Written by Ross Abbott, Head of Health & Wellbeing.
It’s a battle I and many others face every day: You versus your brain.
Our brains are powerful organs capable of remarkable feats, but they can also be our biggest enemy. From making us fear a situation to succumbing to unhealthy habits, it can feel like our brains are working against us at times.
In this article, I will discuss some common struggles surrounding anxiety we face and tips for overcoming them so you can live a life that’s dictated by YOU rather than your most negative thoughts.
Everyone experiences anxiety and fear at times – these are normal and helpful human emotions that help us deal with danger or a challenging situation, like a job interview, public speaking, or writing this blog.
However, some people experience excessive and irrational anxiety and worries that become ongoing and distressing and impact their daily lives, a doctor might diagnose this as an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders, such as Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), Panic disorder (PD), Phobias and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can be caused by genetics, brain chemistry, life experiences or an imbalance in the brain’s chemical serotonin which acts as a neurotransmitter, carrying messages between nerve cells. An imbalance can cause problems with mood, sleep, appetite, and energy levels.
Stress from work or school, family conflict, relationship problems, financial stressors, and major life changes like moving to a new city or starting a new job can also be a trigger for anxiety disorders.
Everyone’s experience of anxiety disorders is different, we are all unique and not everyone who has an anxiety disorder will experience the same symptoms.
For some, it may be a constant feeling of worry or unease. Others may experience panic attacks, in which they feel an overwhelming sense of fear or dread. Some people may even avoid certain situations or places out of fear that they will have an anxiety attack, this can start to affect our prsonal life and the life of those around us.
Anxiety can also have a negative impact on work performance, leading to errors, decreased productivity, and increased absenteeism. In extreme cases, individuals with anxiety may be unable to leave their homes and may need to take a leave of absence from work.
Those of us impacted by anxiety can often have difficulty concentrating, due to the fear of failure. Even when the task is simple, individuals with anxiety may have trouble starting or finishing the task due to their racing thoughts
If not managed and supported, anxiety can even lead to job loss.
For some the first step to managing anxiety is to recognize when you are experiencing it, I often label the feelings and try to own them.
Pay attention to your body and mind when you start to feel anxious. Do your heart rate and breathing quicken? Do you feel dizzy or lightheaded? Do you get sweaty or have butterflies in your stomach?
Identifying the signs of anxiety can help us better manage it. If you find yourself experiencing anxiety, try deep breathing exercises, meditation, or other relaxation techniques to help calm yourself down.
Negative thoughts can seem like they’re taking over sometimes but it is important to understand that your brain is hardwired to focus on the negative.
Back in prehistoric days, it was more important to be able to spot a predator than it was to appreciate a sunset. Nowadays, this negativity bias still exists, but we don’t need it as much. This means that we have to work a little harder to focus on the positive.
We can question the negative thoughts, Are these thoughts real? Am I catastrophising? Do I have evidence to back the thought process?
Instead of dwelling on the negative, we can also practice gratitude.
Take a moment each day to think about what’s going right. What are you thankful for? What lesson can you learn from this experience? How will this make you stronger in the future?
It’s also important to manage your emotions in a healthy way.
When you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, take some time for yourself – even if it’s just ten minutes. Go for a walk, which can reduce cortisol levels by 50%, listen to music which can regulate breathing and reduce blood pressure, or read a book which can transport your thoughts to a far away land.
Relaxation methods such as yoga or meditation can help you to focus on your breath and calm your mind.
Aromatherapy can be used to promote relaxation and reduce stress levels. Try diffusing lavender essential oil in your home or office space. You can also add a few drops of lavender oil to your bathtub for a relaxing soak.
Spending time in nature has been shown to lower stress levels and improve moods.
Doing something that makes you feel good will help manage stress and make it easier to deal with negative thoughts and emotions and these practices can also help to improve your sleep quality, which can further reduce stress levels.
Resources to get help
There are a lot of resources available to help you if you feel like you’re struggling with anxiety.
Your local doctor or mental health professional: depending on your needs these services are trained to help you with your mental health and can give you medication or support such as NHS Talking Therapy www.nhs.uk/service-search/mental-health/find-an-nhs-talking-therapies-service.
There are also charities and apps available for anxiety disorders, which can provide support and understanding to others who are going through the same thing. The Calm Zone, www.thecalmzone.net. Sane, www.sane.org.uk. Anxiety UK, www.anxietyuk.org.uk. SHOUT by texting 8525, Headspace and Calm.
Our brain can become overwhelmed and stuck in the same thought patterns, anxiety can take hold and become debilitating having both a personal and professional impact, but understanding the mechanisms that drive our brain process means we can take steps to overcome it.
Getting to know ourselves better – including exploring aspects like our motivations, values, and beliefs – helps us to get in touch with what truly matters and make decisions from a position of power.
With practice, reflection, and self-awareness we will be able to use our brains more effectively so that we don’t fall victim to its whims; instead using it as an effective tool for reaching our goals.