Life is unpredictable, unexpected and damn unruly at times.
Putting travel to one side for today, I wanted to talk about mental health. It goes without saying that regular exercise, communicating with loved ones and getting enough sleep goes a long way to helping your mental wellbeing. But today I wanted to write about some tips to help you handle anxiety in uncertain situations.
I’ve touched on being diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder briefly in the past (see: Anxiety and Solo Travel) but in a time when we can barely travel beyond our own homes, I’m sharing some of my experiences and tips for the first time in the hope it may help anyone feeling particularly scared right now.
A quick common sense disclaimer before we get going: I’m obviously not an expert, doctor or psychologist. This advice is based on my experience of CBT and coping with anxiety only. I’ve also linked up some resources from trusted NHS and advice service sources throughout.
Figure out your triggers
Knowing what can set off your anxiety puts you in a much stronger position to handle it.
The first major encounter I remember having with anxiety was nearly ten years ago. University in Liverpool didn’t seem like a big deal, given that I’ve lived twenty minutes from the city virtually my whole life, but those few years were shrouded in a serious struggle. At the time, I’d never even considered that those feelings could be a mental health problem; instead, I assumed the lifestyle just ‘wasn’t me’. Retreating into my comfort zone helped me get back on my feet in the short term but this isn’t the best solution for longer-term happiness.
Since then, I’ve had three or four major episodes of anxiety. I’ve learned it comes as a tsunami; giant waves of paralyzing fear for two, maybe three months at a time, then everything is calm again. They’re generally not random but triggered by a major upheaval and I’m way more susceptible in the latter half of the year as the days cool and evenings darken. Sometimes it’s even set off by music; an uncontrollable need to escape triggered by some electronica beats. That scuppered a few nights out in da club back in the day.
It took me eight years to learn and accept what can trigger an anxious spell. To help you, I’d recommend looking back and writing down when you’ve felt particularly anxious in the past. Which incidents stand out and why?
Spot the patterns in your behaviour
From what you’ve written down, are there particular situations that trigger your anxiety? And if so, which parts of it? Trying to delve deeper into this can be tough but can help bring together seemingly unrelated events. Many of us feel out of control right now and this alone can be a big factor – I’ll talk more about this later.
For example, at university I thought that clubbing made me anxious and avoided those situations. But when I’m in a better place, I love a good night out. This made me look harder. Realising that specific types of music, plus anxiety inhibiting my desire to push myself into uncomfortable or potentially awkward situations, has allowed me to manage my reactions better. This can apply to all kinds of different worries.
The ‘fight or flight’ response is an innate mechanism, evolved to keep us safe from harm, but it can cause issues in these times where many of us are privileged enough not to be fighting for day-to-day survival. ‘Flight’ is definitely my default anxiety response and in some cases, point blank avoiding your triggers can help; I actively avoid venues where I know that a certain genre of music could leave me panicking. In other cases, it may not be healthy or practical to avoid your trigger and this is where longer-term coping mechanisms come in.
Form a routine
Uncertainty can massively feed anxiety, whether it’s the worries of day-to-day life or big lifechanging events. If you’re reading this around the time of writing, it’s particularly relevant as the world fights through the biggest global pandemic most of us have seen in our lifetimes. With stay at home orders, many of us temporarily or permanently out of work and no fixed end point in sight, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. This is where building a routine, no matter how small, can help.
To caveat this one, creating a routine doesn’t mean you should push yourself to maximum productivity or cram hour full of activities. Having too much to do can exacerbate anxiety just as much as feeling aimless so find the balance that works for you. If your routine includes six hours of Netflix every day, enjoy every minute of chilling on the sofa in your comfies. Even the vaguest outline of what your week will look like can give you valuable mental stability and help you to feel more in control of an uncontrollable situation.
Even if you’re still working, your routine has likely been thrown off. Working at home means that separating your work and home life can be tough without a commute or change of scene. Small changes like taking regular breaks (just like when you’d make a drink in the office), designating yourself a workspace and allowing for any fluctuations in productivity can help you to relax into your new routine.
On the other hand, as one of six million people furloughed from work in the UK, I’m incredibly aware of how losing my routine could tip me back into a more anxious state of mind. I’ve had good and bad weeks but now I’m finding my balance. Pamela Reif’s weekly workout plans help me wake up with a sense of purpose, a daily walk gives me valuable headspace outside of my four walls and designated takeaway/film nights are a treat to look forward to at the weekend. Even something as small as a regular bedtime can make a difference.
Give your mind some breathing room
From social media to online news reporting (I’ve become addicted to the BBC News live feed), we’re being bombarded with information more than ever. Friends, other bloggers and news outlets are all an increase in disturbed sleep, feeling overwhelmed and even breakouts – all problems that are exacerbated by that constant, low-level hum of stress. My brain feels like it’s constantly racing and I’m struggling to focus on doing one thing at a time, whether that’s reading a book or even writing this article.
On a basic level, start with what makes you happy. Get to know your ideal balance between socialising and alone time. Think of activities that can take your focus away from the news; watching a film without your phone nearby, cleaning, even playing The Sims. My weekly drive to the supermarket with my music turned up, unable to check my phone, is a real treat and I always come home in an amazing mood. I’m also putting time limits (via Screen Time on iPhone) on my social media apps to avoid getting sucked into that scrolling life.
Going deeper, if you’ve ever received help for anxiety before then you’ll know that thinking patterns can be incredibly hard to change. CBT helps by encouraging you to catch yourself in a ‘thinking trap’ and use a technique to challenge it. This takes work over time but is really worth it.
- Negative filter: focusing on the negatives and rejecting the positives of a situation. If you notice yourself instinctively reacting with negativity when something positive happens, gathering evidence to support and contradict these thoughts can help you to rebalance your view. It’s easy to view lockdown with a negative filter but are there any positives you can take from the experience to balance out your thoughts and reduce stress?
- Emotional reasoning: knowing that a negative emotion doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality of a situation – e.g. short-term discomfort for longer-term happiness. This was large part of a big life decision I made towards the end of last year but can work for something as simple as choosing to go for a walk when you can’t be bothered, knowing that it always makes you feel better afterwards.
Accept what you can’t control and plan for what you can
We all have legitimate worries right now and nobody has the answers. That’s scary. As much as it’s easy to go through every worst-case scenario in your head, it’s not worth the upset. Using the Worry Tree is a really helpful way of separating immediate problems and future concerns.
If you’re facing an immedate stressor in your life – a big event or wedding, job uncertainty or money worries – set yourself some time to make a contingency plan. Wherever you can, try to balance the emotion with realism and any practical advice you can find. Whenever you have a plan, become comfortable with it. Then put it to one side, resisting the temptation to go back to it constantly.
This process can ease some of the day-to-day of what impact certain events could have on your life. It’s natural that you’ll still worry but a back-up plan can help you feel more secure and happier in the short term. And of course, only use trusted news sources and fact checking websites to ensure you aren’t worrying about something that isn’t true or confirmed.
Maybe you’re reading this with an anxiety diagnosis or maybe you’re having these feelings for the first time ever. But if you’re still here, I hope these steps help you to make sense of your feelings and help to ease anxiety in uncertain situations like these. It’s okay to struggle more than usual: we’re all on this crazy rollercoaster together so be honest with your loved ones and let’s keep helping each other to get through the tough times.
You’ve got this queen!
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