The Anxiety Toolkit
The Anxiety Toolkit
Published in Sunday Girl
Three years ago, I started having multiple panic attacks a day. It felt like one day I was a determined, fierce woman and the next day I was a meek, terrified child. Once it became clear that being anxious was my new reality, I did everything I could to manage it.
Scientists believe that anxiety and intelligence have evolved together to give us the best chance of survival. Both help us decide how to respond to the present, and how to prepare for the future and its possible outcomes. Those with high intelligence have a broader and deeper capacity to comprehend their surroundings, which can aid creative and intellectual endeavours. The grey cloud to that silver lining, however, is having deep emotional responses (enter, tortured artists) and a hypersensitive nervous system. That means the smarter you are, the more you’re at risk of developing anxiety and other mental health problems. For women, we’re twice as likely to be affected by anxiety than men. That’s internationally.
Over the years, I’ve seen a CBT therapist, a mindfulness coach, a life coach, and a hypnotherapist. I’ve bookwormed my way through psychological studies and self-help books and diagrams of the human brain. I’ve been immensely privileged to have access to these resources – resources that should be readily available – and I’ve built a toolkit of tips and tricks to help me survive everyday life. Sometimes, this toolkit has even helped me thrive. It is possible to live with anxiety in your periphery, not with it distorting your vision.
You can use this toolkit for any number of situations and can mix, match and alter them to suit you. There’s something here that everyone can add to their own toolkit, whatever the level of anxiety you’re experiencing. And remember, if something sounds a bit eclectic, just keep in mind that our brains are fantastic, magical, infinitely complex places. Sometimes we need to get a bit strange to feel more normal.
So, I bestow on you the anxiety toolkit, from one anxious soul to another.
Yup. One of the best tricks for dealing with anxiety is to say hello to it. Say it in your head, whisper it to yourself (my usual technique) or shout it on the tube if that works for you. By greeting the anxiety, you acknowledge its presence but don’t give it too much attention. You reduce the power it holds, and you may just fear it less.
Make a mantra
This is a phrase of self-kindness that you can say to yourself whenever you feel anxiety building. You might say: Hello anxiety, here you are again. This isn’t very nice, but I know that I’m safe. I’m not a failure. I got this. It also helps if you place your hand over your heart at the same time and focus on the warmth of your palm. This is a self-soothing technique.
Practice saying your mantra until it’s second nature. The goal is for it to become an instinctive response to nerves or anxiety – a tool you use without even thinking about it. You can also create mantras for any uncomfortable or unpleasant feeling, like stress or physical pain.
Get your boosts
Build a network of people who bring love, support, and positivity to your life. Be honest with them about what you’re feeling. Ask them to send you a few encouraging messages when you’re anxious or, better yet, when you think you might be anxious later. It can be much easier to hold onto positives when they’re in front of you, especially when they come from the people you respect most.
You might suggest having a code word, which simply means: I need you to be my cheerleader. In my support network we call it ‘a boost’.
Remember that you are also part of their support network. Being there for your loved ones not only benefits them, but it can help you see that you are strong and resilient, no matter how fragile you might be feeling. Compassion towards yourself and others is the greatest gift. Lift each other up.
A backpack of tools
I’m a Fjällräven girl, but any bag will do. Build a toolkit of physical items that help you feel more comfortable, and always carry them with you.
My physical toolkit includes a hand-held fan because anxiety increases body temperature. It also causes dry-mouth and dehydration, so a water bottle and sugar-free gum are a must. Fidget cubes and anything you can divert your focus to also helps. When I was re-learning how to use public transport, I spent my bus journeys to work slowly putting on my eleven rings. And of course, you’ll want music. Build one playlist packed with songs that make you happy and remind you of good times, and one of calming, peaceful music to help you self-soothe.
When you’re next anxious, try to take a mental note of your physical sensations and consider what might make you feel more comfortable. You’ll be ready for next time.
Change up your senses
Your brain doesn’t know the difference between a situation you are imagining, and one that’s actually happening. Modern developments in neuroscience show that if you change what your senses are experiencing, anxiety can be reduced or even fade completely.
If you’re picturing stumbling and bumbling your way through a job interview, try moving the image to the other side of your mind’s eye. I see my imagined experiences in the bottom right of my mind. When I slide the image to the top left or move it further away from me, it feels less and less powerful.
You can also try shrinking the image until it’s as small as a pinprick, and then inviting a happy, positive image to grow in its place.
If you hear phrases when you’re anxious - I can’t do this, I’ll make a fool of myself, I’m a failure - switch those phrases to the opposite. Instead, think or say: I can and will do this. I’ll feel confident and calm. My knowledge and passion will shine through. This one, like the mantra, is about changing the messages your brain is receiving.
This is one of my newest tools, which I owe to my hypnotherapist.
7-11 means breathing in through your nose for 7 counts and out through your mouth for 11. It doesn’t need to be seconds, just keep the beat. Try to sit up straight, breathe deep into your belly, and focus on the feeling of the air rushing past your nostrils and mouth. Do this six to ten times, or as much as you need.
This is another versatile trick that you can use in all kinds of situations. If work is particularly difficult, you’re in a challenging social situation, or you’re about to take an exam, take an extra minute in the bathroom to 7-11.
There are small, subtle things that you can do in any situation to bring you back to reality. Grounding is an amazing technique that helps your leave your mental turmoil and reconnect with the world around you.
There are five steps to grounding: find five things that you can see, four things that you can feel, three sounds that you can hear, two things that you can smell, and one thing that you can taste.
For grounding to work best, you’d ideally announce your findings aloud, but simply thinking I can see the clouds and I can hear the rustle of paper will still help bring you back to earth. If you’re trying keep it low-key, focus on things in your immediate experience, like the smell of your hair, the fabric of your clothes against your skin, or the lingering taste of toothpaste on your tongue.
You can translate grounding techniques to everyday situations where you might be nervous. If meetings make you anxious, take lots of notes. It allows you to connect with something physical while keeping your hands busy. It doesn’t matter if the notes are futile or even illegible, just focus on the feeling of pen on paper.
Celebrate every tiny victory
Firstly, stop comparing yourself to others. Comparison helps no one and, in the end, it hurts you and your relationship with the world around you. When you focus on your own victories, you’ll not only build your confidence but will be able to experience true happiness for others’ journeys.
To celebrate every tiny victory, try breaking down your day into only the immediate task at hand. For example, if you have an important presentation at work, you can celebrate each of the following steps: 1. I have faced the day by getting out of bed. 2. I have nurtured my brain and body by eating breakfast 3. I have looked after myself by taking a shower 4. I have prepared by dressing myself smartly 5. I have been brave and left my house, and so on.
Congratulate yourself on every one of these steps. Even if you didn’t make it through all of them, you’ve still rewarded yourself along the way. Those rings I mentioned earlier? Many of them were triumphant gifts to myself after small victories.
Exposure therapy has been proven to form more negative connections in your brain than positive ones. So, if there’s something you’re terrified of, forcing yourself to experience it might have an adverse effect.
On the flip side, avoidance of the situation altogether can cause your fear of it to grow. I stopped travelling on trains altogether when my anxiety was at its peak and over time the concept of getting on a train seemed completely abstract. I couldn’t imagine it being something I’d ever do again.
I decided to re-introduce train journeys into my life with one short trip at a time. Let’s call in Curiosity Therapy. First, it was a six-minute journey with a friend. Next, it was a fifteen-minute journey with a friend. Then, a fifteen-minute journey on my own.
Each trip is only what I feel comfortable with, and there is no pressure whatsoever to do it at all. Afterwards, I feel not only a rush of pride (which is vital for rebuilding confidence) and I am able to view my anxiety with curiosity. What did that feel like? Why didn’t that work? What can I do differently next time?
Lastly, be brave. It can be easy to listen to that cruel inner voice, telling you that you’re weak, pathetic or a failure for being anxious. You’re none of those things. You’re human, and that means fear is unavoidable. Invest in your mind and wellbeing. If your circumstances allow, look at mindfulness or hypnotherapy or whatever path feels right for you. Keep an open mind. Remember the journey isn’t linear, sometimes you’ll feel like you’re moving backwards again, and that’s okay. Practice compassion and kindness towards yourself and others. Re-wire that beautiful brain by changing what it sees and hears.
And celebrate every little victory. There are more to come.