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What is Anxiety and How to Help Manage it

Anxiety is a normal and healthy response to life events that require something more from you than your usual daily routine, such as a test you have to sit, a speech you have to make or a starting a new job, Your body has a built in “fight or flight” response which puts you in a state of hyper arousal, preparing you for action and allowing you to deal with a threatening situation, whether real or perceived. However for about 10% of the population, anxiety is more severe and prolonged, causing impaired daily functioning and resulting in an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety Cycle

Causes of Anxiety

Psychological: Most psychological causes of anxiety are the combination of an unpleasant experience and the way in which a person thinks. Anxious feelings become associated with the event and can be triggered by thoughts surrounding this event and/or noises or smells associated with the event, even when there is no real danger present.

Social: Stressful life events such as divorce, stress at work, bullying at school or a death of a loved one can trigger anxiety. Those people, who are shy, introverted, have lower self-confidence and those that have lower coping skills are also more susceptible to high anxiety. Being constantly criticised or put down can affect self-esteem and self-confidence, which as I have already mentioned is a factor in higher anxiety levels.

Biological: A chemical imbalance in the brain has been shown to be a contributing factor to high anxiety levels. Medication that helps to correct the imbalance can reduce symptoms of anxiety in some people. There has also been some research into hereditary factors of anxiety, indicating that people with a family history of anxiety may be at a higher risk but this is not always the case.

Anxiety Symptoms

Anxiety symptoms include the following :

  • Increased heart rate
  • Shallow breathing
  • Dizziness or faintness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Sweating
  • Upset stomach
  • Tightening of stomach muscles
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Avoiding certain situations

Tips to Manage Anxiety

Retrain your Breathing

  1. Stop what you are doing, sit down and lean against something
  2. Hold your breath and count to 10 (do not take a deep breath)
  3. When you get to 10, breathe out and say the word “relax”
  4. Breathe in through your nose for three seconds, then breathe out for three seconds, say the word “relax” to yourself every time you breathe out.
  5. At the end of a minute (after 10 six second breath cycles) hold your breath for 10 seconds and then continue breathing in the six second cycle.
  6. Continue breathing this way until all symptoms of over breathing have gone.
  7. If this is done at the first signs of over breathing, the symptoms will subside after a minute or two and an anxiety attack will not follow.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Muscle tension is commonly experienced with anxiety, stress and fear. Learning to tense and relax the muscles in the body can help you to notice what it feels like to be in a relaxed state. With regular practice you will be able to put your muscles at the first sign of tension. These techniques can be taught to you by your counsellor or can be self-taught with the use of books or cd’s.

Changing Your Thoughts

Replacing unhelpful and negative thoughts is another strategy that is very useful in dealing with anxiety. The technique of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helps you to challenge and replace these thoughts with those more positive and beneficial to you. For example, you are about to enter a shopping centre and you are feeling overwhelmed, you are thinking to yourself “ I cannot handle being here with all of these people”. Relax and say to yourself “ Relax, I have done this lots of times and I will be fine. I will concentrate on my breathing and do what I need to do” Seeking the help of a professional such as a counsellor can help you to learn this technique and implement it into your life.


Learning to meditate is a great way to put your body into a relaxed state and give your mind a much needed rest. The benefits of mediation include reduced anxiety. Please read my article on “The Benefits of Meditation and How to Meditate” for more information.

Lifestyle Changes

  • Take regular exercise, it helps to reduce anxiety by relieving the stress that has built up in your body.
  • Eat healthy; a healthy diet puts less stress on an already stressed body.
  • Reduce alcohol intake, many people use alcohol as a form of stress relief but excessive use of alcohol may lead to depression and anxiety.
  • Take some time out each day to do something you enjoy, this can be as simple as a relaxing bubble bath or reading a book.
  • Reduce caffeine intake. Caffeine is a stimulant and therefore keeps the body more awake and alert. A body that is experiencing a high level of anxiety is already under stress and reducing or eliminating caffeine can be helpful.

If you are experiencing high or chronic levels of anxiety, a professional counsellor can work with you to make changes to help reduce these levels.

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One Comment

  1. Kate Burchell May 14, 2013 at 11:36 pm #

    Thanks for this post, breathing exercise really helped 🙂

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