Written by Ivette Moutzouris
Anxiety…..this is a word we often hear now. Many Counsellors and Psychologists would probably agree that a large proportion of clients we see exhibit symptoms of anxiety. I’ve even heard primary and high school teachers say there are more stressed and anxious kids now than there used to be a few decades ago. So why the increase in people reporting feelings of anxiety and stress and what can we do about this?
There are probably many factors but I think part of the issue (particularly in western culture) may be the busyness of life and the expectations we have about life and ourselves. That is that we are constantly on the go with little time to rest, slow down and quieten the noise in our lives and in our heads!!! So how can we manage and get through life with less anxiety and stress?
Firstly I think it is unhealthy to expect that we can maintain constant busyness all the time without having times of rest and learning how to slow down. I have seen the benefits not only personally but also professional from my clients when they learn to say ‘no’ sometimes, when they delegate some responsibilities, when they learn to set boundaries, when they take some much needed time- out for themselves. Some of my clients who have presented as feeling very stressed and anxious have gone on holidays or have changed their lifestyles and as a result I have seen a fresher, happier, calmer version of themselves. Why? Because we all need rest and believe it or not we need it regularly. It is part of our make-up. Physiologically we sleep for this reason, we also have a calendar which includes weekends and holidays so that we can hopefully rest from school and work. The problem is that we have largely forgotten how to rest and have a tendency to use these times unproductively. If I asked how many of you do leisurely activities regularly on your time off to wind down how many of you would say that you do? Or instead do you spend time working on your laptops or browsing the internet for long periods of time when you should be resting, talking to your family/friends, reading a book, exercising, going outdoors etc. We live in a fast paced society but we are in control of our own lives and we need to learn how to slow down and make healthier choices.
The benefits of this lifestyle is a calmer self, and a calmer self is usually a version of you that has time to reflect instead of react and has time to learn, grow and enjoy life more fully.
Anxiety symptoms are not always bad and sometimes they can help us to be more alert for situations such as a performance or an exam. It is also our body’s way of preparing us for danger or a threat. It does however become problematic when we experience anxiety over a prolonged period of time or when our mind perceives a threat that does not exist. When this occurs it is important to learn how to calm our minds and our racing thoughts and challenge any unhelpful thinking patterns. As mentioned earlier it may mean that we take stock of how much we are trying to pack into our lives and make some necessary changes whilst also learning the value of ‘quiet’ time either through calming activities such as walking, yoga, reading and so on. This doesn’t necessarily mean that our problems are solved but it does help us to become calmer so that we can cope better with life’s challenges. Research in the field of neuroscience supports this by showing how our brain activity changes when our bodies are in a relaxed state. This is the reason why activities such as ‘Deep Breathing’, ‘Mindfulness’ and generally anything that we do that slows us down is so important. This calmer state helps us to think more clearly and then we are in a better position to work at finding solutions to problems or seeing situations in a healthier way.
Regular exercise has also proven to be an effective method for reducing anxiety. This is because of helpful chemicals that are released in the body and brain that can act as a defence against the physiological symptoms of anxiety.
Maintaining a healthy diet is important because of the effects that certain foods can have on our bodies and our emotions. For example drinking caffeinated drinks and high sugar foods can seem emotionally helpful when we are stressed but they in fact make our stress levels and anxiety worse because they stimulate an already highly wound up self. Even skipping breakfast has shown to be associated with a higher release of stress hormones.
Trying to maintain healthy sleep habits is beneficial as it allows our bodies to rest and our minds to consolidate and process our thoughts. Feeling rested generally helps us emotionally to not be as reactive during the day and helps with clarity of thought and increased concentration levels.
In general when dealing with anxiety symptoms it is important to deal with both the mind and the body. When you focus on working on these two aspects of the self you can make changes that will benefit you long term and help you to feel calmer and become more resilient when challenges occur.
Bourne, E. & Garano, L. 2003. Coping With Anxiety. New Harbinger Publications.
Arden, J.B. 2010. Rewire Your Brain. John Wiley & Sons.Inc.
Siegel, D.J. & Bryson, T.P.2011. The Whole-Brain Child. Bantam Books.