Anxiety is certainly at the top of our minds during these unprecedented times. Life is unpredictable and uncertain – this creates anxiety and stress in people. But when there are collective world experiences that bring greater uncertainty in our daily lives, this can fuel and perpetuate our anxieties even further. During these times of heightened doubt and constant change, coping can be challenging for many.
What Anxiety Can Feel Like
Anxiety can manifest in different ways for different people. Essentially, anxiety is an unpleasant feeling that we all experience from time-to-time but for some, it is a constant feeling of fear and dread that can be all too consuming. When suffering from anxiety, we experience a variety of uncomfortable symptoms and sensations:
- Psychologically – rapid negative thoughts and constant worrying over extended periods of time
- Emotionally – feeling nervous, stressed, irritable or uptight
- Physiologically – tense body, heart racing/palpitations, tension in chest or stomach, dizziness, or shortness of breath
- Behaviourally – pacing around, difficulty relaxing, getting flustered and snapping at people
Almost always, our way of coping with anxiety is avoidance – we’ve all done this.
Understanding Anxiety – What Causes it and Keeps it Going?
Life Experiences. We experience anxiety when life is stressful and when there are multiple pressures that occur at once. For instance, someone who might be experiencing difficulties at work, financial issues and interpersonal conflicts might be at a higher risk of suffering from anxiety. Adding the complex stresses we all face during this pandemic into the mix can often amplify stress and anxiety. We can also develop anxiety based on past aversive life experiences. For example, when someone gets into a car accident, they are more likely to be afraid to get back into the car.
Thought Patterns. Anxiety can develop and be maintained through our thinking styles. People who are anxious often have patterns of thoughts that resemble worst case scenarios and have excessive worries. This thinking style also allows us to focus on things that aren’t going well, which makes us hypersensitive to situations and experiences that don’t go according to plan. As a result, people often feel on edge, and are unable to relax.
Basic Survival Mechanism. As evolutionary creatures, anxiety serves a purpose in protecting us. Perceived threat or danger triggers fear, which signals our bodies for a fight or flight response to help us respond to that perceived threat. These responses served us back in the days when there were constant threats to our primitive selves; however, modern humans do not experience the same threats and often we cannot run away or fight them (i.e., relationship, work or financial issues), thus we are left feeling stuck and in a ‘freeze’ state.
All these factors and how you cope determines the intensity and frequency of anxiety and negative effects of stress.
Anxiety and stress can feel overwhelming when too much is happening too quickly. Managing your anxiety can be more effective when you put these skills into practice regularly, even when things are good so that you are better able to use your tools when things don’t go so well. Key here is consistency.
Managing Your Anxiety
Learning to Tolerate Uncertainty
The nature of life is such that it is unpredictable, and we can never see what our future holds. This is an unavoidable part of life – scary, I know! The key to being more tolerant is to start acting “as if” you are tolerant of uncertainty; easier said than done! It’s about putting yourself in situations where you force yourself to tolerate the unknown. The more you do something and expose yourself to certain situations, the more you learn something new about yourself and that the situation isn’t too bad. Life will not go accordingly as planned if you allow some uncertainty into your life, but this is not an indication of failure – far from it. In fact, practicing tolerating uncertainty allows us to learn that even when things do not go as planned, and something bad happens, that we can cope with it and we can deal with things even if they don’t go perfectly.
“What you resist, persists.” This idea tells us that when we struggle and push away what is happening to us that we find terrible, it makes the problem worse. Radical acceptance teaches us simply to accept and acknowledge our reality, without judgement. It’s an attitude of “it is, what it is.” Radical acceptance does NOT mean that you approve of what is happening and that you have to like it. Acceptance is not waving our hands up in defeat and giving up. Instead, acceptance allows us to focus our energy and strength on how to move forward and what we need to do to handle our situation better. It teaches us to accept the anxiety and work through those feelings rather than avoiding it or fighting it. Oddly enough, accepting our anxiety often leads to decreased anxiety.
You Always Have a Choice
Anxiety is the culmination of your beliefs around overestimating risks and underestimating your resources to cope. Risk of anxiety increases when someone believes their probability and severity of risk/threat is high and they do not have the internal or external resources to cope. When we believe we don’t have a choice in our situation this makes us feel stuck and helpless. The truth is, people are resilient and are very capable of coping with difficult situations. Find ways to remind yourself that you can cope and that you have the internal and external resources to help you manage difficult situations.
STOPP is a mindfulness-based technique that is used in different models of therapy. It that can be useful in reducing stress, anxiety or distressing emotions. Being able to pause, slow down and come back to the present has proven helpful in dealing with stress and anxiety.
S – Stop
Stop what you are doing when you become aware of your automatic negative thoughts or caught up in rumination or noticing your anxiety setting in.
T – Take a breath
Taking a deep breath and notice your breathing. Breathe in through the nose, expanding your belly and breathe out through your mouth. Do this until you feel calmer and have collected yourself.
O – Observe
Once you feel calm and collected, spend some time observing different aspects of yourself. Observing yourself enhances your self-awareness and mindfulness over time.
Thoughts – What am I thinking right now? What’s on my mind? What am I telling myself?
Feelings – What am I feeling? What emotions are coming up?
Bodily Sensations – What physical sensations am I feeling? Where in my body do I experience it?
Behaviours – How am I acting and reacting? What am I doing?
P – Perspective/Pull Back
Bringing in some perspective will allow us to see the situation differently and help us see the bigger picture. We don’t have to believe every thought that pops up. How else can I see this situation? What is another way of looking at this problem? Fact or opinion? What would someone I trust say to me right now? What would I say to them? What are some reasonable explanations for what’s happening?
P – Plan and Proceed
Proceeding with more awareness and being mindful with how you want to respond.
What are my options? What is the most important thing for me? What is the most appropriate and effective course of action? What are some of the things I can do that aligns with my principles/values/beliefs? What are the consequences of my action?
Taking it moment by moment, one step at a time.
Extra “P” in the STOPP technique
P – Practice
It is a simple skill to use but it does take some practice – practice makes progress. Just like a habit, the more you do something, the more engrained it will be. The best time to practice this is when you are not feeling anxious or overwhelmed and in a calm state. This will allow you to access the skills quicker when you experience intense emotions. Key is consistency and practicing daily even on your good days.
If you are someone who is suffering from anxiety and going through a lot of stress, major life transitions, experiencing a loss and/or struggling with mental health concerns, please reach out for help from a mental health professional.
It is a sign of strength, not weakness, when we admit that we are stuck and suffering. Everyone – including yourself – deserves to live a meaningful life.
To connect with Jennifer please click below to book a free meet and greet, before getting started on your therapy journey.
Disclaimer: The content provided here is for informational purposes only. It is not to be used for diagnosing or replacing treatment from medical and mental health professionals.
Jennifer Leong is a registered social worker and psychotherapist with a professional goal to help improve and maintain good mental health for anyone who is willing to seek supports. She has a great interest in working with people from all walks of life who are facing difficulty with various life adjustments, stresses, and loss. She also works with people struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma, abuse, issues with boundaries, issues with self-esteem and self-worth, past difficulties and interpersonal relationships.
She would love to hear from you, connect on Instagram @jenniferleong.msw