I have many conversations each week about anxiety, stress and worry. Often, my clients or my students are asking me how they can get rid of anxious thoughts, or how they can be ‘normal’. Many of them are surprised when I point out that a certain amount of anxiety IS normal, in fact it is an essential part of being human. In this week’s blog, I want to help you understand what’s happening when you encounter normal everyday anxiety, and help you stop being stressed about stress.
Let’s get Primitive
It all starts with the early humans (think caveman and his tribe). The evolution of our brains around this time is undoubtedly what kept us alive, as we were able to compute and react to the potential dangers all around us. We were able to stay alert for the bear at the river, the wolf at the entrance to the cave, the threat of the other tribes, or the potential for the campfire to go out.
The trouble is, this primitive brain is very much with us now, only in modern times it can become quite overwhelming. Instead of bears and wolves, we are faced with money worries, peer pressure, social media, work challenges, and even global pandemics and ecological collapse. Our brains are so over-worked, and under so much constant stress with all the things that could potentially go wrong, that we can become frazzled and unable to cope.
On the flip side, we do still need our anxiety in the modern world. Feeling stress generates adrenaline and cortisol, which are key to our fight or flight mechanism. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to react when a real danger does appear. It is also used every day by athletes and performers who harness this energy to give themselves a boost just at the right time. We all use it at key times ourselves – think about when you have to make a speech, or just rush around all day getting things done. Many people say that they work better when they have a deadline to meet: this is just stress by another name!
How do I know if it is problem?
So if anxiety and stress are part of everyday life, how do you know when things are getting a bit out of hand?
First of all, you can start by noticing just how often you are anxious, and whether you can understand what has triggered it or not. Some of the symptoms of anxiety include:
- Trouble sleeping
- Dry mouth
- Stomach problems
- Heart rate increasing
- Shaking or trembling
- Confusion or finding it hard to think straight
You should also notice if there are thoughts that go along with these physical issues. Typically, they might be thoughts like “I can’t cope”, or thinking something bad will happen. Many people find that it is the thoughts that can be overwhelming, and very hard to ignore.
If you notice that you are feeling and thinking like this more than usual, or so often that it is impacting on your daily life, then it might be time to seek help by talking to your GP or trying counselling.
The key to working with anxiety is to make sure that you can find a balance. Just as it is absolutely normal in the ups and downs of life to feel stressed or anxious at certain times, it is equally possible to learn ways to help yourself feel more calm and in control.
Your body even produces a chemical that can counteract the effects of adrenaline and cortisol, and that is oxytocin. This is the hormone produced when you feel safe and secure, and the good news is that you can create daily practices to get more of this lovely stuff flowing through your body. One of the best ways is gratitude practice – check out my last blog for some info on being thankful.
Alternatively, you can practice getting in control of your thoughts by accepting them and letting them go. You cannot stop your brain from working, and you really wouldn’t want to. Instead, you can notice your thoughts, and decide whether you want to act on them or not.
You are not your thoughts
Remember: your thoughts are just thoughts. They are not necessarily true, or factually correct, or helpful. You can try seeing them as clouds passing by, passengers on a bus, or even a radio always playing in the background. When you have an anxious thought, check if you want to go along with it or not. Observe it, and decide if it is helpful right now. If not, let it go.
It takes some practice, but this exercise of ‘defusing’ your thoughts can be really useful in gaining more control, without struggling against yourself. It is about accepting your brain, and all the good and not-so-good stuff it does. You have the power to unhook from your anxieties, and still appreciate your brain for trying!