It’s important to start by saying that as miserable as it feels when anxiety strikes, it is in fact a completely normal, basic human emotion. All of us will experience anxiety in situations where our bodies anticipate threat or danger – whether that be before a big work presentation you’ve been working towards or ahead of having a difficult conversation with a loved one.
Anxiety is actually there to protect us. It is a survival skill we learned to keep us safe from that sabre-toothed tiger licking its chops in the bushes. Of course, sabre-toothed tigers are no more and for most of us, everyday life hardly poses much of a threat to our survival, but it’s purpose remains the same. Those pre-presentation nerves can actually boost our focus and performance – and perhaps even save us from making a tit out of ourselves (sometimes!)
The distinction lies in the frequency and the intensity of how we experience anxiety. Whilst worrying ahead of a big event might be normal, waking up for no reason with a sense of panic, dread and spiralling thoughts is not. If your worries and stresses occur very often and for long periods of time, or if you feel that they are beginning to interfere in your everyday life, you could be suffering from an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are a lot more common than you might think, affecting 1 in 5 people in the UK. They come in lots of different shapes and sizes, and impact people in different ways. Some people find it easy to pinpoint where it all started, other times anxiety can creep up on you seemingly out of the blue. One thing that all anxiety disorders share is that they can be completely debilitating if left untreated.
But a life free from anxiety is within reach. With the right support, it is possible to make a full recovery and to start enjoying life without the horrible cloud of panic and doubt following you around.
Below we’ve listed some of the ways therapy can help anxiety:
1. Develop healthier coping mechanisms
If we’re struggling with anxiety, it’s likely that we have developed some unhealthy coping mechanisms for dealing with it. More often than not, these coping mechanisms actually fuel our anxiety rather than lessening it. Our natural instinct is usually to run from anxiety, or to push down the unpleasant thoughts and sensations that accompany it. But when we try to push our anxiety down and ignore it we actually end up giving it more power. The trick with anxiety is the very thing we instinctively don’t want to do. And that’s to move closer to it. In therapy, you will learn lots of different techniques for dealing with negative thoughts and uncomfortable sensations as and when they arise.
2. Identify your triggers
One of the worst things about anxiety is that it is often difficult to pinpoint. It tends to wash over us like a wave and make it difficult to see the wood from the trees. Therapy provides the space to step back and really consider what the triggers are. If we look closely enough, we will usually discover that there are specific triggers that bring on our anxiety. Does your anxiety happen in response to particular people, places or situations? The idea of change can be scary, but sometimes that’s exactly what we need to get ourselves back into a healthy space. Exploring and identifying your triggers in therapy can help you understand what’s causing your anxiety and provide you with the support to make any necessary changes in your life.
3. Reframe your thinking
We might assume that our stress and anxiety is caused by external factors, such as financial worries or relationship difficulties. But whilst anxiety triggers can be caused by external factors to some degree, the way we respond to those triggers are very different. Some people might find a certain situation easy to deal with, whilst another might find themselves crippled with fear. We all interpret the world around us differently.
One of the main ways anxiety is able to maintain its grip is through its ability to distort our thinking – and our perception of reality. In therapy, your therapist will work with you to identify and unpick these cognitive distortions and challenge the validity of difficult thoughts. Not all thoughts reflect reality, and as soon as we realise this we can learn to call them out and choose which ones we want to engage with.
4. Build your self-awareness
Your therapist will work towards building your self-awareness, and to reassure you that whilst your symptoms are unpleasant, they are not abnormal. They will help you understand why your anxiety happens, and also how it manifests. You might be encouraged to keep a mood diary where you can note down what happens when you experience anxiety so you can learn more about the thoughts and feelings it triggers. The more self-awareness we build, the more adept we will become at anticipating anxiety and putting the necessary coping strategies in place straight away.
5. Understand and manage the physical symptoms of anxiety
Anxiety can leave us stuck in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight, and when this happens we switch from slow, deep breathing to shallow, rapid breathing. When we breathe properly, 70% of toxins in the body get released. Anxious, rapid breathing can leave us trapped in a vicious cycle where we start breathing rapidly because we’re anxious which means we take less oxygen into the body – which in turn heightens our anxiety. In therapy, you will learn breathing and relaxation techniques that will help you distance yourself from your anxiety and prevent it from taking hold, escalating or turning into a full-blown panic attack.
Why it’s important to seek help for anxiety
Anxiety disorders are both mentally and physically draining. If left untreated, they can impact your sleep, energy levels, ability to work and even your relationships. Anxiety can also lower your immunity, making you more susceptible to certain physical conditions as well. Getting the right support is paramount, not just for these reasons but so that you can start living the life that you deserve – one that is without fear, but most of all authentically you.