Anxiety is a difficult beast. Your brain is always on high alert, scanning the horizon for the inevitable disaster that’s coming your way. And even when things seem to be going well, you’ll hear a niggling voice in your head reminding you of the worst-case scenario. Quite frankly, it’s exhausting. And that’s before you even start to deal with the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as heart palpitations, trembling and sweating. 

Anxiety is a perfectly natural emotion though, and we all experience it from time to time. It’s actually there to protect us. Anxiety can alert us to threats and dangers to our life, as well as our property, reputation and status. 

Nowadays you might experience knots in your stomach before a date or sweaty palms just before a big exam. That’s your anxiety acting like an internal alarm bell, warning you of what’s at stake. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but thankfully our anxiety usually  subsides once the “threat” has passed.

But what if you felt like this all the time? What if your internal alarm bell never stopped ringing and you felt like a bundle of nerves, all day, every day? If this sounds familiar, you may suffer from an anxiety disorder. 

Anxiety isn’t one size fits all. You might be generally anxious about day-to-day life and be diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), or perhaps your anxiety manifests itself in more niche ways. If you obsessively fret over your health or scour the internet for exaggerated symptoms, for instance, you may be diagnosed with health anxiety. Alternatively, if you suffer from social anxiety, you might find that your overwhelming fear of rejection stops you from putting yourself out there or speaking up in social situations.  

What’s the difference between “normal” everyday worry and generalized anxiety disorder?

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is more common than you may think. Up to 5% of people in the UK have it, according to the NHS.

But how can you tell if what you are experiencing is everyday worry or GAD? Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Is it excessive? 
  • Is it intrusive? 
  • Is it disruptive? 
  • Is it persistent?

Signs you may have an anxiety disorder

Anxiety can be tricky to spot because it manifests itself in different ways. You may experience a mixture of physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms including:

  • a faster, irregular or more noticeable heartbeat
  • racing thoughts and uncontrollable overthinking
  • feeling irritable
  • feeling lightheaded and dizzy
  • headaches or stomach aches
  • chest pains
  • heightened alertness
  • feeling “on edge”
  • dissociation
  • a sense of dread and a desire to escape the situation you’re in
  • sweating
  • trembling or shaking
  • loss of appetite
  • feeling tense
  • being unable to relax
  • worrying about past or future situations
  • feeling tearful
  • not being able to sleep (e.g. insomnia)

What to do when you’re anxious about being anxious 

Feeling overwhelmed? Here are a few tips to help you cope when your anxiety gets too much… 

Connect with others 

Many of us pretend we’re okay, even when we’re not. But when it comes to anxiety, you need a strong support network. Vocalising your anxieties might help you put them in perspective and offer some relief. Just knowing someone can offer a listening ear can be reassuring in itself.  

Let yourself feel it

Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling and your first instinct might be to push it down and suppress it. That’s completely natural — but, in the long run, it won’t do you a lot of good. 

When talking about anxiety, psychologists often use the metaphor of a beach ball. Your natural response might be to get rid of it or to push it under the water. But, if you hold it down with all your might, odds are, it will eventually bob back up to the surface. If anything, it might even hit you on its way out of the water, knocking you off balance. So what can we do instead?

What if you took a different approach and let the beach ball calmly bob beside you? Eventually, you might be able to find the valve to deflate it, or it may float away in its own time. 

Similarly, when it comes to anxiety, the trick is to resist the urge to get rid of it. It may seem counterintuitive but remind yourself there’s no point in fighting those feelings. They’ll pass eventually. So make peace with your anxiety, and put your energy towards acceptance and coping techniques instead. 

Contain your worries 

If you find yourself constantly ruminating over the ‘what if’s’ and ‘maybe’s’, you might find it helpful to schedule ‘worry time’. By setting aside 10-15 minutes to focus on your anxieties, you can reassure yourself that you’ve spent an ample amount of time thinking about them, without letting them dictate your life. 

Alternatively, you might find it useful to jot down your feelings. By putting pen to paper, we’re anchored at the task at hand. It also gives us distance from whatever’s troubling us and can expose any fears which are irrational, too.  

Deep breathing

There’s a reason why therapists and mental health campaigners always shout about the virtues of deep breathing. It makes us feel calm, in control and grounds us in the present moment. Essentially breathing exercises help to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which controls our flight or fight response, so it’s a useful tool to help upwind the mind. If you haven’t practised deep breathing before, try listening to the ‘Mindful breathing’ or ‘Paced breathing’ episodes of Self-care, our new audio and video therapy library. 

Look after your body

The body and mind are closely connected. Therefore, it’s no surprise that if you want to make sure your mind is ticking along okay, you should check in with your physical health too. 

On days when your mind is racing, it may be helpful to schedule some exercise — whether that’s mindful yoga, a gentle walk in the park or an upbeat exercise class. Exercise can give us a rush of feel-good endorphins (serotonin and dopamine) and help us control our cortisol levels — the hormone that’s released when we’re stressed. 

Do you get ‘hangry’? We’ve all heard of people getting cranky when they’re hungry so make sure you eat regularly to control your blood sugar levels. And try to get enough shut-eye every night too. A good night’s sleep can give us the energy we need to manage difficult emotions. 

It’s less a case of mind over body and more body over mind.

Question unhelpful thinking patterns

If you’re a natural worrier, it’s easy to slip into unhelpful thinking traps. Maybe you’re prone to thinking in black and white or at 3am your mind often snowballs problems out of proportion. Not only is it exhausting, but if unhelpful thinking patterns take root, they can make things seem a lot worse than what they actually are. You might even find that these thoughts start to become repetitive, like a stuck record. 

Next time you fall into a negative spiral, ask yourself the following questions: Is this thought definitely true? What other explanations could there be? Would my friends and family say about the situation? What evidence is there to back up this negative thought? 

Chances are it’s not as bad as it seems, and it’ll help to keep your negative thoughts at bay. 

Recognise your triggers

Where does your anxiety stem from? If you suffer from a phobia or have a panic disorder, you might already have an inkling of some of your triggers. For instance, if you’re claustrophobic you’ll know that being in a confined space will be unbearable. Other times your triggers may not be so obvious, for instance, parties or working long hours. Knowing your triggers is the first step to better managing them. 

Try therapy

Anxiety isn’t something to ignore. What might seem like a simple no-brainer for someone else might put you in a mental tailspin for days, and it can seriously impact your day-to-day life.

If your anxiety is spiralling out of control, therapies like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or Mindfulness-based cognitive Therapy (MBCT) might prove useful. In your session, a psychologist will help you figure out the root cause of your anxiety, identify any triggers and teach you coping skills to help diffuse and manage your worries. Remember, it’s okay to ask for help.