Many of us are stressed, and it is a major contributor to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. The 15-21 of May is ‘Mental Health Awareness Week,’ and the focus this year is anxiety, which is one of the most common mental health conditions in the UK. A recent health survey commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation discovered the following:
- a quarter of adults said they felt so anxious that it stopped them from doing the things they want to do some or all of the time
- Six in ten adults feel this way, at least some of the time
When we begin to feel the onset of anxiety creeping up on us, it’s helpful to have some tools and techniques to hand to help us reduce our symptoms and gain control over our anxiety. Duncan Quinney, a Square Health counsellor, gives us some expert techniques and tools for reducing our feelings of anxiety.
The use of ‘here’ and ‘now’ techniques
To keep us in the present and prevent our minds from wandering and stressing over the “what ifs,” which raises our anxiety levels, we can benefit from body awareness practices that ground us and bring us into the “here” and “now,” also known as mindfulness. The key element of mindfulness is paying open, engaged attention to the present moment (the here and now) in order to help us stay rooted.
One of our greatest concerns is public humiliation, and the anxious portion of our mind enjoys playing with this by sending us unhelpful and anxiety-inducing thoughts at the worst possible times. ‘What if I lose control in the supermarket queue and yell at the person faffing around in front of me?’ The common denominator in many anxious thoughts is the term ‘what if’, which leads us down the path of negative thoughts.
Our fears and worries have a plausibility in that there is a possibility that it may happen (which is tiny), and thus our worries and anxiety over inflate the worry, making it feel like a probability.
So, what can we do to gain control of our irrational thoughts and anxiety? We look at various mindfulness practices to help you focus on the here and now.
Five here-and-now techniques to gain control over your anxiety
- Breathing techniques
If you are experiencing a lot of stress or anxiety, using breathing techniques helps to slow your breathing, calming your nervous system and helping you to relax. There are many to choose from, but you only need one, and it’s important to practice it so when you need it, you know exactly how it works.
Some examples are given below for you to explore:
- 5 breaths in and 5 breaths out – sit down comfortably and breathe into the count of 5 and out to the count of 5. If possible, focus all your thoughts on your breathing and notice how your body moves as you breathe.
- The 4-7-8 breathing technique – is where we breathe in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. This breathing pattern aims to reduce anxiety or help people get to sleep.
- Square breathing (also known as box breathing) – breath into the count of 4, for the count of 4, exhale for the count of 4 and hold for the count of 4.
Breathing techniques are effective because they help calm our bodies. Stress, worry, and trauma all have physical consequences, and calming the body helps to calm the mind. Concentrating on your breath reduces activity in the area of your mind that causes anxiety and tension and increases activity in the part of your mind responsible for feeling contentment.
Distraction techniques work by focusing our mind elsewhere and it’s helpful to break overthinking, (which causes stress and anxiety) and helps to reduce our anxiety.
Some distraction techniques are listed below:
- Listen to soothing music
- Cuddle with pets
- Eat your favourite snack or have a cup of tea
- Take a long walk
- Draw or sketch
- Adult colouring books
- Read a book or magazine
Any exercise is useful and if this can be outdoors and involve being with others, then the greater the benefits. For many people this is a key activity. Rigorous exercise releases endorphins which are happy brain chemicals that allow us to feel good. It also gives a sense of control and any activity that’s good for us can boost our esteem as we’re telling ourselves that we’re worth looking after.
Write down what’s on your mind. This form of expression calms our thoughts and stimulates the logical parts of our minds, allowing us to perceive our problems more clearly and gives us a greater feeling of control. This can be as simple as taking a blank sheet of paper or a notepad and jotting down what you’re feeling and where you’re feeling it. For instance, I may be stressed/distressed, short of breath, or both. It’s behind my eyes/I feel it in my stomach. This can immediately calm us down quickly.
5. Any form of expression
This can include writing, listening to music (better if you can sing along, even better if you dance), and any other creative activity that allows us to express our thoughts and emotions.
Identifying what works best for you
Having a list of researched suggestions to help us cope our anxiety is only effective if we can actually apply it. Most of us know how to care for ourselves, such as by eating well, sleeping well, and engaging in regular exercise, but whether we do so is a different story.
To offer you other ideas to try, go to the Mental Health Foundation’s website, which has some great tips on how to manage feelings of anxiety.
Duncan Quinney |BSc (Hons) | Mental Health Counseller at Square Health
Member of BACP (British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapy)
Duncan is passionate about promoting mental health and discovered his vocation in his mid-twenties, leading him to begin training as a psychotherapist in 2003. During his training, Duncan volunteered to assist young people in drug prevention and vulnerable adults in a homeless hostel.
Duncan has helped hundreds of people over the last 16 years and is affiliated with several organisations that provide psychological support and trauma recovery. Duncan is a Counsellor and Psychotherapist who offers a caring and accepting environment to help people lead a happier, more content and fulfilling life.