Anxiety rules! And it’s not OK

Anxiety sucks.

It sucks our energy,
It reduces our ability to focus,
and diminishes our happiness.

And there’s a lot of it about. Too much and worse still, it’s becoming more prevalent.
Which is why I am talking about this again, because it is by far the most common problem I am asked about at schools, at Universities and in the workplace.

With 14% of the Australian population at risk of some form of anxiety disorder over any 12 given months and 1 in 6 of young people aged 16 to 25 currently struggling with high levels of anxiety, this must change.

In a world so full of promise, with brilliant new technologies, creative young minds bursting with new and innovative ideas and a rapidly increasing knowledge base to understand our own mind and behaviours, why are so many people are struggling with their mental well being?

And, if we are having problems coping now, what does that herald for our future, where the expected velocity of change, new technology and information is anticipated to keep on expanding exponentially?

Managing our capacity for thinking well, recognising those warning signals that we might not be doing as well as we believe, and knowing the best ways to manage our thoughts and emotions has never been as important as right now.

Anxiety is sneaky.

For someone who has never experienced severe anxiety it can be difficult to understand what the problem is. We all experience stress from time to time – whether it is performance anxiety around having to give a presentation, or the stress associated with moving home or dealing with a relationship breakup. But what differentiates normal “nerves” from an unhealthy anxiety is the impact it has on our health, our thinking skills and wellbeing.

Sometimes anxiety can have an obvious trigger. But sometimes it is sneaky, coming out of nowhere like a super hornet jet, dropping its bomb of physiological symptoms, and then leaving you to pick up the pieces, hopefully before the next bombing raid arrives.

Melissa knows the symptoms only too well. That gnawing discomfort in her gut, the flood of inner tension riding up in her chest as her breathing becomes shallower, her heart pounding and a myriad of thoughts racing round her head like a swarm of screaming mosquitoes. It happened once when she had to stand up in front of her colleagues to present a paper. But now it is can happen without warning, any time, anywhere, such as when working at her desk, standing in the supermarket checkout queue, or even while watching a film with friends. Some days she will wake up with it and sometimes it will still be there when she goes to bed at night.

James works very hard. He wants to do well in his job and create a good impression, so he has been putting in long hours and taking on extra commitments to show his willingness. But he’s not sleeping so well, is finding it hard to concentrate, and is increasingly frustrated by the number of silly mistakes he has been making. Last week he snapped at a member of the office staff, which his boss told him was completely unacceptable behaviour and to “pull his socks up”. He has now been called him in “for a little chat” about his declining work performance. He feels trapped and scared.

When the brain is “stressed” our limbic system kicks our fight, flight or freeze response into action. But today’s modern lifestyle is contributing to the brain being subjected to increasing and persisting levels of stress because we are always “on”, super-connected and super-busy. Because this has now also become our “norm” we sometimes overlook or defer those activities that would normally act as a fail-safe device to prevent our mind going into overload.

It was Ned Hallowell the American Psychiatrist who described the condition ADT (Attention Deficit Trait) in his 2005 article Overloaded Circuits : Why Smart People Underperform. He explains how the modern lifestyle leads to high stress, high anxiety, loss of cognitive control and reduced performance. As anxiety and stress levels remain untamed, we start to become trapped in a circle of our own thoughts, effectively paralysed by our own mind.

Reigning in anxiety starts with:

1. Telling someone.
Some times it can be obvious to others that you may be feeling anxious. Sometimes the depth of your struggle may be hidden, especially if you are putting on a brave face and “Mona Lisa” smile.

2. Getting help.
Speak to your GP to discuss which strategy would be most helpful to your situation. Medication isn’t always needed but if required, can help to reduce some of the most distressing symptoms and allow you to get some much-needed sleep.
Seeing a psychologist to learn some relaxation techniques and strategies to build resilience can be life changing.

3. Taking some time out.
In some instances getting away for a couple of days or taking a couple of days off work, can be helpful to start the journey to recovery. Simply being in a different environment, one that is quiet and supportive can help to provide the distance needed to pattern interrupt.

4. Using tools to help you relax.
This could include taking a long hot soak in the bath, a massage, listening to your favourite music, or going for a walk.

5. Spending time with people you love and trust.
Anxiety can make us feel isolated. Being with and talking with others helps us to retain that sense of normality, of appreciating the good things in our life and the beauty around us that we otherwise find hard to keep sight of. Knowing that you are not alone and that many others have experience of what you are going through to makes it easier to believe you can get through this and find your way forward.

Maintaining mental wellbeing.

In the longer term, managing anxiety is all about maintaining balance.
Knowing you can manage your thoughts and feelings and diminish the impact of those symptoms is the first step to regaining control.

There are many useful strategies to manage anxiety and put it back in its box.
These include:
•    Practicing mindfulness
•    Reframing and reappraising our thoughts to keep things in perspective
•    Scheduling in regular brain breathing space: time out with friends, exercise, relaxation using the breath, yoga and tai chi, just for starters.

By learning to manage our mind and develop those skills that enable us to work to the level we know we are capable of, we are starting on the path to creating a brain for our future. A brain that is flexible, agile and creative, and a brain that can handle those curveballs that life so often throws our way.

A high performance brain.

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