Anxiety - Prevent it. Reduce it. Accept it?
A client of mine recently asked me for some tips to help with anxiety, to stop it becoming a debilitating spiral. In my clinic I see many women who have anxiety but I’ve also personally experienced how debilitating it can be. An anxiety spiral for me is somewhere between a small whirlwind and a big tornado. It starts from seemingly nothing, left unchecked it gets bigger and bigger and lurches around in all sorts of crazy directions. Like a tornado, it’s hard to control at this point and ultra destructive to me and everyone in my path.
While no two people are alike, neither is the way their anxiety manifests likely to be the same as mine, but I wanted to share these tips and strategies with you as these have helped me so so much on my journey.
Observing from my own experiences and from listening to others, I now categorize anxiety in 4 ways: Situational nervousness, PMS, the ‘not having a great day’ anxiety and lastly the ‘life’s not on track’ type of anxiety, or it can be a combination type.
When I start to feel anxious I run through this mental checklist to see what type it is. This helps me figure out why its happening and lessens anxiety’s staying power, at least for me.
1. Am I just nervous?
The anxiety trigger might an important interview or meeting or when doing something really different and challenging. For me, if it’s in the moments before a public speaking event or meeting a big group of new people, my introverted self can feel pretty wound up! Even if my symptoms (fast racing heart, maybe a little sweaty and swirling thoughts) seem out of proportion to the ’cause’ – I cut myself a whole lot of slack. I distinguish it as nerves rather than anxiety and accept (or try to!) that its ok to feel like this for a little bit, doing things that are scary can be a good thing! There’s nothing wrong with me. If it’s really bad I either give myself permission to not do it or if it’s important, commit to only doing what I need to then leaving. I almost always feel better afterwards for having done it and have more courage next time.
2. Is my period is due soon?
Towards the end of your cycle, the hormone progesterone drops to give the message for your period to start soon. Unfortunately, so does a derivative of progesterone, pregnenolone which activates a feel-good receptor in your brain Gaba-A. In a nutshell, towards the end of your cycle means there’s less progesterone, fewer derivatives., less Gaba-A activation and less feeling good. In some people or some months, there is no real mood change, in some its a flatness or an antsy aggravation at anything or in some people it just manifests in a highly strung, teary anxious mess. If I’m out of whack then I tend towards this last one. If this is related to my cycle, I try to not attach any big life meaning to it, accept whats going on is really just hormones, not me. not my life. and just manage it as best I can.
My advice, if this only happens rarely, just manage it as best you can and keep moving forward. If this is almost every month, time to sort those hormone changes! Here is a review of the current scientific literature showing Acupuncture and herbs can help reduce the symptoms of PMS by at least 50%! Also check my blog post on period pain here.
3. Is it for a short-term (often physical) reason?
Had too much coffee? Not enough sleep? Missed a meal? One of the aforementioned combined with a nerves-inducing situation? If so, that’s ok. Often knowing the source helps ease the angst. No, your life isn’t turning to ashes, you just had a very bad nights sleep or have an uncomfortable meeting to get through and it will be ok tomorrow. See below for tips to manage these times and get you through the day. That said if anxiety is popping up most days, its time to acknowledge it’s not a day to day problem but something deeper.
4. Is it for a bigger (legitimate) reason?
In her book ‘First we Make the Beast Beautiful, Sarah Wilson describes anxiety as a huge STOP! WRONG WAY! GO BACK! signal that our life isn’t on the right path and we need to address this in order to move on. That is actually a really good thing! If I can recognise that my current anxiety is about a bigger issue, I’m now really grateful (even if the timing is poor and the symptoms less than pleasant) that I have this inbuilt navigation system that tells me when I’m off course and need to make life changes. Often anxiety is just a result of us trying to squish down a feeling we don’t want to acknowledge, eg unexpressed anger at someone. Or something like a sad knowing that a job or uni course or relationship or whatever isn’t working out for you. You know it in your heart of hearts but don’t want to acknowledge it or take action yet – but you really do need to in order to heal and move forward on the right path… When I stopped working in a job I knew wasn’t for me – ta da! Anxiety went away for months!
It’s not always going to be a convenient time to stop, analyse your life and make big sweeping changes that day. If you recognise it might be a bigger issue, manage it as best you can but actually schedule some time alone (in nature!) to journal, contemplate and acknowledge whats not working for you, then you can make the changes to settle the anxiety long term. This is the ‘big fix’. If it’s a big issue that your mind and body are trying to bring to your attention, then no amount of yoga or mindful colouring books (or even Acupuncture or medication) is going to make a big difference long-term…
Practice basic self-care. Here are some things you can do to prevent/lessen anxiety occurring in the first place:
- Get enough sleep!! I can’t highlight this enough! Less sleep means more stress hormones which aggravates anxiety like nobodies business!
- Same goes for eating regularly and well. Eat lots of good slow burning foods like proteins and good fats with your veg and avoiding sugar and processed carbs. Skipping meals, having too much caffeine or having sweet foods and your blood sugar levels are spiking (feels awesome!) then crashing horribly down, which triggers more anxiety as you feel awful in that moment! Then you reach for sugary foods or another coffee. And up and down and up and down. Like a bad rollercoaster ride! Get off the ride, eat regularly, eat well.
- Also stay well clear of additives and food chemicals. Check the packets of everything! If you don’t know what an ingredient is, don’t eat it! Simple. Look at the ingredients on those deliciously deceptive marinated chicken skewers, or in those chips or margarine or even in supermarket bread – its a science experiment! Not cool. Download the Chemical Maze app to find out what that stuff is and how bad it is for you or just eat real food. Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut on this one. The reason this affects your mood so much? Excess sugar, additives, preservatives and other chemicals we ingest damage the good bacteria in our gut, which means the bad ones flourish, there becomes little holes in our guts (leaky gut syndrome) and our ability to make serotonin (of which up to 90% is made in the gut!) is compromised. Very hard to feel good and not anxious if your body is struggling to make enough feel-good hormones. When I eat rubbish (and I confess I do!) I feel rubbish. I know how much of an impact it has now so I do it much less often.
- Once your digestion is ok, help grow your beautiful garden of good bacteria in your gut! Make kombucha and/or bone broth or kefir and drink it every day – I do! Or Broth of Life powdered bone broth is excellent if you’re short on time or Probiotic foods is my fave general probiotic, made from real food! Add in sauerkraut or kimchi to at least one meal a day. Make your guts a factory for producing an abundance of feel-good hormones (your immune system will also get stronger!) Pro tip: if you’re new to fermented foods, start slowly and build up, or else you just feel gassy :/
- Meditate, almost every day. This isn’t a fad, this is ancient wisdom that’s still relevant to EVERYONE and builds up its power over time. Its also much easier to start, do and maintain when your not in the middle of an anxiety attack. Though it can be effective when actively anxious, I find its better as a prevention. Choose an app, listen to a youtube session, be ok with the fact that some sessions feel rubbish and your monkey brain won’t quieten down. Its still working! 10 mins, everyone has 10 mins a day.
- Spend time alone, out of your house away from your laptop and phone to just think. How can you know if you’re on the ‘right track’ in life if you’re just zooming from point a to b, racing the clock, trying to be the perfect partner, friend, colleague, employee, boss, sister, mother etc and just doing doing doing then falling in bed in an exhausted heap only to wake up and do it all over again?!?! Na…
Lastly, try to do something lovely for yourself (that isn’t junk food or alcohol related) each day so you feel full of love and have the time energy and desire to help others and make the world amazing. It’s the old example of put your oxygen mask on first so you can help those around you.
That said, you can do all of the above and still get anxiety. If you notice yourself spiralling try these:
- Take at least 3 mins in the sun! everyone can do that. even if there’s no sun, its still fresh air, some vitamin d to boost your mood and a break from your screen or work. 3 mins people, no phone, deep breathing – it’s amazing and a total mood booster
- Stop, tools down, make a cup of (herbal) tea. doing things with your hands gives your brain a break
- Go for a walk in nature
- Do some gardening. Pick a flower, taste a herb, pull off some dead plant bits, prune for 5 mins. again nature + doing work with your hands slows your thoughts right down
- Read Sarah Wilson’s ‘First we Make the Beast Beautiful’. Doesnt matter what you think of her or her quitting sugar message, this book changed my life. It changed my perception of anxiety, that its really a friend who wants to protect me, is an inbuilt gps system in case I’m on the wrong path and is a part of me I cant get rid of or medicate or will away. And now I dont want to…
- Slow deep breathing into your belly. Count your breaths up to 10 and back down from 10. If you’re still feeling anxious at the end of one set, do another or try another technique
- Mindfulness colouring books. I love them! My busy brain goes from all the thoughts in the world down to just, should I use purple or green next, so refreshing!
- Listen to a meditation app. Headspace and Buddify have some great ‘Im anxious right now and I need to calm down asap’ meditations. I have definitely put these on with headphones and sunglasses and done a little S.O.S meditation in public transport or in a carpark – and no one knows!! I’m currently loving One Giant Mind app for daily meditation. Again even if your brain won’t be still, it is still working.
- Do yoga. I personally don’t but I know many people swear by it
- Do Acupuncture, it can dial down your stress hormones (cortisol) and letting your mind and body settle. Here and here are some more research for you. Acupuncture is also great for just shifting that tight, stuck, churning feeling so things (internally then externally in life) can flow again. Doing this regularly, rather than only as a band-aid is more effective in my opinion.
- Do Yoga Nidra (a mediation for those who cant meditate!). All you have to do is lie down and listen and picture what it says to. Easy peasy! Youtube has loads of different clips. Whenever I feel down or anxious or tired or stressed I do this. This has absolutely changed my life.
- Journal. Get those thoughts out of your brain!
- Do Abhyanga. Its an ancient Ayurvedic technique involving slowly, lovingly rubbing body oil all over your whole body. Research it and do it properly or just have a shower, get out, pour some sweet almond oil on your hands and from your limbs towards your centre, massage oil into your body from tip to toe being as loving and gentle as possible. The sensation of touch calms the nerves on our skin and just dials everything right down. Then shower off the excess oil (no soap or body wash!) and gently towel dry. Again this is the hashed version but works for me!
- Ask for hugs! From friends your partner, your children your pets. It boosts your levels of feel-good hormones calming you right down. You cant expect people to read your mind so just ask for them.
Hugs lift levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin!
- Pay attention to whats around you, especially when driving and at the traffic lights. Of course, paying attention to the flow of the traffic but noticing what colour is the car in front of you? What brand is it? Can you see other cars of the same colour around you? Is the sun shining or is it covered by clouds? What is playing on your stereo? For me driving time can be spiralling time so paying attention to whats around me brings me back and quietens the chatter.
- Run a bath, get some relaxing salt crystals and light some candles.
- Sing out loud! In the car, when home alone (or not!) and in the shower – it stops the thoughts. you can’t sing and think about the past or future, you just can’t! Just pick an uplifting song.
- Cook a delicious, healthy, nourishing meal just for you. Present it beautifully on a plate (and sing while cooking!) Nourishing your soul and your body at the same time.
- Spend time with pets if you can. Hug your dog or your friend’s cat – boosts your mood by boosting oxytocin.
I now know that my little friend anxiety is my Achilles heel. It’s my canary in the gold mine, quickly alerting me when somethings not right in my life. Some people get colds or migraines or tummy upsets or feel constantly tired when things are out of whack. I’ve now learnt that if my routine (or life!) is on the wrong track, the first sign is anxiety popping up for ‘no obvious reason’. Although now I know either my routine or life is out of balance when this is happening. It sounds so weird but now that my anxiety is manageable and not around much, I’m actually grateful for it and no longer feel the desire to eradicate it – not that you can!
I’ve found you need a whole toolkit for managing anxiety, not just one or two techniques. Hope some of these short and long-term strategies can be of use to you too. Good luck!
ps. I get zero benefits from authors, brands or apps, just sharing what I personally love!