. Do you ask what they’re serving so you can bring the right wine and start planning what you’re going to buy to wear? Or do you ask who else has been invited, seeking reassurance that you’ll be comfortable with the other guests? When you get in a lift and press the button for the floor you want, what’s the first thing that comes into your mind? Are you focused on the reason you’re in the lift, perhaps anticipating an important meeting or planning what you want to say to a colleague, or do you find yourself wondering what would happen if the lift stopped…? In other words, would you describe yourself as a confident, out-going person or someone who suffers from anxiety? This blog is designed as a companion to the recent piece I wrote on worrying and will offer suggestions about how to deal with anxiety.
There are two kinds of anxiety – specific and generalised. Specific anxiety is when there is a distinct cause for concern: for example when someone knows exactly what causes them to be anxious and has to make a deliberate effort to avoid such situations. Anyone who has been bitten by a dog will be justifiably apprehensive if they are in contact with even the most docile of canines. Generalised anxiety is when you become anxious in almost any situation because the way you think is contributing to your feelings for example, believing there will be no-one there you know before attending the dinner party; being concerned beforehand you will do or say something embarrassing or feeling anxious about not fitting in and/or having nothing suitable to wear. Specific anxiety is naturally stressful but, I believe, can be controlled; generalised anxiety is harder to deal with because the stress is magnified by a ‘what-if?’ scenario sufferers play out continually in their minds.
Perhaps the key to anxiety lies with your belief about ‘control’ and how much control you feel you have over any given situation. People who feel anxious on a continuous basis are also concerned that they will not be able to control their natural ‘fight or flight’ reactions. Their immediate reaction is often flight and they quite literally have to fight themselves simply to meet the challenges of every day life. If a situation feels so powerful that it is not in your control to change it and if that situation is a regular occurrence such as bullying at work, then that loss of control can arouse such feelings of powerlessness, distress and inner turmoil that the phrase ‘feeling anxious’ seems totally inadequate.
In these situations, what can be done?
Anyone who suffers from anxiety can and often does, discuss their symptoms with their doctor. In practice though, the doctor can only listen to what the person asking for help has to say, and then prescribe a drug that will mitigate the symptoms of anxiety. The struggle I have with that is drugs don’t work long term.
Take, for example, diazepam, often prescribed for reducing stress and helping people cope with anxiety. In the short term diazepam changes the brain’s chemistry by inducing a sense of calm, allowing anyone taking it to feel more relaxed and more in control. This is a good thing especially if they seek face to face counselling or advice because the two processes can work well together to bring about change. The problem though, is that Diazepam alters the brain’s chemistry to suppress the chemicals that trigger stress and anxiety. We now know that almost as soon as the brain is changed in this way, it starts to counteract the effect of the drug by producing more of the chemical that was responsible for the feelings of stress and anxiety. As the drug’s effect lessens so the level of the chemical rises and the only response available to a sufferer is to take more of the drug.
Drugs can be both addictive and often need to be taken long-term. The drug may offer an immediate, and welcome, panacea but can also create a self-fulfilling prophecy: ‘I feel anxious, I need to take a tablet to help me cope’ can move to ‘I feel anxious, I must take a tablet to help me cope’ which can become ‘I feel anxious, I can only manage if I take a tablet to help me cope’. It’s not that I’m saying drugs are not effective in certain situations, but I am saying that anyone who turns to their doctor for an answer to the problem of dealing with anxiety has to make a commitment to understanding how it will alter the way their brain reacts naturally. This can have consequences in terms of the risk of dependency and that needs to be discussed and thought about carefully before commencing treatment.
What I am more comfortable with is two natural approaches to dealing with anxiety that may seem simplistic but are completely effective provided they are approached with an open mind and a willingness to make them work.
If you are anxious about a situation you face and have time to recognise that you are likely to feel that way, try to find somewhere you can sit for a few quiet moments. If you have your own office, close the door so people pause before interrupting you. If you don’t, find an empty cubicle in the rest room and sit on the closed lid of the toilet. Now close your eyes and count to twenty. As you do so, breathe in quite loudly and noticeably on the one, hold your breath for a one-two-three beat, and then exhale loudly on the two. As you breathe and count try to let your mind move away from what is causing you to feel anxious, try to forget your surroundings, concentrate only on the conscious process of breathing and counting. When you reach twenty stop and tell yourself you feel better. Believe it, get up and face the situation that was causing you to feel anxious by telling yourself “Now I’m ready”. This helps your mind focus on the solution not on the problem.
Many years ago I was travelling in a car with a colleague. He knew I was a poor passenger because I suffer quite quickly from car sickness if I am not driving. For some reason he had to brake suddenly and I let out a cry when the car lurched because it immediately made the feeling of sickness worse. And that gave him reason to make the car lurch deliberately several times more because he thought it was funny to make me feel sick (!). I had precisely one defence against this: I told myself ‘it will end’ and, of course, eventually, like everything bad that happens, it does. We come through it and life returns to normal. I have lost count of the number of times I have used this simple three word phrase to help me as I hope it will help you. Those three words will get anyone through anything because they are both unarguably true and completely, unfailingly, reassuring.
As a final word I would like to say that the secret, if it can be described as such, is to take action of some sort about your anxiety so as not to allow anxiety to become fear. Fear is irrational and all-consuming both mentally and physically; anxiety, either specific or generalised can be controlled by chemical means, through the application of mental techniques or a combination of both approaches. Whatever you decide to do please make a decision to do something about it, that way you put yourself back in to control and that is an important step that will make you feel a whole lot better!
If you want to offer any thoughts about your experiences or tips for managing anxiety please write to me: firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to include them in a forthcoming blog.