Managing anxiety: a self-help guide to symptoms and strategies

For many of us anxiety can be a consuming and debilitating condition which is increasingly common in today’s high pressure society.

Anxiety is defined as an unpleasant emotional state consisting of psychophysiological symptoms (physical symptoms caused by our thoughts and feelings) which are responses to anticipation of imagined or non-existent threats or danger. Anxiety is the body’s natural response to danger, an automatic alarm that goes off when you feel threatened, under pressure, or are facing a stressful situation.

In moderation, anxiety isn’t always a bad thing

In fact, anxiety can help you stay alert and focused, spur you to action, and motivate you to solve problems. But when anxiety is constant or overwhelming, when it interferes with your relationships and activities, it stops being functional—that’s when you’ve crossed the line from normal, productive anxiety into the territory of anxiety disorders.

The good news is that by understanding your symptoms and trialling some self-help strategies you can empower yourself to significantly reduce your anxiety and reclaim a positive and healthier experience of life.

Symptoms of anxiety (emotional)

  • Feelings of apprehension or dread
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling tense and jumpy
  • Anticipating the worst
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Watching for signs of danger
  • Feeling like your mind’s gone blank.

Symptoms of anxiety (physical)

Anxiety is more than just a feeling. As a product of the body’s fight-or-flight response, anxiety involves a wide range of physical symptoms including:

  • Pounding heart
  • Sweating
  • Stomach upset or dizziness
  • Frequent urination or diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tremors and twitches
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia.

Strategies for managing anxiety

Evaluate: An initial helpful step is to evaluate lifestyle; ask yourself the following:

  • Do I make time each day for relaxation and fun?
  • Am I getting the emotional support I need?
  • Am I taking care of my body?
  • Am I overloaded with responsibilities?
  • Do I ask for help when I need it?

Consider: If your stress levels are through the roof, think about how you can bring your life back into balance. There may be responsibilities you can give up, turn down, or delegate to others. If you’re feeling isolated or unsupported, find someone you trust to confide in. Just talking about your worries can make them seem less frightening.

Strategy: Challenge negative thoughts

1. Write down your worries

Keep a pad and pencil on you, or type on a laptop, smartphone, or tablet. When you experience anxiety, write down your worries. Writing down is harder work than simply thinking them, so your negative thoughts are likely to disappear earlier.

2. Create an anxiety worry period

Choose one or two 10 minute “worry periods” each day, time you can devote to anxiety. During your worry period, focus only on negative, anxious thoughts without trying to correct them. The rest of the day, however, is to be designated free of anxiety. When anxious thoughts come into your head during the day, write them down and “postpone” them to your worry period.

3. Accept uncertainty

Unfortunately, worrying about all the things that could go wrong doesn’t make life any more predictable—it only keeps you from enjoying the good things happening in the present. Learn to accept uncertainty and not require immediate solutions to life’s problems.

Strategy: Practice relaxation techniques

When practised regularly, relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and deep breathing can reduce anxiety symptoms and increase feelings of relaxation and emotional well-being.

Strategy: Adopt healthy eating habits

Start the day right with breakfast and continue with frequent small meals throughout the day. Going too long without eating leads to low blood sugar, which can make you feel more anxious.

Strategy: Exercise regularly

Exercise is a natural stress buster and anxiety reliever. To achieve the maximum benefit, aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on most days.

Strategy: Get enough sleep

A lack of sleep can exacerbate anxious thoughts and feelings, so try to get 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep a night. Additionally, creating a regular routine where you go to bed and rise at the same time each day will help promote healthy sleep.

If the above strategies do not achieve the relief you are seeking there are many helpful forms of therapy you can consider. You can be guided and supported through a therapeutic process with a counsellor who is right for you in a safe and non-threatening way.

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