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How to cope with Anxiety

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural human emotion in response to a stressor or situation. A small amount of anxiety every now and then is normal, it is part of our stress response, and a way in which our body functions, however when anxiety becomes a feeling you experience constantly and/or severely, it can be part of a mental health condition like General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Social Anxiety Disorder, etc.


Bearing in mind that, just because you feel anxiety doesn't mean you have a disorder. So do speak to a medical professional if you are concerned about how often and the intensity of the feelings you're experiencing.



What does anxiety feel like?

Anxiety tends to have an impact on our physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioural responses e.g.

Physical - palpitations, feeling hot, sweating, shaking, tremors, dizziness, nausea, headaches...

Cognitive - worrying about small things, ruminating, getting stuck on an intrusive thought, worrying about the anxiety itself, your mind racing with 'what ifs'...

Emotional - feeling scared or fear, feeling irritable, feeling overwhelmed....

Behavioural - avoiding people, withdrawing, asking for reassurance, picking fights/arguments with others....


Anxiety will feel different to each person, you may find you have all of these corresponding symptoms or only a few.


For me, anxiety feels like a raw emotion; when it's intense it feels like it's a buzzing feeling coursing through all of my body, I feel like I'm shaking even though I may not be visibly shaking, I can get a chest pain which feels like a tightening heavy feeling, I get palpitations, and I can have an on set of dizziness. I tend to feel overwhelmed with my thoughts and unable to concentrate on anything. It's like my body and mind are running on overdrive and I am not in control.


When it's general anxiety on a proportionate level to the situation I'm in, I may feel my heart racing and I may shake but I tend to be able to slow my thoughts and body down to feel in control.

What causes anxiety?

Noticing your triggers can be helpful in managing your anxiety as you can have a plan for how to cope with it.


There are many things which can set off anxiety, and again this will be individual to you. Our past tends to have an influence on our ability to cope with anxiety - if you have had a challenging, traumatic, and difficult upbringing without any support in place then you will be more likely to experience anxiety on a intense level or faster than someone who had support in place.


I look at it in terms of our capacity. If we have been modelled and taught how to regulate and process our emotions growing up, our capacity & tolerance for stress and life events will likely be larger than someone who wasn't allowed/taught to regulate or express emotion.


Therefore, not only does our past have an influence on our ability to cope with anxiety, but so do our current life events. Someone who has a larger capacity will be able to withstand a larger proportion of stressful events than someone struggling with capacity.

Things like, our health, our cognitive functioning, our home environments, our working life, our finances, our family support, our friendships and relationships, and any addictions, all have an impact one way or another on our anxiety levels.


Holmes and Rahe, created the stress scale when looking at peoples health. They gave stressful life events differing scores on their general 'stress levels' and how this impacts us - https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-holmes-and-rahe-stress-scale-6455916

When I think of capacity, this is what comes to mind. Humans tend to have a reaction to change, even when it is inevitable. This reaction can be one of excitement and embracing or it can be one of anxiety and avoiding. If we then have multiple of these live events coinciding with each other, it will have a bigger impact on us, even if we don't notice or acknowledge it initially. Our tolerance and capacity for stressful life events will be different to the next persons, but as the saying goes, "there's only SO much someone can take before it breaks them".


On top of all of this, there can be the smaller day to day things that set off anxiety in us. For me things like having "too much" mess in the house makes me feel restless and anxious, having a list of chores but not having energy to do them, knowing I have to make an appointment - particularly medical ones, being out in public in busy spaces etc. When I think about these day to day type triggers they all have some link to past narratives I've internalised or linked to past traumas.


So, take a moment to think about how you noticed anxiety when you were younger - was it something you noticed? Was it something that was feared and avoided or was it something you were supported with and had soothed?

And now think to your current life, do you express your anxiety? Do you notice it? What does it feel like? Do you notice anything going on in life which is setting it off?


When we learn to notice the triggers, we can learn how to soothe ourselves in stressful and anxiety provoking situations. Until then, we can look at how to manage the anxiety when it occurs.

How to cope?

As with all coping methods, it is not a one size fits all and so you might find everything recommend works for you, you might struggle to find something that works, or somethings might work one day and not the next. The main thing is to keep trying - some methods take time and practice, so don't write something off after one try.


Beathing - Yes, yes, I know, breathing techniques are pushed a lot, but they can be really effective in grounding you and slowing your body and mind down. There is the "box breathing technique" which is to:

  1. Breathe in through your nose deeply for X amount of seconds, filling your stomach.

  2. Hold this breath for X amount of seconds

  3. Breathe our your mouth in a controlled flow for X amount of seconds

  4. Hold your empty stomach and lungs for X amount of seconds

  5. And repeat for as long as is needed.


The reason I have written "X amount of seconds" is because this will be different for your own capacity. I don't have the best lungs and so for me I tend to do 4, 4, 4, 2 and I find this works well for me, but this might be too short a time for others. So play around with it to find something which is comfortable and works for you.


I would also suggest doing breathing in a controlled and mindful way to help slow the mind down. Bring your attention to your breath rather than your thoughts. Focus on the counting and the feeling of breathing. Ideally you would be in a quiet and comfortable space too, however this is also useful to do in the moment and so can be done wherever you need to.


Grounding - Similarly, to breathing techniques, grounding is a way to bring your focus back to the here and now within yourself. The most popular grounding technique for anxiety is the 5,4,3,2,1 method.

  • Name 5 things you can see

  • Name 4 things your can touch

  • Name 3 things you can hear

  • Name 2 things you can smell

  • Name 1 thing you can taste

This brings the focus onto your current immediate environment as well as distracting your mind by getting it to focus on a task. It also engages your body to ground it by engaging each of your senses.


Movement - For me breathing and movement are my most effective ways of coping with anxiety in the moment and I tend to combine them. That buzzing feeling is lessened by doing some gentle stretching or standing up and shaking all of my body.


Yoga can be a gentle way of doing this, especially if like me you aren't able to do exertive exercises due to chronic illness - https://psychcentral.com/anxiety/yoga-for-anxiety


Alternatively, any type of exercise can be useful in helping ease off some of the symptoms of anxiety - running, walking, boxing, rowing, dancing, martial arts, pole dancing etc.


Writing - journaling, free writing, letter writing, mood boards, bullet journals etc. all of these ways of writing and expressing yourself can help ease the feeling of anxiety. There is something in the process of getting it out of your head and into written words which is cathartic. I prefer to do this the old fashioned way with pen and paper, but I do also find that typing out notes to myself on my phone is just as effective and accessible when on the move.


Talking - talking to someone helps. This can be your support network of friends, family, colleagues, managers, unions, HR etc. or it can be a professional like a therapist or your GP. Check out my availability here - www.emilyduffytherapy.co.uk/book-online


Relaxing - meditation, yoga, bubble baths, naps, etc. Being able to calm your mind can help ease anxiety. If you find your mind racing too much try a transition exercise to try and train your mind into shifting states:

What my colleague called the "Power Animal" technique:

  • Imagine your anxious state - describe it.

  • Now think of an animal that resonates with this state of being

  • Imagine your relaxed, calm state - describe it.

  • Now think of an animal which resonates with this state of being.

  • When your feeling anxious picture your anxious animal, now slowly breathe into the belly of your calming/power animal.

    • e.g. for me, my worked up anxious state is a crocodile, it feels rigid and hard to move, I feel stuck in myself but going too fast at the same time. It feels vicious and on the attack.

    • But my chilled out relaxed animal is a sloth. It's slow, peaceful, resting, sleepy, doing its own thing.

    • So when I get stressed out I imagine myself as that crocodile, rigid and stuck, but then I do some deep breathing, allowing the air to fill my belly and picturing it changing into the big sloth belly, I loosen up and inhabit that animal "form".


All of these ways of coping are all well and good for the short term anxiety, but longer term and intense anxiety will need a mix of coping techniques as well as some practical support too - which can be done in therapy or by yourself with support from others.


Break things down into small manageable chunks - try to reduce the overwhelm and take things one step at a time, starting with the smallest of steps. If you're too anxious to leave your house and see other people, the first step might just be thinking about what you would wear. And slowly over time you would build these steps up.


Set aside time to worry - If you are ruminating all the time over everything, challenge yourself to only have 30 minutes a day to focus on these worries. Plan that time and set it aside. If you start to notice you are ruminating outside of this time, try to acknowledge the thought and tell yourself to focus on it later and bring your focus back to whatever you are doing in the 'here and now'.


Try to think about your situation with compassion and a different perspective -Take a step back from yourself and ask yourself what would you tell a friend if they came to you with this worry?


Would you like more suggestions? Download my Coping Plan here.


Essentially you have a few steps in how to cope with your anxiety on a whole:

  • Understand your anxiety - speak to your GP and/or mental health professional for support in doing this.

  • Learn how to cope with it - find healthy ways in which you can ease your anxiety symptoms

  • Learn how to manage it - find ways to reduce the stressors and situations setting off your anxiety


Some final notes...

Crying is a natural regulation response, you're allowed to cry!


You can't do everything, all the time, at 100% at least not for long. Remember it's good to rest.


You are human, you are not perfect. Try to give yourself some grace and compassion 💚



Anything else you would add, let me know in the comments :)


Further Reading:

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