World Mental Health Day: 5 ways to beat anxiety and change your life
Although it may just be a temporary blip for some people, for many, anxiety is a diagnosed condition that blights their lives. Indeed, Mental Health UK estimates more than one in 10 people in the UK are living with an anxiety disorder – that’s over eight million of us.
And World Mental Health Day (October 10) is a chance to address the topic, agrees clinical psychologist Dr Kirren Schnack – author of the new book Ten Times Calmer: Beat Anxiety And Change Your Life.
“It’s a reminder that mental wellbeing is just as important as physical health,” she says, pointing out that anxiety disorders are among the most widespread mental health issues globally.
“Clinically, I’ve seen more and more people coming in with anxiety issue. The pandemic has played a significant role in this surge, introducing unprecedented levels of uncertainty, fear, and social isolation. At the same time, global economic instability and job losses have intensified stress and anxiety for many,” Schnack adds.
“The widespread use of digital technology and social media has exposed people to a constant stream of alarming news and comparison-driven content that also feeds anxiety.”
Schnack explains that anxiety disorders include generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), which causes chronic worry and hinders decision-making; health anxiety, where there’s an excessive preoccupation with diseases and illness; panic disorder, which is marked by sudden overwhelming panic attacks; and social anxiety, which leads to avoidance, isolation and low confidence.
“They can blight daily life through physical symptoms, cognitive impairment, social isolation, disrupted routines, and emotional distress,” she says.
Schnack suggests these five ways to combat anxiety problems and find calm…
Calm your stressed nervous system
Anxiety places significant strain on the nervous system, Schnack explains, but there are simple daily practices that can help alleviate this stress. One is focusing on breathing, extending your exhale longer than your inhale.
To do this, Schnack says you need to inhale gently through your nose, pause for a few seconds, then exhale slowly and deeply, ensuring an extended exhale. “A longer exhale helps by increasing the activation of the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts stress hormones, lowers heart rate, and reduces overall physiological stress,” she says.
She suggests around three to five of the breaths are repeated on multiple occasions throughout the day, and stresses that consistency is key. “Recognise that if anxiety has been a longstanding presence, it will take time and patience to restore your nervous system’s sense of safety and stability.”
Address anxious thoughts
Schnack explains that anxiety often generates anxious thoughts that can seem like undeniable facts that are often dwelled on and reacted to, thus intensifying anxiety. “To break free from this cycle, it’s crucial to consciously confront and process these anxious thoughts,” she says.
To do this, write a simple record, noting the date of your anxious prediction, describing what it was, and then, after a specified time like a day or two, return to what you’ve written and confirm whether the prediction was accurate by marking it as ‘yes’ or ‘no’. When the prediction doesn’t materialise, make a note of the actual outcome. Revisit the record, especially during anxious moments, and count the yes or no entries to reflect on your progress. “This practice trains your mind to adopt a broader, less anxious perspective,” explains Schnack.
Stop over-focusing on anxiety
“People struggling with anxiety often find it challenging to shift their attention away from anxiety symptoms, leading to a persistent preoccupation that can worsen their problems,” says Schnack, who explains that this preoccupation can lead to excessive self-analysis, fixation on physical sensations or repetitive thoughts, and being hypervigilant.
To shift your attention away from overwhelming anxiety, Schnack suggests trying this exercise: choose a colour, such as blue, and actively seek out blue objects in your surroundings. Name them out loud, and count them as you move around, possibly describing the item too. “Strive to maintain this focus for a few minutes, switching to different colours if necessary. Again, consistency is crucial, so make an effort to practice this regularly whenever anxiety hijacks your attention,” she advises.
Learn to tolerate uncertainty
Recognising and addressing uncertainty is vital when dealing with anxiety, Schnack stresses. “You can’t resolve every uncertainty in life – the key lies in enhancing your ability to tolerate uncertainty so you can reduce your anxiety,” she explains. “Being more accepting of the fact that things may not always go as planned or that the future is uncertain can be incredibly liberating.”
To help build resilience against uncertainty, Schnack advises people to take a moment to slow down and not immediately engage in reactive behaviour demanded by uncertainty, such as checking, Googling or avoiding things.
Instead, she says, note your feelings, observing what uncertainty is doing to your mind and body, and write out an affirmation such as: ‘I’m feeling anxious because I’m uncertain about… My typical response to uncertainty is to engage in… behaviour. I recognise this only worsens my anxiety. My goal is to distance myself from anxiety rather than gravitate towards it. I can sit with the feeling of uncertainty for as long as I can, and build on this time until I get better and better at it.’
Gradually face your fears
Confronting your fears is an effective way to overcome them, observes Schnack, although this can often feel overwhelming. “When you confront your fears, you’re essentially acting in opposition to your anxious thoughts and what anxiety is telling you. This process weakens anxiety’s grip on you, and when the actual outcomes don’t align with your anxious predictions, your mind can naturally adjust its thinking.”
She suggests starting with small steps and gradually building up. So, for social anxiety, gradually start by saying a simple sentence or asking a basic closed question, and gradually building up from there.
For health anxiety, gradually reduce and eliminate excessive online researching about illness and diseases, starting with small-time durations and then building on that.
For panic disorder, gradually spend more time in places you typically avoid, starting with short durations like 30 seconds, then a few minutes, and gradually keep increasing the time.
“Remember to repeatedly face your fears to make meaningful progress – it’s not just a one time thing,” adds Schnack.
Ten Times Calmer: Beat Anxiety And Change Your Life by Dr Kirren Schnack is published by Bluebird, priced £16.99. Available now.