Anxiety and Managing Anxiety
by: Jasmine Lem, BSc, Practicum Student
Anxiety is a feeling we are all familiar with. Life can be busy and complicated, filled with work, school, family, and so forth, and it can sometimes be overwhelming. Anxiety exists on a continuum of mild to severe and can be experienced through our emotions (i.e. worry or fear), thoughts (i.e. “I’m going to fail this”), and physical symptoms (i.e. racing heart). It is our body’s natural way of responding to stress. It can be felt before writing an exam, during a job interview, and in front of a large crowd. These are all perfectly standard stressful situations to feel anxious in, however, it is important to note that there is a very important distinction between feelings of anxiousness and anxiety disorders. Normal feelings of anxiousness are usually short-lived, happens on occasion, and typically do not result in any meaningful consequences. In fact, normal anxiety can be a good thing, because it is your body’s fight or flight response to a potentially threatening and stressful situation.
Anxiety disorders, however, are anxiety symptoms that become uncomfortable to the point where it interferes with your job, with school, with your personal life, and in general, daily life functioning. Anxiety symptoms can arise for no apparent reason, are chronic, and/or occur as intense episodes (Center for Addiction and Mental Health, n.d.). Anxiety disorders can be broken down into categories such as Panic Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Social Anxiety Disorder. The different types of anxiety disorders although may be experienced differently, can all be characterized by irrational and excessive fear, apprehensive and tense feelings, and difficulty managing daily tasks (CAMH, n.d). Signs and symptoms include anxious thoughts (i.e. I feel like I am going crazy), predictions (i.e. I will blank out during my presentation), beliefs (i.e. I am weak because I am anxious), avoidance behaviours, and excessive physical reactions (i.e. racing heart, sweating, shortness of breath). Causes and risks factors for anxiety disorders include traumatic events, childhood development issues, and family history for anxiety. In Canada, anxiety disorders affect approximately 5% of household populations, causing mild to severe impairments (Canadian Mental Health, 2019).
Nonetheless, whether you experience fleeting symptoms of anxiety or are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, there are many ways you can manage anxiety to encourage positive wellbeing. This is of course, aside from professional treatments and interventions for diagnosed anxiety disorders. There are many techniques and skills that you can employ in your everyday routine or when your anxiety flares up that can help you manage and cope with anxious feelings. However, firstly, awareness is key. It is important to self-reflect and understands what your triggers are, why they are, and how anxiety presents itself for you as thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Further, to be aware of and learn different coping strategies that work for you based on your needs. This allows you to proactively anticipate feelings of anxiety and engage your toolbox of skills and techniques to better help you manage them.
As mentioned, there are many techniques and coping skills you can use to manage anxiety. They include grounding techniques, and cognitive and mindfulness activities. Below are some techniques you can use. It is also important to note that not every technique or skill works for everyone and for all the time. You may need to engage in a lot of self-reflection and trial and error to see what works best for you. We are also constantly changing, and what works for us one day may not work the next.
Before starting and while executing any of these activities, focus on your breathing and take a couple of deep breaths. This allows your body to relax and encourages your mind to focus on the present moment.
Grounding Techniques and Mindfulness Activities: The act of grounding is to bring yourself to the present and focus on your physical body or surroundings, instead of the thoughts that are causing you to feel overwhelmed and anxious. One grounding exercise is the 54321 activity. This activity encourages you to engage your senses by acknowledging 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Another activity is holding and focusing on an object and making as many observations as you can of it. Other activities include planting both feet on the ground and focusing on how it feels, and savoring a favourite scent, whether through a candle or perfume bottle. You can also engage in mindfulness activities by doing yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises. There are plenty of resources available to you for free, if you have access to the internet, that you can use to follow guided meditation pieces, yoga videos, and deep breathing exercises. There are also wellbeing apps you can use that provide different kinds of mindfulness activities on the go.
Journaling: Journaling helps you to label and put into words your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. You can start a gratitude journal by writing about 3 things you are grateful for every night. You can also journal affirmations you can say to yourself during the day, such as “I am enough” or “I am safe, and I am loved”. Additionally, you can start a thought journal, tracking negative and positive thoughts you experienced through the day, identifying what happened and why you think you felt that way, and reframing any negative self-thoughts to positive ones.
Physical Activity: Physical activity can help ease anxiety because it releases feel-good endorphins. It also comes with many psychological benefits, such as increasing confidence. Consider adding a daily exercise routine to your schedule or go for daily walks.
Self-Care: It is important to engage in self-care as often as you can. Life can get overwhelming with all the responsibilities you have, and it can be very easy to forget to take care of yourself. Try to carve some time out for yourself by doing something you love or enjoy doing, whether that be watching an episode of your favourite show every night, reading a book, or enjoying a nice long bath.
With COVID-19, during this uncertain and unprecedented time, feelings of anxiety may be higher than it ever has before. With stay-at-home work orders and grim updates that seem to have no end in sight, it may be harder and harder to cope with anxiety or feelings of anxiousness. Good ways to manage feelings of anxiety associated with COVID-19 are putting structure and routine in your day. This means if you are now working from home, you can continue to do the daily tasks you would do as if you were working away from home. For example, getting up at the same time every morning, having scheduled meals, exercising at the same time, and changing out of your pajamas and into work clothes. If you are working from home, you may be stuck inside all day and forget to leave your home for some fresh air. Try to incorporate a daily walk into your routine. Additionally, find new and safe ways to communicate with loved ones. Constantly engage with your friends and families through phone and video calls.
Anxiety Disorders. (n.d.). Center for Addiction and Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/anxiety-disorders
Fast Facts about Mental Illness. (2019, June 26). Canadian Mental Health Association. Retrieved from https://cmha.ca/fast-facts-about-mental-illness