If you're a serious anxiety sufferer, you’d do anything to make it go away. Chronic anxiety has a way of messing with your head and seeping in to every crevice of your life.
I know at the peak of my suffering, anxiety dictated where I went, who I met, what I wore, what I said, how long I stayed out, what time I got back, who I came back with and then some.
We can’t always rely on doctors to make the anxiety better. Either the treatments don't work or we know we need to learn new ways to cope, especially when the anxiety tips into anxiety attacks.
Here are three useful self-help approaches to treat anxiety.
'How To Treat Anxiety' Self-Help
1. Talk About It
“A problem shared is a problem halved”
Never has this phrase been truer than for those of us with chronic anxiety. To share it with someone is like a release bringing relief, acceptance and the knowledge that someone else knows you and doesn’t judge you.
I worked with Vicki, 36, coaching her through extreme anxiety. After a month of working together she told me,
“For the first time in my life I talked about my anxiety - my world didn’t fall apart. I always thought I had to keep a lid on it. It was like a pressure cooker. Anxiety attacks were so frequent I stopped going out. I had to give up my job. My kids looked at me like I was dying and it made them get scared. But when I started talking about it, it just started getting easier. During the worst times, I didn't think it was ever going to get better. I thought it was going to be like this for the rest of my life. I couldn't bear it. But today I am back at work and living a – fairly – normal life.”
Getting it off your chest helps to relieve the pressure. Why? Because having someone else listen to you about what makes you anxious and THEY DON’T fall apart helps you get a sense that your anxiety doesn’t affect other people in the way it affects you. By this very fact, it helps to question it then lessen it, preventing you from spiralling out of control.
For instance, Vicki would talk about the anxiety she experienced every time she met with her extended family. Anxiety would build up - before the event - until it reached a crescendo. Sometimes this tipped into anxiety attack and she would have to cancel. Other times she would go and stay in the bathroom if things got out of hand.
When she started to explain the sequence of events leading up to the anxiety kicking off, it was clear that past experiences with these particular family members triggered severe anxiety. Between us we were able to identify two things:
The origin of her anxiety which was that when she was a child she was told she was the ‘problem’ in her family and this kept her feeling that she was going to be picked on and criticised by other family members
The fear of this happening stopped her being able to see that she was now an adult and could respond to this misinformation from an adult perspective.
It was as if she reverted back to feeling like the abandoned, abused child whenever she went to a family gathering and that made her feel trapped which always triggered a huge wave of anxiety.
Things started to change when she began to see that she’d constructed a mountain of fear inside her head with very little idea that she could now stand up for herself.
We started to look at how she could reframe conversations by using her work skills (in her head at first) with a view to finally standing up for herself in the family.
We looked at things she could do to keep herself safe from harm using phrases like:
that’s interesting; I’ll take that away and think about it
- or -
thanks for telling me; I didn’t know you saw it that way
These are ways of deflecting unwanted attention or responding to critical statements with a firm politeness.
By reframing imagined conversations and situations over and over again, Vicki was able to see that her fears wouldn’t come true. This translated into less anxiety and she began to rely more on her intuition.
Anxiety feeds anxiety, even if there's a stepping away from reality. Our imagination is so powerful we can embellish what was a brief conversation into an internal war of words, usually with ourselves.
Sharing about the anxiety and all the spin off thoughts is like slowly letting the air out of a balloon; the size of the problem decreases with the release of pressure.
2. Find A Four-Legged Friend
It’s been proven, dogs help anxiety!
And the reason is so simple: petting a dog floods the brain with serotonin - the happy hormone.
Dogs are incredible and the possibilities of their gifts are boundless and life changing. So exactly how does this work?
If you’ve ever owned a dog you know the joy of coming home to a warm welcome, a big waggy tail and a creature that is delighted to see you.
Hugging a dog also releases the love hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is what makes us feel snuggly, loved and warm. It promotes a feeling of belonging and attachment. It’s the same feeling we get when we hug someone. And, HEY, we want more of this one!
It’s also interesting to be in the company of an intelligent creature that doesn’t allow it’s self to be caught up in our drama. Our insecurities, conflicts and worries have no effect on dogs. They neutralize our mood by making us feel calm and less stressed when we stroke them.
Dogs are pack animals and they have the ‘be social to survive’ mentality. For thousands of years it’s been acknowledged that dogs have evolved from wolves and helped humans to hunt, protect and guide humans in return for food and shelter.
Whether dogs are in a wild pack or in a domestic setting, their pack mentality has evolved to include protecting and checking. Dogs are extremely sensitive to our moods and when you talk to a dog owner they often say ‘My dog knows how I’m feeling and responds according to how I’m feeling.’
Having a warm loving creature nuzzling up to you when you feel down or anxious is very comforting and makes you feel as if you belong to something primal and profound.
Owning and caring for a jog gives someone is suffering from anxiety a Way of harnessing some positive energy for something outside of them. They make us feel important and needed and this can help as an anchor especially if we’ve been blown off course.
Then there’s walkies. In how to treat anxiety self-help tactics, exercising is at the top of the list and owning a dog ensures you get it.
They insist on being exercised and every time we take them out for their walk it’s one step away from anxiety. The satisfaction of experiencing a walk with a dog that is delighted to be in the fresh air is at the top of the list for special moments.
Whether they just want a slow walk around the block all they want is you to throw sticks for hours, the joy of bringing a tired but happy dog home is special.
Not only that but the increased endorphins help calm the brain whilst also oxygenating it. This means a happier dog owner too.
Acceptance is the acknowledgement of what’s going on inside us and a willingness to be with it right now. ‘Acknowledge and allow’ is the simple way of understanding acceptance.
Acceptance helps us to get in touch with a deeper sense of ourselves, the part of us we can’t reach when our minds are racing or when we’re running from despair. This deep self is known as the transcendent self, the part of us that holds wisdom – the wisdom that knows there is something beyond the limits of our feelings, thoughts and anxiety.
Research [i] has shown that people who suffer from anxiety benefit from the idea of accepting the anxiety rather than fighting to overcome it.
It explains that struggling to control anxiety interferes with every day functioning to such an extent that it moves away from any lasting relief from anxiety symptoms.
Moving away from the idea that trying to ‘control the anxiety’ can be extremely difficult simply because the anxiety can feel so overwhelming that the only course of action left seems to be to try and get rid of it.
However, it appears that this only gives the anxiety more fuel to add to the fire.
Learning ways of accepting the anxiety teaches us that thoughts are thoughts, physical sensations are physical sensations, images are images and feelings are feelings. None of these are going to harm us if we accept them for what they are: thoughts, physical sensations, physical sensations, images or feelings.
So, how to treat anxiety self help is to know we don’t have to like the anxiety to accept it. But resisting it will make it seem bigger.
For example, by judging a certain situation as ‘bad’ or ‘unpleasant’, it can make the anxiety much bigger than it needs to be. There’s a well-known saying: what you resist persists. Resisting, like pushing wet sand, is exhausting and achieves nothing.\
Another way of expressing the idea is by the equation: pain x resistance = suffering, which implies that if we want to alleviate suffering we can either reduce the pain or the resistance.
To give you an example, if someone cancels a date and we feel disappointed, we can either let our mind run into a negative feedback loop or distract ourselves by immediately setting a date with someone else, which is trying to escape from the negativity by ‘fixing it’.
Alternatively, we could accept it, and in doing so, let the internal conflict go – poof - like sand in the wind.
Accepting an anxious feeling doesn’t mean that we have to feel that way forever or that we will be passive and not take action that might be needed. Acceptance means to become more aware of the reality of ‘what is’ in the present moment. Being more open and honest with the present moment creates the possibility of healing it faster and with compassion.
For example, accepting anxiety and perhaps writing about it, instead of trying to push it away, will help to take the ‘sting’ out of it and make it seem more bearable.
It’s like releasing the pressure from an over-inflated tyre: the ride will soften and jarring decrease and the journey will become more manageable. Self-judging will also lessen, which automatically lifts the shame.
Bringing acceptance into our lives also helps to build a safe harbor that we can access and return to. Each time that we work through a difficulty, we release the grip of the anxiety and its accompanying hopelessness. In time, love and self-awareness grow to establish personal freedom.
Coming into the ‘here and now’
Acceptance helps to gather up our attention and escort it into the ‘here and now’. Bringing ourselves into this literally breathtaking space can help clear away the negativity that surrounds us when we’re anxious.
The idea is that by being in the present moment we are better able to experience the reality of our lives rather than give significance to our past and our unknown future. This can help us to alleviate current distress and hopelessness, which will give us the breathing space we need to take stock and fulfill our potential as a loving person who is simply anxious.
Being in this space is at the heart of healing from anxiety – fast. It helps us to mop up past regrets and calm the frantic mind, which focuses on a desolate future. It helps us to discover that we are part of something bigger and we can connect to it. It helps us to recover from distress and teaches us how to get a profound perspective on life that stays with us even when we experience the peaks and troughs.
Once we have discovered how easy it is to get into this space through acceptance, we have the tools to achieve our potential as warm, excited, happy, whole human beings.
This acceptance will help us understand that the answer lies within us and that we have the power to help ourselves move from hurting to healing and on to a free and fulfilling life.