Often, it can feel like our lives aren’t in our control. No matter how hard we try to keep on top of our to-do lists, the pressure to succeed at work, thrive at home, stay up to date on current events, socialise, eat well and get enough sleep usually leaves us spinning too many plates and exhausted. If we’re not careful, we can find ourselves in a state of persistent panic, with our thoughts whirling and our bodies preparing a fight or flight response – but at the same time, feeling paralysed, unable to make decisions or carry out tasks.
This is anxiety – a common response to overwhelming or demanding circumstances. But anxiety in the modern age can often be a natural response to unnatural circumstances. We all deserve to feel calm, tranquil and happy. This might seem obvious, or it might seem impossible. But you deserve to live a life which restores more than it takes from you.
Our minds and bodies are inextricably linked. When we are under pressure or stress, we experience mental and physical anxiety symptoms, which then make it more difficult to restore our sense of calm. During stressful periods, it’s very common to experience changes in appetite, sleep or routine. These physical manifestations of anxiety are our bodies’ ways of showing us that something in our external environment is draining us and we need to make changes.
Think about a plant: when a plant is in the correct environment, with the right amount of space, sunshine, nutrients and without pests, the plant will flourish. If the environment is wrong, the plant will struggle. Humans are no different.
Why should we address anxiety?
The longer anxiety goes ignored or untreated, the worse and more enduring it becomes. Moreover, the mental and physical discomfort anxiety provokes often leads to unhealthy coping mechanisms, self-medication or addiction, and avoidance.
Managing anxiety, or even thinking about it, can be a challenge. Often, wanting to change or fix our anxiety can then become drawn into the mix of things currently making us anxious; it becomes another source of pressure. But, with the right tools and techniques, we can learn to manage and be in control of our anxiety, and get on the path towards inner peace. These can be techniques you learn independently, or you may wish to seek support from loved ones or a professional therapist. The key here is to release the pressure, like a valve, rather than adding to the weight we are currently carrying. By learning to truly accept where we are, we position ourselves best to make lasting change.
Anxiety has a great many symptoms, mental and physical. But what actually is anxiety?
Anxiety is a sign that your nervous system is dysregulated. When you feel fear or stress, your brain sends signals to your body which prompt a biochemical response – adrenaline floods your body, preparing it to fight, flee or freeze. Often, with anxiety, as there is no immediate problem which can be solved in an obvious way (like fighting it or running away), we freeze, unable to resolve how we are feeling and therefore unable to tackle the problem.
Anxiety can be seen as a sign that the brain and body are not aligned. In our modern world, there are a great many factors which promote anxiety. From conflicting messages in the news, to social media, to the pressure to continually achieve and improve, there are plenty of things to make us feel like we’re not good enough. Moreover, our lifestyles are often structured in a way that makes it very difficult to take the time to prioritise our mental peace and well-being. At the same time, we have never been safer – our access to social support, healthcare and information means that we have fewer physical dangers to respond to than ever.
As a result, our bodies are using responses developed over thousands of years, designed to tackle immediate dangers to our physical person, to try and navigate the stressors of our modern-day world. Although reconciling our environment with our desired responses can feel like an impossible dilemma, it is absolutely possible to create many moments of peace, calm and tranquillity within a busy contemporary life.
Spending time outdoors or in nature, connecting with other people, enjoying healthy, nutritious food, meeting our goals and overcoming challenges are all integral to our health. They are how humans have survived, and our brains have developed to reward us for doing them as they benefit our species. But many people struggle to do them every day. Our long and uncomfortable commutes, overpriced coffees, lunches eaten at our desks, and hectic work and home schedules can make it feel impossible to take a moment to enjoy and experience the world. In short, our lives often don’t promote mental well-being.
Anxiety also impacts us socially. As animals which have developed to survive in groups, our bodies pick up on signals from others – so if we are spending a lot of time around people whose nervous systems are dysregulated, this will signal to our brains that there is danger nearby, and we will feel anxious too. However, by engaging techniques which promote nervous system regulation, we can become a calmer presence not only in our own lives but in our relationships and the lives of those around us.
Finding inner calm through everyday changes
You may be surprised to learn that many of the most effective treatments for anxiety don’t involve any kind of medical intervention. If you are feeling chronically anxious to the point where you are unable to carry out daily tasks, you should speak to your GP to find out more about your options. However, for those who don’t experience chronic anxiety, or for those who do but are solely treating it with medication, there are a great many techniques which are incredibly effective for reducing the impact of stressful situations on our mental state.
If we think of anxiety as a response to something being or feeling wrong, out of place or overwhelming, then it makes sense that treating anxiety would primarily focus on learning to dissuade our brains from the notion that they’re in danger. Anxiety is a holistic condition; its symptoms impact our brains and bodies. It therefore makes sense to treat anxiety holistically, using techniques which will regulate both our conscious thoughts and our bodies’ responses to those thoughts.
Breathing for calm
One of the most common physical symptoms of anxiety is shallow or uneven breathing. This can be extreme, as in cases of panic attacks, but it can also simply mean that we go about our day without taking a full breath in and out. By spending a few minutes doing breathing exercises, or simply breathing deeply, we can counteract our body’s stress response, sending signals and oxygen to the brain to prove that we’re not in any danger.
One breathing exercise which is very effective for reducing anxiety is simply to make your exhales longer than the inhales – try breathing in for two seconds and out for four, or in for four and out for six, and repeat. Another useful technique is to hold the breath between inhales and exhales, so breathe in deeply and hold for two seconds, then breathe out deeply, then hold for two seconds and repeat.
Mindfulness and meditation
Mindfulness and meditation have seen a boom in popularity in recent years. Although these can be difficult to begin learning and practising, taking five minutes to be still and shift between our senses – noticing how we feel, what we are thinking and what we can see, hear and smell in our environment – can distract our brains from our spiralling thoughts and bring the thoughts primarily to the body. This distraction prevents the brain from focusing on sending stress hormones to the body, enabling us to feel calm enough to detect and address the issue which is making us anxious. If you’re struggling to maintain focus, you could try the 12345 method:
- List five things you can see
- List four things you can touch
- List three things you can hear
- List two things you can smell
- What is one thing you can taste?
Connecting to nature and ourselves
Another way we can counteract anxiety is by addressing our basic needs – we have evolved to spend time outside and with others. By going for a walk outside and practising being present, we naturally soothe our brains. Science has shown that spending time in nature is key to our health, reducing stress and anxiety levels and boosting our mood.
It is often also essential to build consistency and routine into our busy lives. Although it’s important not to become dependent on carrying out certain tasks every day or at certain times in order to have a good day, routine is very comforting for the human brain. It helps us to know what we can expect and brings some surety to an increasingly uncertain world.
It’s important to note that in order to bring routine into your life, you don’t have to follow the exact same course of action every day. Routine can simply look like ensuring you make your bed, drink a glass of water every morning when you wake up, or lay out your clothes for the next day every evening.
If you struggle with creating consistency in your life, starting small will be key. If you try to change everything all at once, you are less likely to keep this up every day, and your brain may link routine with failure, which is a negative experience your brain will naturally try to avoid, especially where there are no immediate, tangible benefits. If you can do one small thing every day, your brain will begin to associate routine with success, along with the positive effects on your self-trust and sense that you can rely on yourself to stick to something you’ve committed to.
Relationship is everything
When we connect with others, we feel good. Social connectedness is absolutely vital to our mental wellbeing. Socialising promotes positive mental and physical health and boosts our ability to tackle challenges. From a biological standpoint, this makes sense – our strengths don’t lie in our physical prowess but in our mental abilities. We need each other’s skills and strengths to survive together, and we have developed in a way which encourages this. But when we are too busy to see our loved ones, or too distracted to truly connect with them when we are together, this signals to our brains that something is wrong.
If you’re struggling to engage with people, or if attempting to is making you feel more anxious, therapy can be very supportive in gaining the confidence to connect with others. A trained integrative counsellor can support you in finding the best techniques to manage and reduce your anxiety symptoms, as well as discovering where your issues with communication and connection are rooted. By understanding where your struggles stem from, you can view them with empathy and compassion, enabling you to release them as tools you built in times of crisis or distress, but which no longer serve you.
Often, it can feel as though we’re connecting to others in the hours we spend on social media, and connecting with people online can be very comforting. But social media doesn’t present the whole of a person, just the facets they want to make public. Combined with algorithms which promote inflammatory interactions, and the sheer number of people social media grants us access to, this makes it very difficult to access true connections online.
For a truly fulfilling connection, we need to share a conversation or experience where we feel like we’re bringing our true selves to the interaction, and are engaging, listening and being listened to. This might be with a friend, family member, a therapist or a complete stranger.
However, one of the most important connections we have is with ourselves. If we are not connecting with ourselves on a level which feels positive, empowering and genuine, we will invariably struggle to reduce anxiety and move towards a sense of inner calm. By learning techniques to identify and challenge negative thoughts, particularly ones directed towards yourself, you can begin to reduce their impact on your daily life.
Enjoy your journey to inner calm
Anxiety is a learned response and, left unchallenged, it becomes engrained in our brains over time as an instinctive stress response. In order to undo this practised behaviour, we need to train our minds to concentrate on compassionate thoughts and gratitude, and shift our perspective to focus on the positives. If you are struggling to change your mindset to a more constructive one, you may wish to seek the help of a professional therapist, even if you don’t feel your anxiety is chronic or requires treatment. An experienced therapist will be able to help you identify why you are struggling to incorporate these changes, and ensure you are setting realistic goals for yourself.
A positive attitude is learned behaviour and can be implemented through daily repetition and determination. Even the act of practising this every day counts as proactively teaching the brain to focus on positives for long-term beneficial change.
Unlearning anxiety takes time and patience. The process of adopting anxious responses and behaviours took you a long time, whether you were conscious of it or not. Fortunately, adopting new behaviours, strategies and thought patterns will not take as long – but it is important to keep in mind that you may not feel greatly or consistently better immediately.
Instead, focus on what you are doing for yourself. By learning techniques which enable you to summon calm, you are actively improving your life, and this is something you should congratulate yourself on. By implementing these strategies, and seeking support when you need it, you are progressing towards a calmer future, where your happiness and inner peace are central to how you engage with the world and yourself.
Talk with a Leone Centre Professional
If you do feel like you need some help and support, our Leone Centre professionals are available 7 days a week. Call us on 020 3930 1007. We can also provide fast track therapy.
We can offer in-person counselling in London appointments at our head office in Fulham and our offices in Kensington, Wimbledon and Belgravia, We also service Victoria, Putney, Chelsea, Knightsbridge, Mayfair, and City of London.
In addition, we offer Online Therapy appointments wherever in the world you are located, should this better fit around your existing commitments or if you are not able to attend an in-person appointment.