What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a common feeling which most of us will experience at some point in our lives. It can involve the following experiences –

  • Feeling apprehensive, tense, edgy and irritable
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Physical sensations such as butterflies or cramps in the stomach, trembling, a fast heart rate and sweating
  • Feeling out of control
  • Worrying that you are having a heart attack, stroke or other serious illness
  • Wanting to withdraw from family and friends
  • Having a fear of being judged unfairly, which can increase feelings of low self-esteem
  • Panicking and avoiding situations which cause panic
  • Wanting to avoid public spaces (this is known as agoraphobia)
  • Being tearful and unable to express feelings

 What can help?

There are many things that can reduce anxiety and make it much more manageable. Psychological therapies can help in developing coping strategies and problem solving skills. There are some medications which people may find useful, especially in the short term.

Many people find mindfulness techniques helpful for anxiety, and physical exercise can also be really helpful.

Other things that may help include:

  • Taking a deep breath
  • Accepting that you're anxious
  • Realising that your brain is playing tricks on you
  • Questioning your thoughts
  • Using a calming visualisation
  • Being an observer - without judgement
  • Using positive self-talk
  • Focusing on right now

Real life experience

The first time I experienced anxiety I knew exactly what is was – after all, I’d worked with loads of people struggling with it! What I didn’t know was how utterly terrifying it can feel. Pacing around the lounge wasn’t helping so I thought taking a walk through the nearby park might be an idea.

Big mistake. I can only describe the feeling as one of the world literally caving in around me. Each little slope was an unclimbable mountain; each person walking their dog was a potential serial killer. The sky, blue and clear as it was, was pressing so hard on my head that I felt ready to lie down and wait for the end. Somehow I made it back home and forced myself to sit still, drink a cup of tea and focus on my breathing. This first experience eventually passed, but it was only one of more to come.

I started wondering if these feelings of being overwhelmed and dizzy, heart fluttering and vision blurry were anxiety after all. What if they were signs of something else? My mum had not long passed away from heart disease. Dilated cardiomyopathy can be hereditary. I did all the usual online searches that people do, and it’s true, the internet offers a lot of good information, but plenty to scare the living daylights out of someone who’s already panicking about dropping dead at any moment.

Once my GP had convinced me that I was in pretty good shape and unlikely to meet my end anytime soon, I allowed myself to think about things that had helped me when I’d felt stressed out in the past. Getting drunk beyond words had worked as an undergraduate but wasn’t really an option now, but, for me, exercise, either a long walk in the country or an intense workout in the gym massively helps to clear my mind and basically exhausts me so I can rest. So I started to pay more attention to putting exercise into my weekly routines, stopped talking myself out of going to the gym and made sure I got out and about at weekends. Although it didn’t wipe out my anxiety straight away, over time it’s been a stark reminder of how I can control it.

When I spoke to a colleague about all this, he pointed out that the things that keep us right are of as much priority as anything else. So now my exercise time is protected time. Whatever works well to keep us going has got to be worth keeping.