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Tips and advice for overcoming anxiety

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease that we will all experience at points in our life. It’s perfectly normal for anxiety to affect us when we have an impending exam, job interview, or money worries. But whereas stress is something that will wax and wane as the problems causing it come and go, anxiety can often persist whether or not the cause is clear. And some of us find it hard to keep these anxious feelings under control.

What causes anxiety?

Often anxiety doesn’t need a reason to rear its ugly head. But equally there might be an easily identifiable cause:

• Anxiety can be triggered by a significant life event like a difficult divorce or a medical diagnosis.

• A traumatic event can cause anxiety, and it is one of the main symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

• Anxiety can be the symptom of a phobia. Someone who suffers from claustrophobia, for example, will feel anxious if they find themselves in a confined space.

• Social anxiety - the fear of social interaction with others - is the most common anxiety disorder. For sufferers, it means being held back from enjoying or getting involved in situations like dinner parties, pub gatherings, or picnics.

Do you panic at parties?

Performer Byron Vincent tests out some self-help tips to deal with social anxiety.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

The way anxiety manifests itself will be different for everyone, but it’s often a combination of physical and psychological symptoms.

It might mean getting caught in a cavalcade of illogical and unhelpful thoughts: concerns about saying or doing the wrong thing, and a fear that the worst-case scenario will come true. Someone experiencing an anxiety attack might become silent and withdrawn and feel detached from the environment around them and the people in it as these thoughts take over.

For many people, the overriding urge will be to flee – to escape the anxiety-inducing situation as soon as possible.

Anxiety can also induce a panic attack – a racing heart and shortness of breath. This is often accompanied by a crippling, paralysing sense of fear.

A hangover from our caveman days

Anxiety is actually something we’ve evolved to feel. As hunter gatherers, we relied on an innate alarm system to help protect us from predators and other dangers. At the sign of a threat we would experience a physical “fight or flight” response: a boost of adrenaline would make our brain hyper-alert; our heart rate would increase and we would hyperventilate to boost the amount of oxygen going to our limbs – so we were better equipped to fight or run away. A panic attack is simply this mechanism kicking in.

But, as consultant psychiatrist Dr Andrés Fonseca explains, in the modern world “there’s no tiger in the bush”. The threshold for a perceived threat and the anxiety that follows has got lower, but our response has remained the same. And because we no longer need it (unless we’re going to flee or fight), that bodily response has no release – and it can feel awful.

How can we overcome anxiety?

Anxiety doesn’t always have to triumph. There are things we can do to let it know who’s boss…

1. Face your fears

The most common response to something that makes us anxious is to avoid it at all costs. But though this might help to ease the anxiety in the short term, avoidance is not the answer. The fear and worry will likely return with a vengeance the next time we find ourselves in the same situation. Avoidance can also reinforce the idea that this scenario means “danger”. By facing it head on, and throwing yourself into a situation that makes you anxious, you will find out whether your fears are actually true. And it will hopefully serve to prove that your anxiety was ill-founded.

2. Write your anxieties down

An exam is a high-pressure scenario – one that could affect your whole future – and understandably anxiety-inducing. But Michael Scullin – Director of the Sleep, Neuroscience and Cognition Lab at Baylor University – has a simple trick for alleviating exam stress.

In a recent study, researchers went into a biology class where the students were about to sit a high-stakes exam. Ten minutes before the exam, half the students were asked to write down all their test anxieties. The results were revealing. The researchers could actually see the student’s writing change: many went from ‘I’m going to fail’ to ‘even if this goes wrong it won’t be the end of the world.’ By the time they entered the exam, those who had written down their anxieties simply weren’t as worried. And they performed, on average, half a letter grade better.

If you are worried about an impending event, write down exactly what is making you anxious. It might help you realise that it’s not so daunting after all.

How this simple trick can help beat exam stress

Michael Scullin has a very useful suggestion to alleviate exam stress.

3. Stay in the present

Californian therapist, Dr Judith Bell, says we should see our brain as a fancy sports car. We don’t get taught how to drive it and it’s easy to fly off the road – so we have to learn how to help it take those curves and stay on track. One method for helping our mind to slow down and travel in a straight line is to focus on the present. Notice how you are breathing, how your body feels, and stop thinking about the past or the future.

Buddhist coach Alan Ashley suggests focusing on your bum on its seat. When you start to worry that it’s all going to go pear-shaped, come back to the strength of your spine supporting your body. Say to yourself, I might not like this very much, but I am still here and it’s bearable.

Connecting with friends can be a great way to share how we feel

4. Pull a power pose

Peter Lovett, aka “Dr Dance”, is a dance psychologist. He explains the intimate relationship between the way you hold your body and the way you think. A recent study asked test subjects to stand in either a high-power pose (legs apart and arms behind the head) or a low power pose (slightly hunched with arms crossed in front of the body). They were then given a risk-taking behaviour game to complete. Saliva samples showed that after just two minutes in a power pose testosterone levels were higher. With the low power pose it was the stress hormone cortisone that increased. “If you want to be more confident then you’ve got to stand more confidently,” says Dr Dance. “Changing your posture will change the way you think.”

5. Cut out substances that can make it worse

Smokers might feel like a cigarette helps to calm them down, but nicotine can actually cause anxiety symptoms or make them worse. Alcohol changes levels of serotonin in the brain, which can worsen anxiety. And caffeine is a stimulant that can actually trigger a “fight or flight” response in the body. If you’re affected by anxiety, stop smoking, cut down on the booze and opt for decaf coffee.

6. Seek professional help

Feeling anxious under certain situations is completely normal. But if anxiety is affecting your daily life or causing you distress then it might be time to visit your GP. There are psychological therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or counselling that can help you to tackle anxiety and get that fancy sports car back on the road.