Managing anxiety holistically

Kathy Carter


Anxiety (along with depression) is one of the world’s most predominant mental health challenges. If we ask ourselves what anxiety is, we realise it is multi-faceted, –a combination of life and environmental experiences, somatic nervous system responses, memory, imagination, thoughts, trauma, emotions, neurological networking within the brain and nervous system, and genetic or generational factors. Along with support from healthcare professionals, you can explore your relationship with anxiety, using these pointers.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is often regarded as a negative experience, however it is just our body’s natural response to stress. It’s a feeling of fear or apprehension about what’s to come. This is the body’s sympathetic nervous system doing its job, prompting our brain to prepare itself for ‘fight or flight’ mode. Here, the brain floods our central nervous system with adrenaline and cortisol hormones, a response to a perception of an occurrence that threatens our safety.

Our senses sharpen, and our reflexes respond faster. We feel heightened. This is a natural nervous system response, and in normal circumstances, will abate. (In some cases, the anxiety responses do not abate in a regulatory fashion, and the feeling of fear becomes debilitating; in which case, we can seek professional, clinical help for anxiety disorders. In such cases, the amygdala, the part of the brain in the limbic system associated with the fight or flight response, grows excessively hypersensitive – and its response becomes disordered).

How do you cope with your anxiety?

Many of us learn to ‘cope’ with anxiety in unhelpful ways – maybe numbing the feelings with substances, developing dysfunctional eating patterns, using distraction techniques involving spending, or verbally lashing out at other people. However, healthier coping mechanisms are of course better for our long-term wellness.

These may include maintaining a positive lifestyle, exercising and eating in a moderate way, taking up meaningful pastimes, learning how to recognise our triggers for anxiety, engaging with our emotions, and prioritising connections with people that promote our emotional health and safety.

Sometimes, it can be a good idea to take stock of our lives; our values, our needs and our goals - and see what areas cause us anxiety, and work out what areas of fulfilment are blocked by our anxious experiences. Simply writing down these aspects – there are many values assessments and self-help tools online - can help, and allow us a feeling of autonomy and control.

How connected are you to your emotions? What do you feel when you’re anxious?

Anxiety is a somatic response – a physical, kinetic experience (like a knotted stomach, a tight chest, a blocked throat, or butterflies in the tummy, for example). The nervous system activates these feelings, and our thoughts follow; the thoughts don’t come first. One key way to help reduce anxiety is connect to our emotions, and name them. Am I feeling angry? Or disappointed? Scared; or a little excited too? And what are my thoughts telling me? For example, ‘I didn’t cope with this last time’.

(Remember, you don’t have to trust the thoughts as reality or truth!). Try to name your emotions whenever you get a physical sensation, and practice expressing them when you’re around trusted individuals. Get curious about whether you’re a ‘forward-projector’. If you’re consumed with ‘what ifs’, try to develop mindfulness practices to stay more frequently in the ‘here and now’ – see below.

How does your anxiety tie into your relationships and work or study places? What triggers and responses do you have?

It’s interesting to think about what happens when we’re triggered – e.g. when a person, environment or occurrence provokes anxiety symptoms. One example may be a family visit. Get curious about what’s really going on – for example, does a family member undermine you, reinforce limiting beliefs about your worthiness (e.g. ‘Haven’t you managed to find a boyfriend yet?’ ‘Are you still in that dead-end job?’) Does the place or event you are going to not support the values that you hold dear?

Maybe a boss is bigoted, for example? Get curious about what your instincts and gut reactions are telling you. Check your personal boundaries – do you say no enough; do you stand up for your values and your own needs, as opposed to others’ needs?

Become curious about your anxiety triggers and how you respond, or even rehearse responding in your head. Get to know your patterns within your relationships, and any reactions or cycles that are always being repeated. When the anxiety symptoms arise, check whether your own needs are being met – and if not, ask what you need, to resolve this?

How ‘in touch’ with your autonomic nervous system are you? Plus, tips to develop mindfulness and ‘safety anchors’.

It’s important to get to know your autonomic nervous system, as it’s your map to wellness. If you’re an anxious person, it’s likely you’re easily activated into ‘flight’ mode (or perhaps ‘fight’, if your sensations feel more aggressive and agitated, as opposed to scared and intimidated).

Your ideal state from a wellness perspective lies above fight and fight; a place where your nervous system feels safer, and is more rested and engaged – sometimes called the ‘rest and digest’ state, where the parasympathetic system is at the helm. What can you do to get up to this state? Maybe you need to walk, laugh, play, sing, bounce on a trampoline, or punch a punchbag or pillow?

Maybe you’d also benefit from meditation, gentle somatic practice like yoga, and mindful practices? (An example is the ‘five things’ exercise – acknowledge five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell; and one thing you can taste.)

Learn to use ‘safety anchors’, practices to help your nervous system feel safer. These can include environmental anchors, like comforting blankets or cherished items you hold or wear; body anchors, like tapping an area of the body or stroking it; sensory anchors, like smelling a favourite essential oil; musical anchors, e.g. a melodic, calming playlist, or one to ‘up-regulate’ your system that’s faster and uplifting; cognitive anchors, like positive affirmations you say to yourself about coping; memory anchors, like a safe and happy place you’ve visited; and breathing exercises such as square breathing. (Exhale to a count of four; hold the breath for four; inhale for four; hold for four, and repeat.)

With a more holistic view of your anxiety, and relevant support from professionals if required, you will realise it is a state your experiencing, not an intrinsic part of you, and you can recognise the potential for change.

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