Coping with anxiety
Learn how to manage anxiety and take back control of your life.
Everyone experiences anxiety to some degree, which is perfectly normal and can actually be healthy. Anxiety and panic responses help us to identify and react to dangerous situations more quickly.
As Felicity Pienaar, occupational therapist at Akeso Clinic says, ‘Occasional anxiety is just part of life.’
But what if those anxious feelings and bodily responses don’t go away, even when there is no real danger? ‘Extreme fear or worry, panic attacks, phobias and an accelerated heart rate may signal something more serious,’ says Felicity.
Sometimes the reasons for these feelings can seem non-obvious or non-existent, as anxiety disorders aren’t based in logic, as author Sarah Wilson writes in First, we make the beast beautiful (Penguin Random House): ‘I now know that my anxiety doesn’t have to be caused by anything particularly fear-inducing. At least not to the normal eye. After more than three decades of it coursing through my veins, anxiety is simply in my bones,’ she says.
Common anxiety disorders
- Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Phobias, including social phobia and agoraphobia
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
You’re not alone
If you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder, you’re part of a larger group than you might have realised. Anxiety disorders are on the increase, with more than 17 million South Africans having been diagnosed, according to Allan Sweidan, CEO of the Akeso Clinic Group. The reality of this increase is further reflected in how much we’re spending on mental
health – in 2016, it was R2 billion, an 87% increase from the previous five years, says Discovery Health CEO Dr Jonathan Broomberg.
Understanding and acceptance
Anxiety disorders can get in the way of life, deterring sufferers from social functions, creating difficulties at work and sometimes even making people fearful to leave the house. Although they try to get rid of their anxiety and live a ‘normal’ life, trying to simply replace anxious thoughts and feelings with pleasant ones is unlikely to work. Personal and professional life coach Paula Facci explains: ‘Paradoxically, the more the person attempts to avoid anxiety, the more they will experience it, and the greater its impact and influence will be over their behaviour and life. It’s like we have anxiety about our anxiety. We make anxiety wrong, bad, negative and unwanted.’ However, while we may not be able to turn on or avoid anxiety, there are ways to effectively manage it and take back your control. You can learn to reframe your anxiety and accept it as part of yourself.
The STOP technique
Paula encourages people to accept and learn to navigate their anxiety by encouraging them not to struggle and fight it, but rather to start relating to it in a different way. Life comes with challenges. We can’t avoid pain and unpleasant emotions altogether, but we can live with anxiety by allowing it and learning mindfulness skills to deal with it. When you feel your anxiety taking over, Paula says, try using the ‘STOP’ technique to regain control:
- SLOW YOUR BREATHING. Take a few deep breaths and anchor yourself in the present moment.
- TAKE NOTE OF YOUR EXPERIENCE. Notice your thoughts, feelings and emotions and name them; don’t let them carry you away.
- OPEN UP. Make space for all your feelings. Breathe into them and don’t try and push them away or get rid of them. Acknowledge them, while being kind towards yourself.
- PURSUE YOUR VALUES. Once you’ve completed the above three steps, you’ll be more mindful. The next step is to respond to the crisis by pursuing a course of actions, guided by your values. Paula suggests asking yourself: ‘What do I want to stand for, in the face of this challenge? What kind of person do I want to be? How would I like to act, so that I can look back years from now and feel good about my response?
Are we hardwired for anxiety?
Studies are finding that the disparity between females and males when it comes to anxiety can be understood on a cellular level. The research suggests the reason females respond to stress much faster may be an evolved biological function – a heightened state of alertness developed to protect their young.
(Really) living with anxiety
In her book, Sarah discusses how her life changed for the better once she accepted her anxiety, sometimes even admiring it as an asset. She says, ‘When my anxiety gets bad, I stay with the pain. I don’t flee; I ride it out. I watch it.
I cope.’ By embracing her anxiety instead of turning from it, Sarah learned to trust it. ‘…ocean swimming and hiking – are what make me the happiest. And anxiety brought me to them… I’m getting better at knowing what to care about. Again, anxiety is my compass. If I’m anxious, I know I’m going the wrong way.’ Start with accepting your anxiety, face it head-on until you can reframe your relationship with it. Make anxiety a part of yourself that you understand and trust by ‘making the beast beautiful’.
Did you know?
‘Obsessive compulsive disorder exists in the same numbers – about 1.2% of any given population – around the world, even in the depths of the Kalahari.’ – Sarah Wilson, First, we make the beast beautiful.
Anxiety attacks and hyperventilation
Anxiety attacks take many different forms, but a common symptom is hyperventilation. Paula says, ‘When you breathe too fast, you change the levels of the gases in your bloodstream. One is carbon dioxide or CO₂. When your CO₂ level drops too low, it sets off a chemical chain reaction, which alters the blood flow around your body.’ This can leave you feeling a number of further unpleasant symptoms, including:
- Flushed in the face
- Tingling with pins and needles in your fingers or toes
- Tightness or pain in your chest
- Difficulty breathing
- Racing heart
These feelings can be overwhelming and can lead to more anxiety in the future about the possibility of experiencing them again. To get through this type of emotional storm, Paula advises ‘breathing for homeostasis’.
What is homeostasis?
Homeostasis basically means keeping the body in a state of healthy balance or equilibrium. This breathing exercise is different from mindful breathing, as it’s not about being present or becoming relaxed; it’s purely to restore the correct levels of CO₂ and other gases in your blood, to stop your body’s reaction.
Breathing for homeostasis
- Focus on slowly emptying the lungs.
- Push all the air out very gently and slowly.
- Once your lungs feel like they’re totally empty, pause for at least 1 or 2 seconds.
- Allow your lungs to refill, all by themselves, as slowly as possible, from the bottom upwards.
- If this doesn’t work, try and take very slow and shallow breaths, so you limit your oxygen intake.
- If that still doesn’t work, breathe into a paper bag. This forces you to take slow, shallow breaths.
FEATURE: CAITLIN GENG PHOTO: FOTOLIA.COM