Understanding the Anxious Self

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Samar Hafeez

Clinical Psychologist and Counsellor

“The problem of anxiety is a nodal point at which the most various and important questions arise, a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a flood light upon our whole mental existence.” (Sigmund Freud)

Generally, our mental health is facing many challenges, and among them anxiety is one of the most debilitating one. It has affected millions around the world from time immemorial and has continued to affect millions even to this day. It can have a profound negative impact on those who experience it and also on those who are in close proximity of it due to being affected by their parents, spouse, friends, colleagues, in-laws, children and so on.

Anxiety and fear are a part of life; you may feel anxious before taking a test, walking down a dark street or waiting for any kind of results. This kind of anxiety is useful and can make you more alert, productive and careful. However, it usually ends soon after you are out of that situation; this is often termed as “normal anxiety”. For many people, the anxiety stays and gets worse overtime and sometimes becomes so severe that it interferes with one’s daily functioning

The word anxiety is usually defined as a vague, diffuse and very unpleasant feeling of apprehension about an unknown future threat. 

Fear differs from anxiety as people who have fears can easily state what they are afraid of, unlike people who feel anxious who are not clearly aware of the reasons of their fears. In this state, people are always preoccupied with “what-if” thinking: “What if something awful happens to a loved one” or “What if I fail or lose a job” etc. 

Signs and symptoms of anxiety

While anxiety symptoms vary from person to person, the body generally reacts in a very specific way. When you feel anxious, your body goes on high alert, looking for possible threats and activating your sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for a fight or flight response. For a better understanding, these symptoms can be divided into groups. 

Some of the physical symptoms include muscle tension, muscle twitching, rapid heart beat, increased sweating, gastrointestinal problems like diarrhoea, indigestion, hyperacidity, nausea, constipation, lethargy, cold chills, hot flashes, frequent urination, sudden weight loss and headaches.

Emotional symptoms include feeling tense, feeling jumpy, irritability, anger outbursts, restlessness, nervousness, loneliness and isolation

Cognitive symptoms include poor concentration, negative thoughts, apprehension, poor judgement, poor communication and poor attention and memory skills.

Lastly, the behavioural symptoms include preoccupation with certain behaviours like pacing, nail biting, hair picking, washing hands repeatedly in a time space of one hour, avoidance of situations that trigger particular anxiety which might impair one’s study, work and social life, eating too much or too little, drug abuse in order to relax and difficulty in task completion. 

Anxiety is triggered due to a combination of factors which include weak to mild genetic linkage as well as environmental and brain chemistry factors. One of the most fascinating causes of anxiety is that it is learned behaviour. A child can develop anxiety through watching their parent suffer from it and this can reinforce a particular anxious thought and behaviour. It is commonly seen that children learn by watching, listening and imitating their elders. A parent’s overprotecting nature could leave a child to interpret and think that almost everything around them is a threat. Therefore they could become more anxious as a child, and may take such anxious thoughts into their adolescent and adult lives. 

Some of the major social reasons that contributes to anxiety could be social comparisons, demands of the world, peer pressures, bullying or a perfectionist mindset with associated emotional pressures.

Anxiety most commonly takes form in childhood and will persist if there is no early intervention, but new research suggests that anxiety can develop in any age group, especially around the age of 30 depending on major life changes and health conditions. It occurs more frequently in women than in men (approximately 2:1 ratio). Cultures also tend to impact vulnerability; for example, individuals from European descent tend to show more anxiety symptoms than non-European descents like Asians, Africans and Middle Eastern. Furthermore, individuals from developed countries are more likely to report anxiety symptoms than individuals from non-developed countries. People facing any kind of racial and religious discrimination or bias behaviour tend to develop anxiety due to their negative social experiences.

 

Simple anxiety management tool kit

People with mild to moderate anxiety problems can reap great benefits from the measures stated below: 

1. Get a better understanding of your irrational thoughts that seem to justify your anxiety. You can maintain a diary naming it “Anxious Thought Awareness” (ATA) diary. On a daily or weekly basis, note down all your exaggerated thoughts that lead to an emotional or behavioural outburst impairing your daily functioning. 

2. Rationalise and not awfulize. Accept the “what-if” thinking as a projection that connects horrifying thoughts and images to unmanageable anxiety. Think that a “what-if” disaster does not validate or guarantee a disaster. Awfulising things real or imagined makes it much more difficult to deal with. 

3. Positive self-talk. Always talk to yourself in a confident and self-assuring way. This can also be an effective preventive measure. It will allow you to discover the power of optimism and hope in any given situation. I personally feel that this is the most powerful tool and should be used on a daily basis.

4. Melt anxiety with mindfulness meditation. Focusing on your breathing and physical sensations can help you stay in the present. This can help you recognise what your thoughts may be, allowing them to pass without reaction or judgement. 

5. Relax your body; relax you mind. Practicing diaphragmatic breathing can help calm down the sympathetic nervous system. Psychologist Jon Carlson describes belly breathing or breathing using your abdominal muscles as sending calming signals to the brain promoting the feeling of relaxation and improving attention and awareness. Another technique called the controlled breathing is a simple technique focusing on and slowing down breathing patterns. Many people find this simple exercise very relaxing and effective as it gives the body a chance to calm down. It can be particularly helpful for those who feel dizzy or light headed due to their breathing getting quicker when they feel stressed.

6. Progressive muscle relaxation. A major symptom of anxiety is muscle tension and twitching, this technique particularly focuses on progressively contracting and relaxing muscle groups to make your body feel calmer. (Note: It is best to practice this technique under a therapist’s supervision for greater results.)

7. Regular low to moderate intensity exercises. This can include daily yoga asanas providing an outlet for frustration and helping the body release mood enhancing hormones.

8. Eat a balanced diet: This includes lots of green vegetables, fresh fruits, whole grains and avoid junk or processed foods as much as possible. Try adding food rich in omega 3 fatty acids like fatty fish, walnuts and flaxseeds.

9. Magnesium low diets. This was found to increase anxiety related behaviours; foods rich in magnesium help a person to relax muscles and nerves. Some of the foods which include a good amount of magnesium are leafy greens such as swiss chard, spinach and asparagus, bananas, warm milk with turmeric, cherries, mushrooms and pumpkin seeds.

10. The gut-brain axis. You must certainly have noticed how your stomach reacts when you are upset, angry or anxious. You feel butterflies in your stomach and this is because your gut and brain are very closely linked. When one gets negatively affected, the other one is affected too. Recent research shows foods rich in probiotics (good gut bacteria which keeps immunity strong) can help reduce anxiety symptoms. Foods like yogurt with added live cultures, curd, kefir, fermented foods, pickles and buttermilk all are great sources. However, you need prebiotics as well which are a form of dietary fiber that act as a fertilizer for the good bacteria in your gut. Prebiotics can be found in  bananas, onions, garlic and other vegetables and fresh fruits.

11. Check for vitamin deficiencies. Low levels of vitamin D and B complex vitamins have been linked to restlessness and other anxiety symptoms. 

12. Avoid excessive intake of alcohol, caffeine and nicotine as these tend to interfere with sleep and worsen physical symptoms of anxiety.

Coping with anxiety can be a challenge, especially as we are living in anxiety-inducing times, where anxious feelings spiral out of control and can drain your energy. 

The techniques shared in this article should be followed daily to show results, as there is no such thing as a remedy which is fast and magical in its results; when you practice these regularly, it can change your life.

However, if you feel your anxiety is severly affecting you, it’s always better to see a clinical psychologist, counsellor or a psychiatrist for few face-to-face or on-call sessions. You can also consider joining a support group where you can anonymously share your experiences and hear from others who are dealing bravely with anxiety.

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