A certain amount of anxiety is normal. When you’re preparing for a presentation at work, going on a first date or need to have a difficult conversation with someone, it’s normal to have a healthy anticipation which allows you to plan what you’ll say, and prepare for any contingencies.
For someone suffering with anxiety though, what others consider to be ‘everyday’ activities, can be exhausting.
Going to the supermarket, meeting up with friends or managing change at work can consume time and energy, whilst the mind goes spiralling down the plug hole (as I call it) with a heap of “what ifs”. And it’s dark down there. (I have a chapter on this in my book).
Managing a Noisy Mind
Your mind is designed to think, that’s its job. If it doesn’t have something to do, it will find something to think about.
It’s why many people initially struggle with mindfulness if they’ve been told the aim of meditation is to stop thinking (in fact it’s about taming the mind). Unless you have the serenity of a Tibetan Monk, with 20 years of meditation practise under your belt, clearing the mind will seem impossible.
Often our thoughts are concerned with day-to-day life: what you’ll have for dinner and who you’re going to see (even if virtually). But when you’re going through a difficult time, your mind can become noisy.
It’s not that your brain wants to make life difficult; it’s trying to protect you based on past experiences.
The way the brain responds to danger – or perceived danger – (usually called fight or flight) means you might not realise how anxious you were until after your symptoms have eased.
The brain isn’t your enemy , even though at times it may feel that way. It simply references the past to determine what kept you ‘safe’ the last time you felt like this – even if it turned out there was no danger at all.
The Good News
Since the discovery of positive neuroplasticity, we know your brain can develop new coping strategies to rely on. This means you can learn to distinguish more healthily on some level, between what is real and perceived danger, and consider alternative, more positive ways to cope.
This might be creating a positive plan of action which may include setting manageable goals, or identifying things you know helps you when tackling a difficult situation. It might also include finding or accessing suitable support and creating a well-being plan that focuses on self-care.
You might, for example, decide to leave some space in your diary for after you’ve done an activity you know increases your anxiety. If you recognise that going out takes its toll on you, then knowing you can lay down when you get home if you need to, or that you will ‘treat’ yourself to something later whether it’s a warm bath or just some quiet time, can make all the difference.
Teaching yourself to recognise your early warning signs can also help you recognise if more anxiety than is helpful is creeping in. This might look like your hands start visibly shaking or you just can’t think straight. This is key: knowing when you’re not ok, and practicing what might help before you become anxious can help you when you’re in the thick of it.
When you find yourself in the grip of anxiety, it’s important to know how to manage the moment. In calmer moments, train yourself what you will do if you feel panic setting in. If you know your mind goes blank in certain situations, maybe keep these ideas in your phone or use these cards I’ve designed. (You can either take a screen shot or print them, and enter your own text of what you know helps you when you’re struggling. You’ll notice there’s an ‘S.O.S.’ card which you can either use as a reminder to yourself, or give to a friend you trust so they know how to help when you reach out. You could use the tips further down on the cards or create your own).
Here are three more suggestions that might help:
1. Pause (for about 90 seconds)
When confronted with anger, people used to say you should “count to ten”, and there is some logic to this. The research suggests that it takes just 90 seconds to shift your perspective. Although people tend to associate the 10-count with anger, it’s helpful for any challenging emotion, to just give yourself permission to pause.
When you feel anxiety rising, or your mind starts swirling, take a moment to bring yourself back to centre by teaching yourself to pause.
If it’s helpful, bring your attention to your breathing, and just notice that you’re breathing. Try not to focus on how fast or how slow, how deep or how shallow your breath is. You could repeat the following words in your mind with each breath: “I am breathing in” as you inhale and “I am breathing out” as you exhale. You might also find the video below useful, especially if you suffer with panic attacks.
2. Tune In and Label
You might also find it useful to bring your awareness fully into the experience of being where you are right now. For example, what can you see? Describe it in your mind. If you can see a tree, what colour are the leaves? If there is a painting, what colours do you recognise? Describe in your mind what’s happening in the picture. What can you hear where you are right now? There are no right sounds or wrong sounds. Just acknowledge what you can hear by labelling it in your mind for what it is – sound. If there is a fabric you can touch, how would you describe it? If you find it useful, use your senses to bring yourself into this moment, just as it is.
3. Ask for Help
If you’ve tried these or your other ways of coping and nothing’s working, reach out for help. You’re not “over-reacting”; when you’re in an anxious state it literally can feel like you’re dying.
Ring 111 if you can feel anxiety rising, call 999 if it feels urgent or book an appointment to talk with your doctor if it’s happening on a regular basis. Create a list of people you feel you can turn to when you need to talk, who will be supportive and know how to help someone going through a difficult time. Include the Samaritans on 116 123.
Managing a noisy mind without help can be exhausting, but once you’ve identified what positive action works for you, stick with it. You’ll find over time that your mind becomes more manageable and you can cope with anxiety more healthily. It doesn’t mean you have to go to every party, or put yourself in the spotlight at every meeting, but at least if you decide to, you’ll have some top tips that you’ve created to help you cope more easily.
You might also find making a “Not-Knowing Plan” helpful. Take a look here.
Delphi is the author of Answers In The Dark: Grief, Sleep and How Dreams Can Help You Heal out now on Amazon and Hive.
©️ Delphi Ellis 2019