Anxiety is everywhere. While most sufferers would prefer not to show it, or perhaps are not even aware of it, the chances are you are not the only person in the room struggling with its effects. Indeed research in 2017 by the UK Council for Psychotherapy found that there had been a 30% increase in anxiety among employees when compared to 2013.
The problem with anxiety is that often those suffering do not know what is happening to them, and even if they do, they are overwhelmed and have no idea how to go about ridding themselves of its toxic effects.
Lesson 1 – the rain barrel theory
We are all like rain barrels. Under stress, the barrel fills, and when relaxed and centred, the level falls. The problem for many with anxiety is they are unwittingly adding water causing it to overflow constantly. Only instead of water, it is adrenaline we are drowning in. Our job, therefore, is to maintain the level of stress at a level which is manageable.
Unfortunately, we live in a world, which while full of wondrous sights and experiences, it is incredibly demanding on the senses. There is almost no let-up, from morning to night. Whether it be your job, Brexit, the news, worries about money, health, or family, there is always a stressor causing adrenaline to trigger, but very little happening to move our stress levels in the opposite direction.
Whether we understand it or not, our bodies show us signs and symptoms that our rain barrels are full. We just need to notice them. We might start to drink more to cope with a stressful day, have minor palpitations, be overly tired, be snappy with our partner, feel dizzy and light-headed, start worrying about our health, or any other number of signs. So what is going on under the hood?
The role of the hypothalamus in anxiety
The hypothalamus is a small region of the brain which plays a central role in the production of hormones, amongst other vital functions of the autonomic nervous system such as blood pressure, body temperature, sleep, appetite, and fluid balance. One of the core purposes of the hypothalamus is to maintain homeostasis (balance) of bodily systems, including the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS); both key in anxiety. The job of the SNS is to prime the body for action through the production of adrenaline; a survival response essentially. The PNS is the opposite of the SNS, coming in to play when the body needs to relax and rest. Anxiety, and its other manifestations such as panic attacks, occur when the SNS is overly active in proportion to the PNS; in other words, the scales are tipped too far towards the SNS.
Therefore, we can see the overflowing of the rain barrel and the activation of the fight or flight response are one and the same phenomena.
Can anxiety cause me harm?
The next most powerful lesson in overcoming anxiety is realising that it is actually your body doing its job (perhaps too well).
The problem is that the very belief that you might keel over at any moment during a panic attack is simply adding water to your rain barrel at such a high rate you may as well be filling it with a fire engine hose.
So, the answer is no, an anxiety attack is uncomfortable, but it is not dangerous. And by realising this, a large part of the reason for the anxiety naturally falls away.
How can I empty my rain barrel?
The reality is, you can quickly learn to empty your rain barrel, and there are many ways to do so. The reason you haven’t been doing this, most likely, is because you are so busy and have forgotten to listen to your own needs. The good news is, you do not need to book yourself into the nearest monastery or become a yoga master, but you do need to find what works for you.
In reality, if you have been suffering from anxiety for some time, you may need to take a stock take on your life. Look at it from a 360-degree perspective. Look at your family, friends, hobbies, work, diet, exercise, finances, and another dimension which is important to you. Placing sticking plasters over your problems will only make the anxiety appear in another place and time – rather akin to a game of ‘whack a mole’.
You could consider any of the following:
- Learn to breath– often anxious individuals breath in a shallow way, but learning to breathe diaphragmatically can have profound effects on your ability to relax and cope with stress when it does occur.
- Scan your body for tension and systematically relax each part– from the top of your head to your toes.You can do this anytime, anywhere.
- Look at your diet– notice how when you eat nutritiously, and healthily, you feel more relaxed.Too much sugar will make you feel overwhelmed. Also, avoid stimulants such as coffee and alcohol. You may think they are your friend, but if you are regularly anxious, they are likely adding to your rain barrel.
- Exercise– it cannot be overstated how exercise is essential for relaxation. Simply by walking, running, cycling, swimming, or undertaking any other physical activity, your rain barrel level will reduce significantly. My advice is to experiment with what works for you. Strenuous and highly intensive exercise mayjust add to your stress. What exercise do you enjoy? And consider where and when you do this. Some people find gyms stressful and others find it hard to exercise in the morning.
- Meditation– meditation is considered one of the most effective tools for emptying the rain barrel, for the simple reason that, over time, it affords you control over your brain – preventing it from over thinking and analysing. By learning to wash away your thinking, your stress levels will become lower than ever before.
If you are still struggling with anxiety, speak to your GP. Too many are embarrassed to broach this subject with them, but the reality is, millions of UK citizens have anxiety, and that is only the ones we know about. It is a normal reaction to our modern world and lifestyles, and by learning to take control of the level of your rain barrel, you can start to enjoy life once again.