While we have come to think of anxiety as a negative issue in today’s world, it actually originated as an adaptive response to dangerous conditions designed to keep us alive. It is a survival response to the perception of threat. The problem is, way back in the cave man days a perception of threat was usually a physical and entirely life threatening one such as the approach of a wild animal, so our bodily reaction to tense muscles and hyperventilate to increase oxygen in readiness to do battle or to flee was appropriate. In modern society a threat is more likely to be something like a threat to our self-esteem or financial security or possible rejection from a social group, and in these cases our bodily response designed to send all available resources to our limbs is not appropriate, and worse than that, we may feel symptoms such as light headedness that reduce our ability to think clearly and successfully navigate the mentally and emotionally complex social situation at hand.
What’s worse, once we have had an experience like that, it is natural to then start to become anxious about our feelings of anxiety, creating even more triggers for us. At worst, anxiety about our anxiety can result in actual panic attacks which may be so severe we think we will stop breathing, faint, have a heart attack and maybe even die. How do we then feel about these episodes? Anxious. And so the cycle continues in an ever escalating spiral.
Until we break the cycle that is.
What can I do?
Understand what is happening
The key to breaking the anxiety cycle is to understand what it is that is happening in our body and to calmly accept it, and in this way the feelings do not escalate and we are able to create an opportunity to employ techniques to reduce the feelings of anxiety instead. When feeling anxious certain bodily sensations are common, including:
- tightness in the chest
- shallow breathing
- tensing of muscles
- racing mind
- feeling of dizziness or like you are about to faint
A large component of anxiety is due to hyperventilation and this is responsible for a significant number of the physical sensations experienced. By recognising this, and employing recommended breathing techniques when the symptoms first appear, it is possible to reduce the length and severity of an anxiety attack.
Face it, don’t avoid it
A natural and understandable response to anxiety and the situations that provoke anxiety symptoms is to avoid that situation. If, for example, you have been suffering from social anxiety and are invited to a party, it is possible you may decide to avoid dealing with the anxiety and symptoms by not going to the party. By doing this you may not have to deal with the uncomfortable sensations and thoughts that cause them, but you also are reinforcing avoidance as a coping strategy.
Using alcohol and drugs of any description to dull your uncomfortable emotions or to avoid thinking about things that are contributing to your anxiety are also avoidance techniques. If you are giving in to avoidance before long you will find you are cheating yourself of living the full life you deserve. CBT uses gradual exposure techniques to help you overcome any patterns of avoidance. Working with the support of a trusted friend or therapist is often helpful while working through these exercises.
Common types of avoidance include:
- avoiding situations
- avoiding thinking about things
- using drugs (legal and/or illegal) or alcohol to avoid thoughts or feelings
- using distraction to avoid thoughts and feelings
- coping strategies like never being alone
Challenge your thinking
To truly and effectively combat anxiety you need to tackle it at the cause, your thoughts and beliefs. By examining the thoughts that are contributing to your anxiety, identifying the underlying core beliefs that led to them and challenging the validity of these thoughts and beliefs, you will experience a reduction in anxiety. Using the Unhelpful Thought Record to challenge the thoughts that are contributing to your anxiety will help improve symptoms, however this should ideally be done in combination with work on any avoidance issues.
Common core beliefs that contribute to anxiety:
- “I must be perfect”
- “Everyone must like me”
- “Life should always go well”
- “I need to know it is going to work out”
- “Things have to go the way I want them to”
- "This is awful, I can't stand this"
Other contributors include thinking negatively and blowing things out of proportion (catastrophizing).
Make positive lifestyle choices
- avoid caffeine, alcohol, drugs
- get enough sleep
- regular exercise, especially cardio
- practice mindfulness
- practice relaxation techniques and/or calming visualisations
Please explore the links in the menu to the right for further helpful techniques for reducing anxiety.
Not every person experiencing a low mood is depressed, and not every person feeling anxious and worried is suffering from anxiety. These are common, day to day emotions that are a normal part of the ups and downs of life. It is when these feelings start to overwhelm us and cause problems in our lives that they need to be addressed.
On average, 1 in 4 people – 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men – will experience anxiety. Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. On average, 1 in 6 people – 1 in 5 women and 1 in 8 men – will experience depression at some stage of their lives. While depression and anxiety are different conditions, it's not uncommon for them to occur at the same time. Over half of those who experience depression also experience symptoms of anxiety. In some cases, one can lead to the onset of the other.