Here are some of our top tips to help with anxiety.
- Be aware
Generally it helps to learn a bit about anxiety and panic and to realise that some of it is shared by all of us. When it does get out of control it still helps to know it is a normal body process, which is just happening too strongly when you don't want it.
Recognising the feeling, naming what is happening to you and allowing a bit of time for it to pass sounds too simple but does often help. People who suffer from problems with anxiety usually become anxious about being anxious, and so a feedback loop develops which makes it much worse. If you can just notice and name it and just keep breathing, that usually helps.
Read more and watch a short video on the therapy model: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
- Exercise regularly
This won't 'solve' anxiety but it can help to release the physical tension that goes with it. The usual guideline is to do at least thirty minutes three times per week, with your heart rate raised. This might be jogging, riding a bike, going to a gym or just walking at a brisk pace. Exercise seems to shift the body out of the 'fight or flight' state and bring it back to a more normal resting state. It tends to 'flush' through the body chemicals like adrenalin that go with anxiety, and to release a few endorphins, one of the body's 'feel good' chemicals.
- Learn and practice new skills
Often at university anxiety can be attached directly to having a deficit in skills, or having under-developed skills in an an area of learning. To explain this clearly people generally feel increased anxiety when the performance standard required is beyond their current skills or repertoire. The only way to address this is to 'face it', learn the needed skill, and seek the help to do this if necessary; this may be help from a tutor, counsellor, study skills expert, friend or through research. Regardless of where you seek help you will also need to practice the new skill to embed it into your mental repertoire.
The idea of learning and matching skill level to tasks links to the concept of 'Flow' ( Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, 1997, BasicBooks, New York) Flow is the state of absorption people can achieve when they are totally involved in a task; this happens optimally when your skill level matches the challenge of a task. When things are mismatched i.e. the challenge is too high or too low, you will become either anxious in relation to a task which is too much of a 'mental stretch' or bored if the task is below your skill level. This is explained further in the Thrive section, Engagement; click on the word flow above to take you there!
Taking practical steps can also help. Check your work-load and make sure you are not overloaded with study, work or with things that are emotionally demanding. Doing too much for too long without proper breaks can tend to build up stress and lead to anxiety. Taking some breaks and balancing your schedule can help.
- Learn a relaxation technique
Find something that works for you such as meditation, visualisation or a mindfulness exercise. We will include links to exercises on our front page and will increase the number of options gradually over time. As a starting point look at some of the ideas we have on mindfulness under the Positive Emotions and Body Bits sections of Thrive.
- Think about thinking
Usually when people are getting very anxious there is an initial anxious feeling which leads to a whirlpool of anxious thoughts, which leads to a massively increased anxious feeling. It can help to acknowledge that there is some anxiety, but then to stop the anxious thoughts that follow on from it. Try to notice the thoughts and let them pass, (it can help to picture thoughts as cars driving past your house or clouds passing overhead) or have something positive to say to yourself, or remind yourself of what your goals are in the situation so you can focus on them.
- Test yourself 'gently' in stressful situations
To do this in a clinical setting you would work with a counsellor over period of time to work out how you can gradually build up your resilience to the things you fear. It can work to trial yourself on smaller tasks and ‘sit with' your anxiety- noting that it goes away gradually and doesn't actually harm you. ( Please note: if someone has a heart condition it is recommended they seek medical advice before experimenting with allowing increased anxiety levels).
- Get help
Counselling and therapy are generally very helpful for overcoming anxiety and panic attacks. This usually involves looking at the thoughts that are happening with the anxiety, ways of changing unhelpful thoughts or strategies, ways of recognising strengths you can draw upon and ways of relaxing. It often then involves taking small steps to face whatever triggers the anxiety in a safe and controlled way, as suggested above. This sort of help is available at the University Counselling Centre.
For severe anxiety some people find medication helpful and speaking with a GP can be a good idea. Anxiety can sometimes be affected by physical conditions and talking with a doctor can help respond to this, or to rule it out.
- Stopping 'catastrophic thoughts'
'Catastrophising' is imaging the worst will happen and ruminating obsessively about this. We all want to have some sense that we can control our future and one way we think we may do this is by imagining the possibilities and preparing ourselves. To deal with 'catastrophising' try the following exercise. (Adapted from Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life's Hurdles, 2003, Three Rivers Press).
- Write down the absolute worst case scenario (your catastrophic thought/s).
- Then write down the perfect or best case scenario (even if unlikely).
- Finally list the most likely outcome.
- You can now look at aspects of the best and worst case scenarios and see if there is anything you realistically need to think about, in terms of the worst case scenario or can aim towards, in relation to the best case scenario.