Five Ways to Reduce Anxiety
There are few things so universally experienced in life, and at the same time, so debilitating, than feelings of anxiety. Certain situations seem to provoke it very badly. Lying on the sofa, late on a Sunday evening, for instance, thinking about the many obstacles that must be climbed once the alarm clock sounds the next day.
It can manifest as a sudden sense of airlessness, a feeling that something is not quite right. And because it can be so hard to understand what exactly is going on, within our minds, to create this sense of dread, it can leave us feeling even more powerless.
Freud once described anxiety as: “a riddle whose solution would cast a flood of light upon our whole mental existence.” Understanding anxiety, its roots in the mind and the body, is the only way to begin to address it. Below are five recommendations for how to handle anxiety, at work and elsewhere: beginning with long-term recommendations to help think about anxiety, before moving onto simpler, practical tips for the everyday.
- Embrace What Anxiety Is Telling You
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously compared anxiety – in typically grandiose terms – to the “dizziness” experienced by someone “whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss”.
This is a very elaborate way of saying that most people get a pang of vertigo when they look over the side of a tall building or cliff, but it helped to establish something important about why someone might suddenly feel so nervous and full of dread.
For Kierkegaard, anxiety is a fact of life. It is the price everyone must pay for possessing the freedom to act and make their own decisions. A person feels dizzy when looking over a ledge, he argued, because – deep down – they are forced to recognise that they have the freedom to do as they please, even something as awful as harming themself.
Freedom is often frightening. Being solely accountable for all the thousands of decisions made in an average month can quickly become overwhelming if we think about it for too long. But the good news is that this is far from unusual. Everyone experiences those feelings of panic and uncertainty. And even more importantly, it can be a spur to action. Those unpleasant feelings, so long as they don’t overwhelm us, can be a reminder of our own potential in the world. That we have the power to choose, to say yes and no, and steer our own path through life.
Some degree of worry or alarm is a healthy, legitimate response to the demands that life places on us.
- Let Anxiety Guide Your Self-Reflection
Of course, some forms of anxiety are more severe than that described above. Severe panic attacks, or a long-term bout of anxiety that leaves someone feeling ‘frozen’ with fear about the future is of a different nature entirely.
When thinking about such long-term problems, it can be helpful to look to the discipline of psychoanalysis for guidance. Sigmund Freud helped to establish the foundations for studying anxiety in his 1926 book Inhibition, Symptom and Anxiety. In it, he argued that anxiety was often provoked by setting off a memory of the trauma we experience as very young children. In particular, the fear that we will be overwhelmed by feelings of discomfort that we are powerless to solve. Infants are helpless to satisfy their hunger or comfort themselves when feeling sad or unwell, and this experience of helplessness can lie deep within our unconscious mind long into adult life.
The solution is to reflect on these early, formative experiences. To ask what it is about the present situation that is invoking this sense of dependence, impotence and frustration. The more that we improve our self-understanding in this area, the better equipped we become to counter-balance and resolve such negative emotions.
- Use Your Body
Naturally, there are times when reflecting on your existential freedom or contemplating formative experiences of powerlessness will not be quite so helpful. In cases where a particular event is making us feel anxious (the build-up to a major presentation, perhaps, or an annual performance review), there are direct tools we can use, in the moment, to cope.
Anxiety makes our mind flit around. We hesitate, fixate on something suddenly, then remember something else that grabs our attention. These disordered thoughts are the result of the extra adrenaline that courses through our body as a response to stress, but – with no actual obstacle on which to focus our minds (no predator to run away from, no river that we urgently need to swim across) – it generally makes the problem worse.
This is why breathing techniques can be so helpful. They force us to concentrate on an elemental bodily process. Calming our minds without losing the sense of alertness that we will soon need. Practising ‘Box-breathing’ – so-called because it is a square, four-step process – only takes a few minutes and has the added benefit of slightly slowing our heart rate. Simply inhale slowly, while counting to three, hold your breath for three seconds, and then exhale while counting to three. Rest for a further three seconds, and repeat the process.
Another technique that can help to calm our nerves is called progressive muscle relaxation. To do it, simply focus on tightening a particular muscle in your body (for example, your left foot or thigh), whilst inhaling, and keep it tensed for five seconds. Once you have counted to five, relax the muscle and exhale deeply. You can then work your way around the body, focusing on different muscles. You can do this for as long as you need to feel fully relaxed, but five minutes or so should make a difference.
- Exert Control Where Possible
It is one thing to recognise that the world is disordered and uncertain, and another to suggest that we have to simply abandon ourselves to whatever comes our way. Often, the most important tool in tackling anxiety is to increase the amount of control that we have over external situations. The more that we feel able to shape our circumstances, the more relaxed we become.
This is why it’s important to identify sources of anxiety. At work, certain situations can provoke more stress than others. Your line manager or HR representative should be receptive to conversations about what you need, whether that’s missing a non-important meeting to give you more time to prepare for another one later in the day, or spending time outside of the office when a major deadline is approaching.
People often feel under pressure to do everything and anything that is asked of them, but sometimes it’s necessary (and healthy) to say no to things. If you have too much on your plate, if you predict that an extra task to complete will make you feel worse, it’s good to push back on the request and see if it can be handled by someone else.
Saying no is not a sign of weakness or incompetence. Often, it’s a sign of strength.
- Take a Holistic View
Anxiety may be triggered by individual moments in the day or certain situations, but it can also come about gradually. It can slowly creep up as a result of exhaustion and overwork. When someone is stretched too far, time poor and distracted, unhealthy choices become more convincing. Whether that’s another cup of coffee, another glass of wine or more time on social media instead of trying to get to sleep.
When we are busy, often the last thing that seems useful is an additional piece of admin, such as keeping a journal. It feels like homework. An extra burden to deal with late at night after a busy day. Yet journaling our thoughts is useful in two directions. Firstly, it helps to demonstrate patterns that we might not notice initially. Our anxiety triggers will be more obvious when looking back over our recorded memory of last week than when the situation itself was in motion. Secondly, it can demonstrate whether our time is being spent in the right way.
If you’re lacking time to exercise, socialise, cook for yourself or spend time on activities that help you to relax (ideally, without too much alcohol), then a journal will make it more obvious. Unhealthy habits can spiral. The late night junk food we eat because we’ve been too busy to prepare something more nutritious is unlikely to leave us feeling physically nourished or good about ourselves.
When anxiety becomes a problem, it’s crucial to take an audit of everything in our lives. It allows you to make sure that your individual needs are maintained as a priority alongside other commitments. Finding time for such things is not a luxury, it’s a necessity in taking care of your health and wellbeing.
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