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Everyone experiences periods of stress in certain situations – perhaps exams are coming up, or you’ve spent a little more than you intended to at dinner and pay day is still a couple of days away. That’s a normal part of life, and most of the time, it goes away fairly quickly when the source of the stress comes and goes. You pass your exam, you check your bank account and there it is – your pay cheque came through right on time!
But for some of us, that stress is something more – something frequent, something deep, something very hard to acknowledge. Anxiety is a real issue for many, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. And it’s also not something that you have to live with forever, making life more and more difficult – there are different ways to deal with that anxiety to help lift your mood and lift your mental burden at the same time.
This is a selection of different coping ideas – but please remember that if you are really struggling and these techniques aren’t helping, there is help available to you. If you are in a real crisis, please call a helpline like Youthline (0800 376 633), Healthline (0800 611 116), Lifeline (0800 LIFELINE) or the Anxiety Phone Line (0800 ANXIETY). The people who answer the phone will be able to support you and help you to find help to manage your situation. You are not alone.
People with anxiety will tend to feel nervous, restless and tense, even if there isn’t a rational reason to feel that way at the time. There will often be a panicked feeling, and worry that there is danger around, even if that isn't the case. People may find it hard to focus or think about a task they are working on because the source of anxiety is overwhelming their mind.
There can also be symptoms throughout the rest of the body. A fast heart rate and rapid breathing are common, and people may experience more sweating as well as trembling or twitching muscles. All of this can result in feeling very tired and weak – after all, your body isn’t behaving the way that it usually should.
Some people with anxiety will experience panic attacks, or severe fear or distress – these can include everything noted above plus heart palpitations, a feeling that you can’t breathe, chest pains and dizziness, alongside many other highly unpleasant symptoms.
All of this should make it clear that it definitely is not a simple case of stress about workload or study!
If you think that you want to try to manage your anxiety yourself, there are many different ways that you can make small changes or add little activities to your life to work towards improving it. You may not be able to cure anxiety this way, but it may give you tools to handle it when things feel tough.
It may be easier said than done, but getting exercise is one thing that many people find helps their anxiety and stress levels. Find something that you enjoy, and commit to it – whether it’s just going for a run, or lifting weights at the gym, or taking a fun aerobics or dance class. Just going for a walk around your neighbourhood can sometimes be just as helpful as something more high impact!
Working with mindfulness techniques and other relaxation and stress management techniques can be very helpful. Meditation is excellent, as is yoga. It sounds silly, perhaps, but even just doing some deep, slow breathing can work – inhale through your nose slowly, hold for a few seconds, and then release through your mouth. It’s not a perfect cure, but it can help you come down from a moment of fear.
A healthy, well-balanced diet helps keep your body in check – and be sensible about your consumption of things that aren’t good for you. Avoiding alcohol is sensible for many reasons, and it certainly is better to keep away from it if you have issues with anxiety. Likewise, stopping smoking and limiting how much caffeine you drink are both very wise. And make sure that you stay hydrated with lots of water!
It might be hard to make happen at times, but trying to get enough sleep is really important when it comes to managing anxiety. If you’re really struggling, do talk to a doctor about how they can help, even if you aren’t yet discussing your anxiety with them. If it’s just something that presents a problem every now and then, try taking a soothing bath before bedtime – if you don’t have a bath, try a lavender-based lotion in the shower.
There are plenty of other little things that you can do too. If one of your sources of anxiety is stress that you’ll forget something important, focus on good ways to get organised. Use a digital tool like Asana or Trello to help you get organised online; browser versions and phone apps mean your to-do list can be with you wherever you are. Bullet journals are a fun and creative way to create to-do lists that make every item on your list just one little thing to tick off – or easily move to the next day.
On the topic of journals, journaling more broadly can be a useful coping tool for many people. Set yourself some time each day to sit down and write about how you’ve been feeling. Try to identify the challenges you’ve been facing while also celebrating the good things that have happened, even if they are just small victories like I used a nice new face mask today after my shower.
There’s also a lovely concept invented by one web writer called a ‘heartsong’ journal, where you fill the pages with things that are important to you. It’s something that you can fill out when you’re feeling up to it – and then read back through when you’re struggling.
Or just have a cup of tea and a chat with a friend. You don’t need to focus on your anxiety – instead, just talk. Sometimes helping someone else talk through their problems can be helpful in allowing you to better face your own.
Anxiety is a mental illness – but the important thing to think about is the illness aspect, not the mental aspect. There is a stigma attached to mental illness that is not fair. Would you judge your friend for having the flu, or for getting strep throat? Or for a better comparison, would you judge a person for having a health condition that is ongoing, who have doctors helping them through? Someone who has a serious gastrointestinal issue, or a heart problem?
Chances are no, you wouldn’t! You would offer support. If they have a bad cold, perhaps you would offer to bring them some vitamin C or some nice hot soup. If they have a serious chronic condition that you can see causes them difficulty, you might ask them to tell you how you can support them – whether that’s by not cooking food with dairy in it, or not planning extremely energetic activities, or simply by spending time with them at home.
Mental illness is no different. So if you’re experiencing anxiety or a friend has told you that they are, treat it just as you would any other health issue. If you are experiencing problems yourself, try to remember that there are many people who feel the way that you do, and that there are many different ways to manage this difficult situation. But it’s also true that anxiety can make it hard to believe these things, or make it seem too difficult to reach out for help. Just one conversation with a person you trust – a friend, a kind tutor or lecturer, a medical professional – might help you start changing things.
Likewise, if a friend has come to you and told you that they are not coping, be as supportive as you can be. Tell them that you are proud of them for sharing this with you, and that you are here to support them. You can offer to make the phone call or send the email to a doctor to book an appointment to discuss the problem – something that a person with anxiety can understand is important to do but is too afraid to do themselves. You can even offer to go with them to speak to a professional, if they don’t think they can manage it by themselves. Whether you go into the appointment with them, or just take them to the door and wait for them outside, knowing that someone is there for you can make a great deal of difference .