This post is more personal than previous ones. The intention which created this forum is to help people and it is this which has motivated me to push through my apprehension and fear of judgement. If you feel drawn to reading this and are currently struggling, it will hopefully outline some techniques which you may benefit from. It might be an emotional read so grab yourself a cup of tea and do something nice for yourself afterwards.
Anxiety presents itself in many different forms which are individual to each of us. While I experience it a lot less frequently nowadays it still presents itself from time to time. With the tragic death of designer Kate Spade this week it is a stark reminder that our mental health is something we have to unfailingly give cognisance. When it comes to looking after mental health, complacency is not your friend. It is often when we feel great that we pay little heed to past negative experiences which may need attention so that they aren’t internalised negatively.
Firstly, it is important to have some understanding of what anxiety is and the impact it has on the body which is surprisingly very physical. The commonly spoken about ‘cortisol’ is a stress hormone which is often presented as having negative connotations. However, it is actually crucial for our survival. It is necessary for the function of our circadian rhythm which is how we know when to sleep, wake and run from dangers we encounter. Our bodies react to the cortisol levels present and respond appropriately. If there are high levels of cortisol present our bodies react in ‘fight or flight’ mode. This reaction in our body is meant as a short-term response to acquire safety. However, in the stressful era we live in full of rushing and running with little time for relaxation, the levels of cortisol in our bodies are increasing. This leads to negative outcomes such as decreased immune function and digestion. When this occurs cortisol prioritises the energy we have to ensure that we have enough to remove ourselves from the dangerous situation it perceives to be in. Overtime, this build up can have a very negative impact on our bodies. Opposite to cortisol, is serotonin more widely known as the happy hormone. Unfortunately cortisol is more powerful than serotonin and can deplete serotonin if levels of cortisol are high leading to increased feelings of low mood. Methods of increasing levels of serotonin in the body will be discussed below however are mainly through exercise and nutrition.
Like I highlighted, anxiety presents itself in many different ways in people namely, panic attacks, irrational fears, acrophobia, OCD tendencies, PTSD and depression. For me personally anxiety usually appears as an irrational fear that seems completely rational to me. For someone who hasn’t experienced this, it can sound ridiculous and something that can surely be fixed with a good dose of logic. This is unfortunately not the case and for someone going through this, the grasp it holds is immense. Active steps have to be taken to counterbalance its capacity to become all-encompassing.
These irrational fears have come in many forms; the most significant occurred when I was in the final year of my Masters in Social Work in my early twenties. I was convinced that I was having a heart attack however I later realised that I was however experiencing my first panic attack. What I found surprising is that at the said time, nothing specifically frightening or upsetting had happened. The cause, I later realised was as a result of disregarding a previous trauma and not giving it enough attention. In this instance, I went to leading Cardiac Consultants in the country because I didn’t believe the doctors that my heart was thankfully perfectly healthy. Despite their reassurance, I was convinced that they were missing something because the pain was so bad. In the end I was diagnosed with costochondritis (chest wall pain caused by the inflammation of the costal cartilage). I was in fact experiencing a physical pain but it was being caused by emotional stress as a reaction to mask a painful experience. Looking back, I have had many irrational fears throughout my life .I have only become aware of this as an adult because I researched and delved into the world of anxiety out of interest and now openly speak about these irrational anxieties. It is important to note that this was not always the case and the first few times I had this experience I was petrified to voice it, for fear of judgement. Over the years, I have learnt that talking about fears quickly removes their power. Many more irrational fears have loomed their heads but I have thankfully learnt coping mechanisms to prevent their negative impact. These tools are ones I wished I had known about earlier. So despite the difficulty in sharing this personal experience, I hope that it reaches someone who needs to read this today.
If anxiety presents itself in your life in whatever form, I hope that these tips might help:
- Get to know the form in which anxiety appears for you:
As highlighted, for me anxiety presents as ‘irrational fears’ but for years I didn’t identify them as this. I didn’t know that there was a name for what I was experiencing nor was I aware that it is something that happens other people and most importantly that there is a solution. Once I was able to name my anxiety, I learnt more about it. This knowledge gave me power in the way that it often does. It can be upsetting and frightening to admit that you are potentially experiencing a form of anxiety but once you admit and name it, it is the first step in owning it and recognising the individual way it presents itself in your body and mind. It is important to note that it is very normal to experience anxiety at different times in our life however if symptoms persist consistently for the period of six months or are preventing you from going about your usual daily routine it is important to seek professional help.
- Slow down:
I laugh when I write this one, as I recall a recent conversation with my mother when I was telling her she needs to slow down. She roared laughing at me saying if I slow down anymore I won’t get up at all. My mother no longer works full-time and loves her sleep. She is an artist and while she works very hard at this, I notice that she often finds it difficult to switch off and set boundaries around her working hours. The reason for sharing this story is that it is all relative to your own circumstances. Don’t compare your sense of progress to those around you. Your natural tempo is specific to what is usual for you and there is no judgment in that. The presentation of anxiety in whatever form is often a cry from the mind and/or body to slow down and give it attention. The presentation of anxiety in a physical form often occurs to grab your attention. Think about it, you won’t ignore a physical reaction like heart palpitations in the same way that you might brush off a negative thought. Your body and mind are sending a plea to sit down and give it some time to figure out what is really going on so that it can decipher how to manage these new experiences. So what does slowing down mean for you? Some methods I use to slow down are;
- Skipping a gym session and instead doing something which consumes less energy like taking the dogs for a walk.
- Dedicating some time to meditation or mindfulness.
- Practicing yoga (I find it is the quickest way to connect my mind and body).
- Cancel plans. This can often be the hardest to do but learning to put yourself first is an action which can really help create space for calmness. Sometimes we spread ourselves too thinly in an attempt to please everyone but it is ourselves that get neglected. If you work full-time and can’t take a break during the week, the weekend needs to be prioritised as being a time to relax, particularly if you are feeling overwhelmed
- Writing out your thoughts and feelings can really help you make sense of what is happening and the simple act of writing is very therapeutic in itself. Give it a go.
- Simply rest. Sit down and have a cup of tea. Slow down and take a few minutes for yourself. The housework can wait!
You know yourself what slowing down looks like to you. It is specific to everyone. The hardest part is to give yourself permission.
If you are someone who thrives on routine and consistency instead of berating yourself, welcome this coping mechanism to enable you to manage fretful feelings. Maintain routine and consistency for the coming days and give yourself a chance to overcome the negative feelings before you feel robust enough to negate from your habitual tendencies.
- Share your thoughts and feelings:
‘A problem shared is a problem halved’. This is really true. There are many ways to do this. You can share it with a physical person, a loved one, a professional, a pet or simply a piece of paper. The outcome is the same, negative thoughts are taken out of your mind and communicated decreasing their power over you. Never be afraid to ask for help. Everyone needs it from time to time.
This may come as a surprise but you can feed your body with nutrients which help to regulate stress and anxiety in the physical body. Stimulant foods and drinks such as coffee, tea, alcohol and processed foods should be reduced when feeling anxious because they cause havoc with chemical reactions in your body. These reactions may already be struggling if you are feeling stressed. An increase in tryptophan snacks such as oats, bananas, eggs, turkey and almonds can have a positive impact as tryptophan is an amino acid which is a precursor to serotonin which makes it very helpful in counteracting feelings of anxiety.
- Physical movement:
As highlighted in my previous blog post based on the benefits of exercise which I will leave the link for below; moving for twenty minutes a day can massively impact the production of serotonin. If vigorous exercise feels out of reach for you, with the way you are feeling right now engage in a downtime activity that might help you switch off like yoga, meditation, or a slow gentle walk by the sea. As above, cortisol is released so that we can run from danger fast therefore levels in our body deplete if we use the flight mechanism for the purpose the body intended by simply moving.
- Read a positive book:
This can instantly change your mood and shift your mindset from positive to negative. I keep my most motivating reads beside my bed so they are easy to grab on a difficult day. I am working on a blog post on my top ten recommendations for uplifting books which will be coming soon.
- Treat yourself :
Lastly but most importantly, be kind to yourself. Do something nice that you enjoy. I love clothes and dressing up so on days where I feel low, I will make sure to wear something that I feel good in. The simple act of washing my hair, putting effort into my choice of outfit and applying make-up instantly gives me a boost. I know one particular very special lady (My boyfriend’s mother) who no matter what is happening will always make sure that she allows time to get her nails done. For you, treating yourself may mean something different. Maybe go to your favourite coffee shop and have your favourite desert (Banoffee pie every time for me) FYI ‘Fade Street Social’ on Fade Street has the most delicious one in Dublin.
This all comes with a disclaimer and it is important to note that I am not a therapist or medical professional. I have had personal experience and as a mental health Social Worker promoting positive mental health is something I feel very passionately about. I am simply sharing mechanisms that I have found to be effective in the hope that it may also help you. If any of the above is something you struggle with and feel that you need professional help. Please see the list of organisations at the bottom of this page which provide professional support. Don’t hesitate in asking for help, there is no shame in it. We are all in this together; no one escapes life without hurt. It is important to remember in these times though, in order to recognise the highs of love and happiness we have to have known the depths of despair. I hope you have found this helpful and thank you for taking the time to read this. Look after yourself and one and other.