Your brain is incredible. It can help you write sassy tweets, make you cry over HBO season finales, learn Latin, do crosswords and keep you standing upright. But sometimes, when you find yourself sliding into a stress spiral over an unanswered text or become crippled with worry about an upcoming work presentation, the human brain can be a pain in the butt.
So, what is anxiety? Anxiety is more than just stress and worry; it’s an overwhelming and lingering unease, showing up as intrusive thoughts, worse-case-scenario thinking, nausea, breathlessness, chest tightness and panic attacks. Specific events can trigger anxiety, but sometimes it rears its ugly head for no obvious reason – which can make it even more confusing.
Understanding the mind is key to understanding anxiety because that’s where it stems from. In fact, anxiety evolved as an adaptive mechanism in order to help humans. Our primitive ancestors survived in hunter-gatherer tribes, where threats loomed large and humans were exposed and vulnerable. In order to survive, people needed to be hyper-vigilant and quick in response to danger. This fast-response mechanism was born in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which activates the sympathetic nervous system, helping to prime the body to either fight or flee. At this point, the brain releases adrenal hormones into the bloodstream, increasing the heart rate, increasing respiration, stimulating sweat glands and inhibiting digestion, thereby boosting the body’s alertness.
Fast forward a couple of hundred thousand years and our sympathetic nervous systems are working well, perhaps too well. Nowadays, our minds have begun interpreting relatively benign situations and negative ruminations as life-threatening scenarios and, as a result, over-stimulating our nervous system’s stress response. When the mind is constantly trapped in cycles of worry and distress, our bodies remain in high-alert mode – and this really takes a toll on our physical and mental wellbeing.
The key to managing anxiety in the long term is building resilience. Resilience is the ability to adapt to adversities, recover quickly from difficulties and cope with the stress of everyday living. It’s a skill that can be learned, and one that helps calm down the constant triggering of the body’s stress response – in other words, convincing your brain that everything is okay. For a little resilience-building exercise, think of a situation that makes you anxious and ask yourself the following questions:
Is there any factual evidence to validate your negative thoughts and beliefs? Remember that thoughts aren’t always true, so examine your past experiences.
Are there alternative ways of looking at the situation?
What is the worst-case scenario if this thought is true?
What is the usefulness of these beliefs? Are they motivating? Do they help or hinder you?
Anxiety is exhausting but knowing where it comes from and how you can manage it can help loosen its hold on you. You might never be free of anxiety for good – and that’s okay. Anxiety is not all bad; it has its part to play in keeping us safe and drives us towards taking action. Use the below tips and tricks to help change your relationship with anxiety and keep practising resilience. Remember, you will still do great things despite your anxiety.
Tips for dealing with anxiety
It may sound basic but deep breathing is key to telling your wild mind that it’s not in real and present danger, thereby activating your nervous system’s rest response. Try breathing in to the count of four. Hold for one. And exhale to the count of six. Repeat as necessary.
Dropping an anchor
When anxiety overwhelms you, it can be helpful to pull yourself out of your head and into your physical senses. Take a minute to look around your immediate environment and notice five things you can see, four things you can touch (or feel on your skin), three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.
Call it out
Start cultivating awareness of what anxiety feels like in your body and looks like in your mind. Then whenever it arises, try to call it out, “Oh, hey there, anxiety,” “Yep, definitely feeling anxious at the moment.” This will create distance between you and your anxiety and stop you from identifying too strongly with it.
Work out what’s within your control
Often when you’re anxious, you can spend a long time fretting over things you have no control over. When you’re feeling this way, draw two large circles. In one circle, write down everything that is within your control. In the other, write down everything that is not within your control. Focus your energy on the elements you can control and allow them to guide you to a single, concrete action you can take immediately. Turn over the page for an anxiety worksheet you can tear out.
Visualise your wins
Anxiety gets you into the habit of dwelling on the worst-case scenario, so it’s important to allow your mind to make space for potential positive outcomes. In the morning or night, take a moment to imagine a future in which you have achieved an important outcome or goal. Try to hold a mental image as if it’s occurring in the present moment and imagine it as vividly as possible. Where are you? What emotions are you feeling? Who is around you? Let it ignite your senses.
WORDS by Ash King
Ash King is a psychology researcher and content creator for The Indigo Project, a psychology practice based in Sydney that thinks creatively about mental health and helps people discover the extraordinary within themselves. She believes learning to manage the mind can be a fun and inquisitive process and that therapy is not a dirty word.